Friday, February 10, 2006

Truth to power after life

The ability of a civil rights symbol and icon to speak truth to power can never be underestimated. Coretta Scott King, who passed on Jan. 30 and whose life and mission were recalled Feb. 8 at her funeral service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., apparently can impart an important dimension of her mission -- plain speaking -- beyond the grave. Death, where is thy sting? Seems not even the Grim Reaper can keep a sister down.

Nor, happily, can politicians and spinmeisters and TV pundits -- all of whom were howling after the services about perceived slights to President Bush and to the memory of Coretta Scott King herself. The array of conventional complainers were out in full force after the services, which managed to deftly combine the spiritual and the activist in a way Coretta King would have approved of.

The ceremony was attended by an estimated ten thousand people, as well as by four presidents and a number of dignitaries. Not everybody was prepared to say goodbye to Coretta with the usual desiccated, hermetically sealed encomiums common to too many American funerals. People gave Coretta Scott King a churchy sendoff, and not everyone could appreciate it. Some less than others.

First up was President Bush, making nice from the beginning: "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," the president said.

"We knew Mrs. King in all the seasons of her life -- and there was grace and beauty in every season. As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation."

Bush's appearance was half a triumph for this president still mightily under fire for his faltering relationship with black America. He clearly understood the gravity of the moment, even while not fully comprehending the venue -- the church -- and what that venue has historically meant to black Americans.

The crash course was about to follow.

Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta, recalled how "sang for liberation, she sang for those who had no earthly reason to sing a song." Mrs. King, Franklin said, spoke out against the "senselessness of war with a voice that was heard from the tin roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad."

Whether you saw it on TV or not, that's about when the presidential flinching began, with that first Iraq war-related shot across the bow of George Bush, sitting with wife Laura on a raised platform behind the speakers. This must have been something like torture to Bush, who was forced to sit and take it. There was no bailing out of this event, no furtive glances at his watch, like his father did on the way to losing the 1992 election.

Three speakers later, it was the Rev. Joseph Lowery's turn. Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he helped create with Rev. Martin Luther King in 1957, offered his own interpretation of a poem in eulogy of Mrs. King, one with an unveiled reference to 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," 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!"

The mourners responded with a standing ovation that was anything but mournful. Bush's immediate reaction couldn't be seen on network television, fair and balanced Fox News was said to be in charge of the pool camera. (The closed-circuit camera inside the church caught the president's reaction, apparently a grin-and-bear-it variation on deer-in-the-headlights.)

[Media gave its readers another indication of the information war that conservatives are apparently willing to fight, at the expense of what really happened. "The February 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume featured an edited video clip ... While Lowery's remarks were greeted with 23 seconds of applause and a standing ovation, the clip Fox News aired presented nine seconds of applause and little hint of the standing ovation -- and no indication that the clip had been doctored," Media Matters reported on its Web site on Feb. 9.]

The George Bush PiƱata Experience continued with comments from former President Jimmy Carter, who got his share of applause with his recollection of how Coretta and Martin both had to contend with federal efforts to spy on them decades ago, in the Hoover era of the FBI.

"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 and as you know, harassment from the FBI." said Carter, with a perfectly transparent jab in the ribs to Bush, whose domestic eavesdropping of American citizens suspected of having connections to al-Qaida is very much under fire in Washington.

Carter weighed in again later, saying that Hurricane Katrina was proof of the persistence of inequality in America.

"This commerative cermony this morning, 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. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi," Carter said. "Those who were most devastated by [Hurricane] Katrina know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans. It is our responsibility to continue their crusade."

Bloggers and pundits debated it all for days after the funeral, some insisting that the political comments "went too far," that they were "out of bounds," that they "crossed the line." But most of the finger-waggers who complained never quite got their minds around a central fact of Coretta Scott King, what she stood for, and how her undying pursuit of justice and truth had its logical expression in the words and sentiments of those who eulogized her.

She stood for candor and honesty in life; how could anyone think she'd stand for anything else when she died?

Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who managed Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign and worked for Coretta King, told the Los Angeles Times what was what: The comments made at the church and people's reception to those comments were "in the spirit of the moment, which was a testament to who Coretta Scott King was."

Nuff said. Rest well, faithful servant. Well done. You've gone on to a sweeter, happier, less polarized place.

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