Bush, Past Presidents Honor Coretta Scott King

Thousands came to New Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta to attend services honoring Coretta Scott King on Tuesday. Among the guests honoring the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., were President Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

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(Soundbite of congregation singing "Blessed Assurance")

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The hymn Blessed Assurance being sung at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, the site of the funeral for Coretta Scott King. This is the final service in a week of remembrance and mourning for the woman often referred to as the first lady of the civil rights movement. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

When Coretta Scott King's death was announced last Tuesday, many citizens of Atlanta assumed the ceremonies to honor her would be at Ebenezer Baptist Church. For more than four decades, she'd worshipped at Ebenezer, which had had three generations of the King family serve as pastors, including her husband. But the historic church, in the heart of the city's Sweet Auburn district, was too small to hold the thousands of mourners who wanted to attend the funeral. So, today's service, referred to as a homegoing, is being held in New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, where Mrs. King's youngest daughter, Bernice, is a minister and church elder.

President Bush, after initially deciding not attend, reversed himself, and even spoke from the pulpit, reminding the audience about Mrs. King's legendary self-composure during the civil rights movement, and after her husband's death.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation. When she wore a veil at 40 years old, her dignity revealed the deepest trust in God and his purposes. In decades of prominence, her dignity drew others to the unfinished work of justice.

BATES: The president was joined by the first lady. Also on hand were former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Jim Carter. Other dignitaries included King's colleagues from the civil rights movement, including former ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. New Bith's head pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, spoke of Mrs. King's early certainty that she was becoming more than just an ambitious young minister's wife when she agreed to become Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bishop EDDIE LONG (Head Pastor, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church): How did she handle all of that pressure? And she said, I understood when I married Martin that I did not marry just a man, I married a vision. I married a destiny. We are celebrating the destiny and the vision, and the dream is still alive.

BATES: And Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, an old family friend, spoke of Mrs. King not only as an icon of the civil rights movement, but as a mother with a mother's concerns, even in the traumatic aftermath of her husband's assassination.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Democrat, Atlanta): Widowed with four children to raise, she committed herself to singing louder and more often. But Mother Coretta made certain homework was checked, lunches were packed, and her children were safe.

BATES: After the service, Mrs. King's body will be returned to Atlanta to the King Center where she'll be entombed in a temporary crypt, until the permanent one that matches her husband's is ready. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of congregation singing)

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