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Services Mark Passing of Coretta Scott King


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michelle Martin. At 3:00 this morning lines started to form outside the New Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. By midday more than 10,000 people had packed inside. All to witness the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Four U.S. Presidents, many Civil Rights leaders, friends and colleagues all honored the woman who had carried on her husband's dream for nearly thirty years after his murder. We close our program today by hearing excerpts of the remarks of three of those speakers. A president, a former president, and a poet. First, President George Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We gather in God's house, in God's presence to honor God's servant, Coretta Scott King. Her journey was long and only briefly with a hand to hold, but now she leans on everlasting arms. I've come today to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole. Americans knew her husband only as a young man. We knew Mrs. King in all the seasons of her life and there was grace and beauty in every season.

As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation. When she wore a veil at forty-years-old her dignity revealed the deepest trust in God and his purposes. In decades of prominence, her dignity drew others to the unfinished work of justice. In all her years Coretta Scott King showed that a person of conviction and strength could also be a beautiful soul. This kind and gentle woman became one of the most admired Americans of our time. She is widely mourned and she is deeply missed.

Some here today knew her as a girl and saw something very special long before a young preacher proposed. She once said, before I was a King, I was a Scott. And the Scotts were strong and righteous and brave in the face of wrong.

Coretta eventually took on the duties of a pastor's wife, and a calling that reached far beyond the doors of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In that calling, Dr. King's family was subjected to viscous words, threatening calls in the night, and a bombing at their house. Coretta had every right to count the costs and step back from the struggle. But she decided that her children needed more than a safe home. They needed an America that upheld their equality and wrote their rights in the law.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: And because this young mother and father were not intimidated, millions of children they would never meet are now living in a better more welcoming country.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: In the critical hours of the Civil Rights movement there were always men and women of conscience at the heart of the drama. They knew that old hatreds ran deep. They knew that nonviolence might be answered with violence. They knew that much established authority was against them. Yet they also knew that sheriffs and mayors and governors were not ultimately in control of events. That a greater authority was interested and very much in charge. The God of Moses...

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: The God of Moses was not neutral about their captivity. The God of Isaiah and the prophets was still impatient with injustice and they knew that the son of God would never leave them or forsake them. But some had to leave before their time and Dr. King left behind a grieving widow and little children. Rarely has so much been asked of a pastor's wife and rarely has so much been taken away.

Years later, Mrs. King recalled, I would wake up in the morning, have my cry, then go into them, the children saw me going forward. Martin Luther King Junior had preached that unmerited suffering could have redemptive power. Little did he know that this great truth would be proven in the life of the person he loved the most. Others could cause her sorrow but no one could make her bitter. By going forward with a strong and forgiving heart, Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband's legacy, she built her own.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: President George W. Bush, at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Former President Bill Clinton also spoke at the funeral. He and his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, received a rousing ovation. Here is an excerpt of his remarks.

Former President BILL CLINTON: I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there who lived, and breathed, and got angry, and got hurt, and had dreams, and disappointments. And I don't want us to forget that.

You know what? I was sitting here thinking, I wish I knew what her kids were thinking about now. I wonder if they were thinking about what I was thinking about at my mother's funeral. Instead of all this grand stuff, I wonder if they're thinking about her when she used to read books to them, or when she told them bible stories, or what she said to them when their daddy got killed.

We're here to honor a person. Fifty-four years ago, her about-to-be husband said that he was looking for a woman with character, intelligence, personality, and beauty; and she sure fit the bill.

(Soundbite of applause)

And I have to say, when she was over 75, I thought she still fit the bill pretty good in all those categories.

(Soundbite of applause)

And, the second point I want to make is the most important day in her life, for every one of us here at this moment in this church, except when she embraced her faith, the next most important day was April the 5th, 1968, the day after her husband was killed. She had to say, What am I going to do with the rest of my life? We would've all forgiven her, even honored her, if she said, I have stumbled on enough stony roads. I have been beaten by enough bitter rods. I have endured enough dangers, toils, and snares. I'm going home and raise my kids. I wish you all well.

(Soundbite of applause)

None of us, nobody could have condemned that decision. But instead, she went to Memphis, the scene of the worst nightmare of her life, and led that march for those poor, hardworking garbage workers that her husband (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

Now, that's the most important thing for us, because what really matters if you believe all this stuff we've been saying, is what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?

(Soundbite of applause)

So, her children, they know they've got to carry the legacy of their father and their mother now. We all clap for that, they've got to go home and live with it. That's a terrible burden. That is a terrible burden. You should pray for them, and support them, and help them. That is a burden to bear. It's a lot harder to be them than it was for us to be us, growing up. Don't you think it wasn't. It may have been a glory, it may have been wonderful, but it's not easy.

So what will happen to the legacy of Martin Luther King and Coretta King? Will it continue to stand for peace and nonviolence and anti-poverty and civil rights and human rights? What will be the meaning of the King Holiday every year? And even more important, Atlanta, what's your responsibility for the future of the King Center? What are you going to do to make sure that this thing goes on?

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: That was former President Bill Clinton. Poet Maya Angelou also spoke.

Dr. MAYA ANGELOU (Poet): (Singing) I open my mouth to the Lord, and I won't take back, no. I will go. I shall go. I'll see what the end is going to be.

She was the quintessential African-American woman, born in a small town in the repressive south. Born of flesh and destined to become iron. Born of cornflower and destined to become a steel magnolia.

She loved her church fervently. She loved and adored her husband and her children. She cherished her race. She cherished women. She cared for the condition of human beings, of Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. She cared for gay and straight people. She was concerned for the struggles in Ireland and she prayed nightly for Palestine and equally for Israel.

(Soundbite of applause)

I speak as a sister. I'm her sister. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on my birthday, and for over 30 years, Coretta Scott King and I have telephoned or sent cards to each other, or flowers to each other, or met each other somewhere in the world. We called ourselves chosen sisters, and when we traveled to South Africa or the Caribbean, or when she came to visit me in North Carolina or in New York, we sat into the late evening hours calling each other girl. Now, that's a black woman thing, you know.

(Sound of applause)

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Dr. ANGELOU: And even as we reached well into our 70th decade, we still said, girl. I stand her today for her family, which is my family, and for my family, and all the other families in the world who would want to be here but could not be here. I have beside me up here millions of people who are living and standing straight and erect and knowing something about dignity without being cold and aloof, knowing something about being contained without being unapproachable, people who have learned something from Coretta Scott King.

I stand here for Eleanor Traylor, and for Harry Belafonte, and I stand here for Winnie Mandela. I stand here for women and men who loved her, Dinky Romilly. On those late nights, when Coretta and I would talk, I would make her laugh, and she said that Martin King used to tell her, You don't laugh enough. And there's a recent book out about sisters, in which she spoke about her blood sister.

But at the end of her essay, she said I do have a chosen sister, Maya Angelou, who makes me laugh even when I don't want to. And it's true. I told her some jokes that were only for, no mixed company.

(Soundbite of applause)

Many times on those late evenings, she would say to me, Sister, it shouldn't be an either-or, should it? Peace and justice should belong to all people, everywhere, all the time. Isn't that right? And I said then, as I say now, Coretta Scott King, you're absolutely right. I do believe that peace and justice should belong to every person, everywhere, all the time.

And those of us who've gathered here, principalities, presidents, senators, those of us who run great companies, who know something about being parents, who know something about being preachers and teachers, those of us, we owe something from this minute on, so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history. We owe something.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Poet, Maya Angelou, at today's funeral for Coretta Scott King.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin stressed that King spoke out, not just against racism, but about the senselessness of war and the solutions for poverty. She sang for liberation, she sang for those who had no earthly reason to sing a song, with a voice that was heard from the tin-topped roofs of Suwagho, to the bomb shelters of Baghdad, Franklin said.

Former President Carter echoed that theme of a peaceful struggle for justice in a service that grew increasingly political, as other leaders questioned what the Bush Administration was doing to continue the King's dream.

The Reverend Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke directly to the current administration's foreign and domestic policies. Our marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise, but in the morning, will words become deeds that meet need, Lowery asked?

We'll close with a song by Puccini, as sung today by soprano Wanda Lynn Abernathy. She's the daughter of Ralph Abernathy who worked closely with Dr. King in the civil rights movement. Here is Vici D'arte, Vici di Moria (ph).

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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