- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

LITHONIA, Ga. - Four American presidents yesterday joined hands and bowed their heads in prayer for civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, but the joyful celebration of her life turned harsh, with one former president and a prominent black preacher bitterly criticizing President Bush for his surveillance of terror suspects.

Nearly 40 speakers took the pulpit during the six-hour remembrance service at a church in this suburb just outside Atlanta.

Ten thousand people heard Mr. Bush say he had come “to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole.”

“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,” Mr. Bush said.

He also said that “our sister Coretta” and her husband, Martin Luther King, put their faith in God as they led the civil rights movement that changed America in the 1960s.

“The God of Moses was not neutral about their captivity. The God of Isaiah and the prophets was still impatient with injustice. And they knew that the Son of God would never leave them or forsake them,” Mr. Bush said.

Halfway through the service, former President Jimmy Carter scolded Mr. Bush for his terror-surveillance program, which intercepts communications between terror suspects abroad and suspects in the United States. The domestic wiretapping followed similar programs by Presidents Johnson and Nixon.

“It was difficult for them then, personally, with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps and other surveillance ,” Mr. Carter said as Mr. Bush smiled politely.

Mr. Carter later said Hurricane Katrina was a clear sign that racism is still alive in America. Several black leaders have blamed the president for what they consider an insufficient federal response.

“This commemorative ceremony 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,” Mr. Carter said. “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.”

The crowd applauded lustily.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an outspoken civil rights leader, during his speech about Mrs. King ripped into Mr. Bush.

“She extended Martin’s message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there,” Mr. Lowery said.

The crowd, mostly black but with many white faces, applauded, then stood in ovation.

“But Coretta knew, and we know,” Mr. Lowery continued, “that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” he said, referring to the row of presidents past and present on the stage.

“Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor,” he yelled as the crowd again cheered.

Former President George Bush tried to defuse the bitter tone, telling how Mr. Lowery visited him at the White House. “I kept score in the Oval Office desk: Lowery 21, Bush 3. It wasn’t a fair fight.” The crowd rocked with laughter.

The elder Mr. Bush tried to return the day’s focus to honoring Mrs. King.

“By her steadfast determination, she helped to grind away the falsehood and ignorance that for too long had been used to divide our society. Our world is a kinder and gentler place because of Coretta Scott King, and together with her husband, their unyielding moral force changed the course of history,” he said.

Mrs. King, who carried on her husband’s dream of equality for nearly 40 years after his death, died Jan. 30 at the age of 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.

Beside the four presidents, dozens of members of Congress and civil rights leaders attended the service, along with poet Maya Angelou and the Kings’ four children.

Former President Bill Clinton, who drew the loudest ovation of the day, also steered clear of politics.

“I don’t want us to forget that there’s a woman in there,” he said, pointing to the flower-covered casket in the center of the huge hall. “We’re always going to have our political differences but we’re in the house of the Lord, and most of us are too afraid to live the lives we ought to live.”

“You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her role,” he said to laughter. His wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also spoke at the service.

The service featured performances by singers Stevie Wonder and Michael Bolton. Mourners joined a choir in singing some of Mrs. King’s favorite gospel songs, among them “Amazing Grace.”

Mrs. King’s daughter Bernice, a minister, gave the eulogy, saying of her mother: “She was not just a national figure, she was a global leader.”

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