- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Watching most of the moving “homegoing” church service to commemorate the life’s work of civil rights maven Coretta Scott King, it was hard to discern sometimes whether the six-hour sendoff was a funeral or a political forum.

But what should you expect besides a peppering of political rhetoric when four living U.S. presidents headline a program, even for the dearly departed? When else should you take full advantage of a rare situation to “speak truth to power” when your audience includes the most powerful men in the free world? Others, like yours truly, may wonder if, or when, it’s appropriate to turn the preacher’s pulpit into a bully pulpit. In case you missed it, during Mrs. King’s funeral no fewer than 40 folks were given time to voice their sorrow and sentiments about the 78-year-old widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Also, some of them let loose about the policies and practices of President Bush, one of the invited speakers. The reverie at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., often took on the tone of a Texas roast.

Mr. Bush bravely delivered brief but heartfelt condolences from the nation. He also bore the brunt of verbal bruises without wincing. His presence demonstrated not only guts but his attempt, albeit late, to reach out to the black community and mend the fallen fences — at least for appearance’s sake.

“We knew Mrs. King in all the seasons of her life — and there was grace and beauty in every season,” Mr. Bush said.

Except at her funeral.

It’s not surprising that there were rousing “oohs” and “aahs” and applause when former President Jimmy Carter took his turn to take a dig at Mr. Bush’s controversial wiretapping program by likening the practice to Mr. and Mrs. King being wiretapped by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

However, the applause and cheers seemed out of place in such a solemn setting.

Folks hollered hallelujah when the Rev. Joseph Lowry, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, took his time rhyming about a woman who knew there were “no weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq but only “misdirection” from the White House, which has ignored America’s poor.

When former President George Bush tried to defend his boy, telling Mr. Lowry to “keep your day job,” he lost a page from his own “let’s all get along” script. After all, he admitted to being an Episcopalian and feeling a little out of place, never having been to anything like a Baptist funeral before.

Enter the White Knight, former President Bill Clinton, who loves preaching to the choir. Amen, brother; he said exactly what I was thinking.

“I don’t want us to forget that there’s a woman in there,” he said pointing to Mrs. King’s casket overshadowed by flowers and tomfoolery.

“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,” Mr. Clinton said. “You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her role,” he said, prompting laughter but also a return to decorum.

Partisan bickering has no place at the funeral of a woman whose entire public persona symbolized grace, poise, dignity and tolerance. One expects homilies and hymns in the house of the Lord, not daggers and diatribes.

However, I find myself in the minority this week as I listen or participate in debates about the biting comments. Most folks were glad the political comments were made, when they were made, where they were made and by whom they were made.

Ronald Walters, political science professor at the University of Maryland, suggested like many others that the political statements were appropriate because improving social justice and policy were the hallmarks of Mrs. King’s life and her husband’s life. He even suggested that there should have been more, not less, talk of politics.

“The opposition is both to the conservative temper of the times and the man leading it,” Mr. Walters said on NBC’s “Nightly News” this week.

Don’t get me wrong: My political ideology is not at issue here. What has been called into question is my belief that there is an appropriate “season” for everything.

Is a six-hour procession of political speeches when national television cameras are rolling really necessary to pay our respects and homage to national icons? You’d think that some folk think you can sing and pray and preach people back to life the way they carry on.

Obviously, some folks, even presidents, may need reminding of the social graces exhibited by a great Southern lady like Mrs. King. I don’t know about anyone else who was raised by a Southern grandmother, but I was taught that you don’t invite folks to your house and then berate them.

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