I turned on the TV shortly after lunch yesterday expecting to take a brief look at the farewell service for Coretta Scott King and was still at it shortly before dinner. Somehow, despite its extraordinary length, I couldn’t let go. Four Presidents, a gallery of Civil Rights and other leaders and the spectacle of one of those gigantic mega churches filled (at least in the early hours) to capacity. I must say that one of my first thoughts was the contrast between this convention-like funeral with that of my own father who locked arms with Martin King and preceded him to the podium before the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Following his wishes we had a fairly traditional funeral, albeit attended by many, avoiding making it a speech filled public event. I guess that’s why Bill Clinton’s admonition (pointing to the casket), “I don’t want us to forget there is a woman in there,” resonated with me. But Coretta was in so many ways larger than life, strong willed and not uncontroversial but certainly an icon. In that she was very much like Jackie Kennedy who from the day of her husband’s brutal death had to tread a very difficult line between the public and the private; in both their cases the public and the extremely private.
Without question both Martin Luther King and my father would have been pleased about the straight talk that emanated from some of the speakers. It wasn’t the kind of partisan political display that so unnerved Minnesotans at Paul Wellstone’s memorial (it probably cost the Democrats a senate seat), but nonetheless the speakers were not inhibited by the presence of George Bush. They knew where they were and what kind of life they were celebrating. In fact, it was one of the few occasions on which I felt the presence of twentieth century activist clergy, the people who led the fight against both discrimination and violence including unnecessary wars. The tone was set when The Reverend Joseph Lowery referred to the “misinformation” about WMDs over there and “misdirection” over here. Perhaps no one was more pointed than Jimmy Carter, who reflecting the tone of the highly critical message of his best seller “Our Endangered Values”, reminded the assembled of FBI’s illegal wire tapping of Martin and Coretta, a contemporary reference not lost on anyone in the sanctuary. All these views reflected Coretta and Martin King’s life work, most importantly an unflinching commitment to non-violence.
For those who were patient enough to wait, the funeral concluded with a eulogy delivered by her youngest child, The Rev. Bernice King. Having delivered the one for my own father, I could relate to how she must have felt in the moment. The difference of course is that I had relationship with him well into my adulthood; she was still a pre-schooler when her dad was killed. Bernice is clearly a real preacher and it’s fitting that the one of King’s children who has taken up that mantle is a woman. As she so pointedly said, Coretta and Martin are gone; a new generation is doing things in a new way – a new birth. African American Churches have a long history of female preachers (including her great grandmother), but it nonetheless serves as a reminder that the future will have to be one of shared power, not of assumed male dominance. I was also struck by the content of Bernice King’s message which seemed to reflect a more traditional (if not fundamentalist) tone than those of her late father. While clearly stating that he was doing God’s prophetic work, I don’t remember him suggesting, as she did, that God was speaking directly to her, guiding her actions including where to hold this celebration of her mother’s life. That’s more in tune with today’s evangelical religious speak, ironically (in the context of her mother’s funeral) shared by George W. Bush.
Among the most revealing aspects of this day was who was there but essentially left on the sidelines. Most notable was Jesse Jackson, not known as the silent type. Jackson has never been a favorite of the King family (nor of many activists of the day). He was seen as grandstanding in the aftermath of King’s assassination exaggerating both his relationship with the slain leader and his role in the movement. He projected himself (and still does) as a kind of heir, but one can’t imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. running for President. He has so insinuated himself onto the stage since King’s death, that most people have forgotten how he got there. If Coretta left any instruction about yesterday, I wouldn’t be surprised if keeping Jesse in the pews was underlined in red ink.
Denise talks of new birth, but for the moment the jury is out on how effective religion is in being society's conscience rather than its cheerleader in the new century. One can’t imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr. being silent about the lack of civil discourse in the country, the ease with which we turn to military might to solve (or more accurately exasperate) problems around the globe or the use of torture by his beloved country. None of the religious leaders who stood at the forefront of public issues in the mid-century years would have welcomed the partisan politicization of faith, nor the ends justify the means philosophy that prevails today. Denise is right, her parents and the generation which they represent are gone. The problem is that their message as a dominant moral influence had already predeceased Coretta leaving a void and consequently a mess. Sure some of the old timers are still around and a few like Carter even write books, but time is creeping up on them. It’s now left to all of us, particularly the younger generation. They better get out the brooms and starting cleaning up that mess – sooner rather than later.