Saying Farewell to Coretta Scott King
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
President Bush is expected to attend today's funeral in Atlanta for Coretta Scott King. The wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. died last week at the age of 78. After her husband's assassination in 1968, she became known as the keeper of his legacy. And for many her death marks the passing of an era.
To talk about that, we're joined by NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams.
Juan, good morning.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: No disrespect to the President to say that he's just another name on this guest list for this funeral. Former presidents, members of Congress, civil rights leaders, entertainers; the list goes on and on.
WILLIAMS: Really is. You know, sometimes, Steve, I think a picture tells a story, and on Saturday in Atlanta the Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue and his wife, as well as Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, stood on the Plaza in front of the Georgia State Capital as a horse-drawn carriage pulled in with Mrs. King's body. Then they, those public officials, they embraced all four of the King children, later all of the state's major officers, elected officers, and the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia, walked past the casket in the Capital Rotunda.
Mrs. King is the first black person to lie in honor in the Georgia State Capital. Forty-five thousand people walked by on Saturday. As you mentioned, today at the funeral you're going to have three former Presidents: President Carter, President Clinton, the first President Bush. You know, President Bush, the current President Bush, will be speaking.
So in a way, I think, Steve, what you see here is a total acceptance and embrace of the Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy, as the black middle class in U.S. progresses into becoming American middle class. I think it's a significant moment in that transition. It's sort of a new black power.
INSKEEP: Well, given that progress and that change that you mentioned, how has the civil rights movement changed?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's much more political, as evidenced by that scene. I think you had, it was President Johnson who after Selma back in 1965 used the phrase, We shall overcome, in a speech to the nation about violence against civil rights protesters, asking for support of the Voting Rights Act. And I think that if you think about it, the year after Dr. King died, that would be '69, you had 13 black people in Congress. Today you have 43. You have black mayors, you know, in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., even in Waco, Texas near President Bush's ranch.
We've been through two Jesse Jackson campaigns for President. In the last Presidential campaign you had Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun, two black candidates. We've had back-to-back African-American Secretaries of State. We have the largest black middle class in the nation's history.
So I think the key here, and I think it's important to note, one key here is that although the black constituency in this country is overwhelmingly Democrat, there is no black third party. It's all part of the political mainstream. So I think that you see that the civil rights movement, in that sense, has become part of American politics.
INSKEEP: Well, of all the leaders, who speaks for poor African-Americans, the kind of people who were brought into the national news by Hurricane Katrina?
WILLIAMS: That's a very good question. It's right on the target in terms of where we are today. I think, you know, when Dr. King was killed in Memphis, Steve, he was about to launch his Poor People's Campaign, reminding the nation's political elite that, you know, a quarter of all black people live in poverty, which is the case today.
And so I think there's tremendous pressure on the black middle class not to separate, black Americans, not to separate by class. But poor blacks today I think are represented in a sense by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, even, you know, Louis Farrakhan. Because they're the ones who march, protest, boycott incidents of police brutality and racial bias.
INSKEEP: Which is something that white Americans may not be happy about. But you're telling us that's the reality.
INSKEEP: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams with analysis on the end of an era in the civil rights movement.
Juan, thanks very much.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: And by the way, Coretta Scott King recalls key moments in her life in recordings that you can find at npr.org. Her funeral is today.