Reunited at last in death, Coretta Scott King was laid to rest beside the tomb of her husband after a stirring funeral with 10,000 mourners that was both lyrical and mournful, and at times political.
The interment yesterday concluded a day when four US presidents and more than three dozen speakers took turns remembering King for her efforts to realize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality for nearly 40 years after his assassination.
“Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband’s legacy, she built her own,” President Bush George Bush said. “Having loved a leader, she became a leader, and when she spoke, Americans listened closely.”
The immense crowd filled the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church – a modern, arena-style megachurch in a suburban Atlanta county that was once a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, but today has one of the most affluent black populations in the country.
The funeral included numerous members of Congress, veterans of the civil rights movement and songs by Stevie Wonder and Michael Bolton, who gave soaring, gospel-infused performances.
King died on January 30 aged 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.
After the funeral, six white doves were released at the King Centre near downtown Atlanta before King’s coffin was placed in her tomb. About 100 onlookers immediately lined up to place flowers on it.
“One of the greats has passed on. And she has passed the torch back to every one of us,” said Craig Hickerson, 28, of Atlanta.
Earlier, former President Bill Clinton urged mourners to follow in her footsteps, honour her husband’s sacrifice and help the couple’s children fulfil their parents’ legacy.
Former President George HW Bush said the “world is a kinder and gentler place because of Coretta Scott King.” And former President Jimmy Carter praised the Kings for their ability to “wage a fierce struggle for freedom and justice and to do it peacefully.”
Over the past several days, more than 160,000 mourners waited to pay their respects and file past King’s open casket during viewings at churches and the Georgia Capitol, where King became the first woman and the first black person to lie in honour.
Among the civil rights veterans at the funeral were Dorothy Height, long-time chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women; Republican John Lewis, former head of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee who led the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama; and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
“We owe something from this minute on, so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history,” said Maya Angelou, a former US poet laureate who sang some of her comments in a traditional style of the Southern black church.
Bernice King, the youngest of the Kings’ four children delivered remarks that were part fiery sermon and part eulogy. A minister at the megachurch, she yelled at times as she preached against violence and materialism, saying that her mother’s purpose in life was to spread her father’s message of peace and unconditional love.
“Thank you, mother, for your incredible example of Christ-like love and obedience,” she said.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin injected politics into her remarks, describing how Coretta Scott King spoke out against “the senselessness of war” with a voice that was heard “from the tintop roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., drew a roaring standing ovation when he said: “For war, billions more, but no more for the poor” – a takeoff on a line from a Stevie Wonder song. The comment drew head shakes from Bush and his father as they sat behind the pulpit.
Outside the church, the lines to get into the funeral and to attend the final viewing of King’s body started forming before 3am.