A Eulogy for King, a Scolding for Bush
A day of eulogizing Coretta Scott King turned into a rare, in-person rebuke of President Bush, with a succession of civil rights and political leaders assailing White House policies as evidence that the dream of social and racial equality pursued by King and her slain husband was far from reality.
Bush and his wife, Laura, sat on stage as more than 10,000 cheered suggestions from several speakers that the 1960s civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and fostered by his widow since his assassination -- remains alive and that its goals have not been fully realized. They cited the debates in Washington over the war in Iraq, the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and government eavesdropping.
Tuesday’s six-hour service, much of it carried live nationally on cable television, marked an unusual combination of political pageantry and civil rights history. The spectacle included humor, interpretive dance, gospel and classical music, shouting and testifying, and a list of dignitaries that made room for three former presidents, poet Maya Angelou and singer Michael Bolton.
But it also included pointed political commentary, much of it aimed at Bush. The president and his wife watched as the sanctuary at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta filled with raucous cheers for their White House predecessors, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a reminder that five years into his term, Bush and the Republican Party have not found the acceptance across black America that GOP strategists had hoped.
“This commemorative ceremony this morning and this afternoon is not only to acknowledge the great contributions of Coretta and Martin, but to remind us that the struggle for equal rights is not over,” former Democratic President Carter said to applause. “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, those who were most devastated by Katrina, to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”
Carter, who has had a strained relationship with Bush, drew cheers when he used the Kings’ struggle as a reminder of the recent debate over whether Bush violated civil liberties protections by ordering warrantless surveillance of some domestic phone calls and e-mails.
Noting that the Kings’ work was “not appreciated even at the highest level of the government,” Carter said: “It was difficult for them personally -- with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance, and as you know, harassment from the FBI.” Bush has said his own program of warrantless wiretapping is aimed at stopping terrorists.
The most overtly partisan remarks came from the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a King protege and longtime Bush critic, who noted Coretta King’s opposition to the war in Iraq and criticized Bush’s commitment to boosting the poor.
“She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar,” Lowery said. “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.”
As the barbs flew, Bush seemed to take the heat in stride, smiling at times, giving Lowery a standing ovation and even pulling the civil rights leader in for a bear hug.
The president received polite applause before and after his seven-minute eulogy, in which he said he attended the service “to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole.”
“As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation,” the president said.
Sitting with Bush on the stage by King’s flower-draped casket were three ex-presidents: Clinton, Carter and the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, along with one potential presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat from New York.
The Clintons flew to Georgia with the Bushes aboard Air Force One, giving the couples a chance to chat. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who has spent months traveling the country addressing African American groups and who this week leveled attacks at Sen. Clinton’s potential candidacy, spoke with the former first lady but told reporters that his criticisms of her did not come up.
The appearance by Bush, who decided over the weekend to rearrange his schedule and attend the service, came as his approval rating among black Americans has slipped to the low single digits in some surveys -- a direct response, some strategists believe, to the government’s failed response to Katrina.
Civil rights leaders and Democrats also have criticized Bush’s 2007 budget plan announced this week, which would increase defense spending while maintaining tax cuts for wealthier Americans and reducing aid to the poor.
For Bush, the service offered a rare face-to-face encounter with some of the traditional, liberal civil rights leaders, such as Lowery, whom he has avoided since taking office.
Though Bush has never addressed an NAACP convention as president, he has instead sought to build black support by reaching to more conservative pastors and business leaders sympathetic to his entrepreneurial vision of government.
New Birth and its pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long, have been at the center of those outreach efforts; Long and other leaders of black mega-churches have met on several occasions with Bush at the White House to discuss directing money to faith-based charities, combating poverty and AIDS in Africa, among other topics.
But as the speeches continued Tuesday, the scene reflected the uphill struggle that Republicans have faced in courting African Americans, even before Katrina focused attention on black poverty.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) drew roars of approval when he invoked the 1960 phone call placed by his brother, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, to Coretta King to pledge his help in freeing her husband from jail. Kennedy also mentioned the call placed by another brother, Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s campaign manager, to a local judge to inquire why Martin Luther King Jr. could not post bond. He was freed the next morning.
The sanctuary burst into applause when Sen. Kennedy said: “Robert called the judge.”
Historians say that many African Americans had been backing Republicans until that moment, and they credit the Kennedy phone calls with securing the black vote for Democrats in 1960 and ever since. Bush’s opponents won more than 90% of the African American vote in 2000 and 2004.
But for all of the bare partisanship, the service offered light moments and conviviality.
Former President Bush poked fun at Lowery, joking that he used to keep a score card in his Oval Office desk of their interactions. It was Lowery 21, Bush 3, he said, adding: “It wasn’t a fair fight.”
The elder Bush, who as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1964 spoke out against the Civil Rights Act pursued by the Kings, acknowledged that the service was an unusual experience.
“I come from a rather conservative Episcopal parish,” Bush said. “And I haven’t seen anything like this in my life.”
Of all the assembled politicians, the applause was most thunderous for Bill Clinton.
“I’m honored to be here with my president and my former presidents,” Clinton said, his wife standing at his side.
As he spoke, the crowd cheered and laughed. A few women shouted “Hillary for president,” and both Clintons smiled.
The former president seemed to appreciate the undercurrent.
“This has been, I must say, a brilliantly executed and enormously both moving and entertaining moment,” he said.
Bush deserved credit for attending the service, said Donna Brazile, one of the country’s most prominent Democratic strategists who managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign against Bush and worked for Coretta King in the 1980s. In recent weeks, she has met with Bush and spoken on several occasions with his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, about rebuilding New Orleans.
“They know they have to rebuild the foundations, and they have to rebuild a new platform with which to reach African American voters,” said Brazile, who watched the service on television.
“President Bush listened, he stayed for three hours and there were times that you could tell visibly he knew that the sermon was intended for his ears only.”
Brazile said the criticism of Bush was part of a tradition in the civil rights movement of “speaking truth to power.” Bush “took it in the spirit of the moment,” she said, “which was a testament to who Coretta Scott King was.”
Fausset reported from Lithonia and Wallsten from Washington. Researchers Robin Cochran and John Jackson contributed to this report.