Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Four presidents and a raucous funeral for a King

Four presidents and a raucous funeral for a King

By Karen Jacobs and Tabassum Zakaria

LITHONIA, Georgia (Reuters) - Speakers seized on the presence of President Bush to attack his policies on Tuesday at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the first lady of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Jimmy Carter, one of four presidents to speak, took a jab at Bush's domestic eavesdropping program during six hours of sermons, speeches and song for the late widow of Nobel peace laureate Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in 1968.

The 10,000 mourners also heard the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil-rights leader, cite Mrs. King's legacy as a champion of racial equality while launching barbs at Bush administration policies on Iraq and health care.

Mrs. King, 78, died on January 30 of complications from ovarian cancer. Her funeral at a Baptist church in Lithonia, Georgia, drew a "who's who" of the political and entertainment worlds and the U.S. civil rights community.

She was due to be buried alongside her husband at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change she founded in nearby Atlanta.

With Washington debating the legality of Bush's domestic eavesdropping on Americans suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Carter drew spirited applause with comments on federal efforts to spy on the Kings decades ago.

"It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance," Carter said.

Former President Bill Clinton, a favorite among mainstream civil rights leaders, offered a teasing hint of the possible presidential candidacy of his wife, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stood smiling at his side.

"I'm honored to be here with my president and my former presidents and ...," he trailed off, motioning in his wife's direction to loud and sustained applause.

Speaking first, ahead of his critics, Bush said: "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.

"Having loved a leader she became a leader. And when she spoke Americans listened closely, because her voice carried the wisdom and goodness of a life well-lived," he said.


Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King helped found in 1957, gave a playful reading of a poem in eulogy of Mrs. King and made a none-too-veiled reference to the Iraq war launched by Bush.

"We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there / But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here / Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor," Lowery said.

The mourners responded with a standing ovation.

Bush's immediate reaction could not be seen on television, but after Lowery finished speaking, the president -- who sat behind the speakers -- shook his hand and laughed.

Bush's father George Bush, the fourth president at the funeral, broke any tension by recalling his own meetings as president with Lowery and gave a score: "Lowery 21, Bush 3, it wasn't a fair fight."

The service, billed as a celebration of Mrs. King's life, featured performances by Stevie Wonder and Michael Bolton. Mourners joined a choir in singing some of King's favorite gospel songs, among them "Amazing Grace."

Mrs. King's daughter Bernice, a minister, gave the eulogy, saying of her mother: "She was not just a national figure, she was a global leader."

Born April 27, 1927, near Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott King played a back-up role in the civil rights movement until her husband, a Baptist minister, was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

As she recalled in her autobiography "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.," she felt she had to step fully into the civil rights movement. She last appeared in public on the weekend of the annual holiday last month that honors his legacy.