(1st Add: Includes comments from Rev. Joseph Lowery and former President George H.W. Bush.)
(CNSNews.com) - Coretta Scott King was remembered Tuesday at a funeral service in Lithonia, Ga., as a woman of strength and conviction who carried on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work towards racial equality all the while grieving his death and raising her children on her own.
"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,'" said President Bush, who was on hand with First Lady Laura Bush.
"Coretta eventually took on the duties of a pastor's wife in a calling that reached far beyond the doors of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In that calling, Dr. King's family was subjected to vicious words, threatening calls in the night and a bombing at their house," said Bush.
"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," added the president.
The funeral took place at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where King's daughter Bernice is a minister. Also in attendance were former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, along with other dignitaries and black leaders, including Maya Angelou, Dr. Dorothy Height, and Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
After the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. King went "forward with a strong and forgiving heart," having not only secured her husband's legacy, but building her own, Bush said.
"Having loved a leader, she became a leader, and when she spoke, America listened closely because her voice carried the wisdom and goodness of a life well-lived," Bush added.
Even Jim Crow had to yield
Mrs. King "became a national presence and an international icon, opposing apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s with the same fervor that she had challenged prejudice in America in the 1960s," Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. "She knew deep in her heart that none of us are free until we all are free.
"At times it seemed a nation might never relinquish the old traditions of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination, but we had Coretta with her remarkable combination of power and peacefulness. And in the face of her constant courage, her unshakeable faith, her inner strength and quiet grace, even Jim Crow had to yield," said Kennedy.
Kennedy recalled a time in October 1960 when Dr. King was "given the incomprehensible sentence of four months of hard labor in a rural penitentiary for a minor traffic violation."
"The situation was ominous and many feared for his life. I remember my brother President Kennedy calling her to say he would do whatever was necessary, and Robert called the judge ... who fortunately saw the light and Martin was released," said Kennedy.
"In that difficult time and in constant similar times in the years that followed, Coretta was a constant pillar of strength," Kennedy added.
'What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?'
Former President Bill Clinton said the second most important day in Mrs. King's life was April 5, 1968, the day after her husband was gunned down. "She had to decide 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life'?
"We would have 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 dangerous toils and snares, I'm going home to raise my kids, I wish you all well. None of us, nobody could have condemned that decision," said Clinton.
But instead, Mrs. King "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 died for."
Clinton said the most important thing for the rest of America to do now is to answer the question: "What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?" And, he wondered, what will happen to the legacy of Dr. and Mrs. King?
"Will it continue to stand for peace and non-violence 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?" Clinton asked.
He noted that the newspaper he read on the way to the funeral reported that the county has more rich blacks than any county in America, except Montgomery County, Md.
Clinton praised Dr. and Mrs. King for "how they embraced causes that were almost surely lost right alongside causes that if they worked at hard enough they could actually win."
"They understood that the difficulty of success does not relieve one of the obligation to try," the former president said. He added that if people want to treat Mrs. King "like a role model," they should "model her behavior."
Clinton reminded the crowd not to forget there are gathered to remember a woman, not a symbol.
"I don't want to forget that there's a woman in there - not a symbol - a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments."
He wondered what Dr. and Mrs. King's children are thinking. "I wonder if they're thinking about what I was thinking about at my mother's funeral," Clinton said. He wondered if they were thinking about how Mrs. King read books to them or what she said to them when their father was assassinated.
"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. And I have to say when she was over 75, I thought she still fit the bill pretty good in all those categories," said Clinton, jokingly.
"As we are called, each of us must decide whether to answer that call by saying 'Send me.' And when I think of Coretta Scott King, I think of a woman who lived out her calling. She lived her life as an extension of her faith and conviction," said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Sen. Clinton said she could imagine Coretta had to wonder what she was getting into when Dr. King proposed to her.
"And in fact, she waited six months to give him an answer, because she had to have known in her heart that she wasn't just marrying a young man, but she was bringing her calling to be joined with his," said the former first lady.
"As they began their marriage and their partnership, it could not have been easy, because there they were young, becoming parents, starting their ministry in a moment in history that they were called to lead," Sen. Clinton said. "Leadership is something that many who are called refuse to accept, but Martin and Coretta knew they had no choice.
Sen. Clinton wondered about the pressure Mrs. King must have been under on "those nights when she was putting the children to bed" and worried about the violence, threats, and bombs, "and knowing that she couldn't show any of the natural fear that any of us would feel."
Mrs. King "would turn to the Lord, who would answer her call for support by reminding her of her redemption," said Sen. Clinton. As America celebrates Mrs. King's life and mourns her passing, "we do have to answer the question as to whether we would say 'Send me.'"
"She has passed, but we must take up her burden. We'll have to split it up, because it was a heavy burden to bear, but together we can carry it. We can carry on the struggle against racism and discrimination," Sen. Clinton added.
"So we bid her earthly presence farewell. We wish her Godspeed on her homecoming, and we ask ourselves, will we say when the call comes 'Send me?' I know what she would want our answer to be today," concluded Mrs. Clinton.
Tribute turns political
Civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was a subject of controversy at the funeral for his poem eulogizing Mrs. King, in which he criticized the Iraq war.
"She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war / She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar," said Lowery.
"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 added. His remarks drew a standing ovation.
Former President George H.W. Bush later tried to defuse the tension, by making light of Lowery's comments.
"And I hope he doesn't mind, 'cause he's a legend here. I would like to say something to my friend Joe Lowery. Hey look, they used to send this guy to Washington, and I kept score in the Oval Office desk - Lowery 21, Bush 3 - it wasn't a fair fight," said the former president.
"The advice I'd give this guy is Maya [Angelou] has nothing to worry about. Don't give up your day job, keep preaching," said Bush.
"Our world is a kinder and gentler place because of Coretta Scott King, and together with her husband," they "changed the course of history. Within 60 days of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King once again found himself sitting in a Selma jail," said the former president.
"Think about that, he'd been the toast of the world, repeatedly called to the White House, but to him it was a fundamental human principle, not fame or power, that mattered the most. And every hour he sat in that cell, of course Coretta suffered as well," said Bush, who then realized part of his speech went missing.
"Every step he and his followers subsequently made from Selma to the statehouse ? It'd be your lucky day, I've lost a page," he said, jokingly.
Bush said Coretta always had a "dignity" and "wonderful grace" about the way she carried herself. "And for this she is mourned and eternally respected by millions."
Bush said he saw a special screening of "Glory Road" with members of the Houston Rockets and all other Houston-area basketball teams.
"And the film and its powerful message made a profound impact on this young group, particularly on the young players, but also on all the young people who were there. It only reminded us how far our society has come. Now these kids didn't understand it. They didn't know what discrimination was til some of them seen this movie, Glory Road,'" said the former president.
Former President Bush said Coretta "led the way, stared down the hatemongers" and "that burden has now lifted and Coretta has been called home to the father" after "a life that mattered, a life well-lived."
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