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A spirited service filled with tears, laughter, politics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LITHONIA, Ga. -- Coretta Scott King was laid to rest yesterday, after a funeral where white-gloved ushers welcomed 15,000 people, including four presidents, three governors, three planeloads of Congress members, celebrities, gospel stars and figures of the civil rights movement.

The six-hour service, held in the vast two-tiered sanctuary of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, was marked by elegiac moments, standing ovations, and, with the Clintons and Bushes sharing a podium, some overt political gibes about the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

One of the first to speak was President Bush, who said Mrs. King had chosen to fight on for racial equality even after the assassination of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Americans knew her husband only as a young man," he said. "We knew Mrs. King in all the seasons of her life. And there was beauty and dignity in every season."

He added, "By going forward with a strong and forgiving heart, Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband's legacy, she built her own. Having loved a leader, she became a leader."

But others did not confine their remarks to Mrs. King; neither did they temper them because the president was seated just a few feet behind. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who spoke at times in rhyme, said, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there."

Former President Jimmy Carter, in an apparent allusion to Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, pointedly mentioned the difficulties that Mrs. King and her husband endured as they became the target of secret government wiretapping.

Of the four presidents, Bill Clinton was the crowd's political and cultural star. A huge cheer went up as he reached the open area near Mrs. King's casket, and the crowd gave him a thunderous standing ovation when he approached the microphone to speak with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

"I'm honored to be here with my president and my former presidents," he said. Then he paused briefly and looked at Hillary Clinton, the silence of his unspoken words seeming to suggest that he wanted to say future president, too. When the crowd began cheering, he laughed and said, "No, no, no."

He delivered the longest speech of the four presidents, apparently without notes. "I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there," he said, pointing to Mrs. King's casket. "Not a symbol, a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments."

The funeral was held after three days of services and remembrances for Mrs. King. More than 150,000 lined up to see her lying in honor in the rotunda of the state Capitol on Saturday and at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday.

The official pomp brought faint smiles to the lips of friends who first knew Mrs. King, 78, as a champion of radical causes and later as the courageous widow of a man whom authorities treated as a troublemaker and a criminal. Some said it was a chance to make up for the fact that Dr. King had not been similarly honored at his death in 1968. Still others said Mrs. King's death on Jan. 30 signaled the end of an era.

"I've been stripped," whispered actress Cicely Tyson, who once played Mrs. King in a miniseries. She ticked off the names of Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks and others who have recently died. "These were the women who were there when I first started, and who kind of took me in. And they're leaving me."

In the hours before the funeral, throngs gathered at a nearby shopping mall, and when shuttles stopped ferrying people to the church, many walked.

Yuritzy Villasenor, an elementary school teacher who came from California for the funeral, was so overcome after viewing the body that she could barely speak. "She gave it all up for you and me to be standing here together," she said.

Inside the circular sanctuary, the inner circle near the podium became quite literally that, as dignitaries including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; the Rev. Al Sharpton; Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party; Myrlie Evers, the wife of the slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers; and Marion Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, mingled and reminisced before the service began.

Sharpton said, "She became the most acceptable part of the movement you could think of, but she never left the movement. She used to reprimand me and say, 'Al, you can't fight if you have anger.'"

In DeKalb County, school was canceled and across the country flags flew at half-staff. After the funeral, attendees begged strangers for copies of the 20-page program, combing the sanctuary for discards until church employees forced them to leave.

During the service, three of Mrs. King's four children, Martin Luther King III, 48, Dexter King, 45, and Yolanda King, 50, sat together in the first row. The Rev. Bernice King, 42, an elder at New Birth, sat on stage, waiting to deliver the eulogy.

The poet Maya Angelou remembered Mrs. King as both a friend and a proponent of peace. "She cherished her race. She cherished women. She cared for gay and straight people. She prayed nightly for Palestine and equally for Israel," Angelou said.

When the presidents spoke, past resentments, current alliances and sharp humor were all on display, as was a bit of the relationship between a father and son.

When former President George Bush lost some of his prepared remarks, he told the crowd, "It may be your lucky day, I've lost a page." As they cheered, cameras caught the current president laughing heartily in the background.

The senior Bush, who spoke about his own conservative Episcopal upbringing, took a playful dig at the poesy of Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King and then served as its president for 20 years.

"I hope he doesn't mind, because he's a legend here, but the advice I'd give this guy is, Maya has nothing to worry about," the former president said. "Don't give up your day job. Keep preaching."

To which Clinton retorted, during his own remarks, "That ain't bad for one of the frozen chosen."

Clinton recounted how, days after her husband's assassination in Memphis, Mrs. King had gone to the city to address the striking garbage workers.

"She had to say, 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life?'" he said. "That's the most important thing for us because what really matters if you believe all of this stuff was in the plan, is, what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?"

Carter called Dr. King "the greatest leader that my native state, and perhaps my native country, have ever produced."

The services included performances by Stevie Wonder, Michael Bolton, and gospel stars CeCe and BeBe Winans.

During the eulogy, Bernice King addressed the ripple of controversy over the location of the funeral, which some people thought should have been held at the much smaller Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King, his father and his maternal grandmother were preachers.

She said the location had been chosen by God, who wanted a "new birth."

"I said, 'God, why here?' He said, 'It's time for the world to be born again,'" she said. "God is not looking for a Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King. The old has passed away, there is a new order that is emerging."

Some of the three dozen speakers talked about Mrs. King's final months, after she suffered a stroke in August. She was also, unbeknown to many of her closest friends, suffering from ovarian cancer.

"I expected to see somebody who looked like they had been ill," said the Rev. T.D. Jakes, a prominent preacher and author. "She was polished. Her hair was in place. Her nails were done."

After the funeral, a motorcade of police motorcycles and limousines carried Mrs. King to the King Center, the institution she founded in Atlanta as a memorial to her husband, and where his crypt is maintained in the middle of a reflecting pool.

Mrs. King's coffin was placed in a temporary mausoleum until a new crypt is constructed so that she can lie next to her husband.

Quotes

President Bush

"Her journey was long and only briefly with a hand to hold, but now she leans on everlasting arms. In all her years, Coretta Scott King proved that a person of conviction and strength could also be a beautiful soul."

Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

"For decades, she was the wind at our back as we worked to uphold civil rights laws."

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

"Who among us will join the freedom choir? Who among us will sing Coretta's song with courage and conviction, to smother the cries of hatred, economic exploitation, poverty and political disenfranchisement? For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for you and for me."

The Rev. Bernice King

"Thank you, Mother, for your incredible example of Christ-like love and obedience."

Adelaide Tambo, representing a delegation from South Africa

"South Africa salutes her for her role in building an alliance that served to make freedom a reality for so many of us from around the world. Coretta's spear has fallen. It is now our duty and our responsibility to pick it up."

Former President Jimmy Carter

"They overcame one of the greatest challenges of life, which is to be able to wage a fierce struggle for freedom and justice, and to do it peacefully."

Poet Maya Angelou

"We owe something from this minute on, so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history."

Former President George Bush

"Our world is a kinder and gentler place because of Coretta Scott King."

Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church

"She was more than a woman. She was a vision, a destiny. ... We are celebrating the destiny and the vision. The dream is still alive."

Former President Bill Clinton

"They understood that the difficulty of success does not relieve one of the obligation to try."

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