Dispatch: Coretta Scott King’s Memorial Service

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The memorial service for Coretta Scott King brought presidents to this mega-church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. Some 10,000 mourners came to the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, including President George W. Bush and former Presidents Bush, Clinton and Carter. Many watched on jumbo television screens as a dozens of speakers took to the pulpit to sing the praise of King's widow. To attend the ceremony, the President had delayed a New Hampshire trip promoting his new budget. Bush, who is notoriously restless at long events, stuck to the dictum that speakers keep their remarks short. His words didn't rouse the crowd, but he was received politely when he said that he was there to offer sympathy on behalf of an entire nation. His words, laced with religious imagery, seemed to resonate. Speaking of Mrs. King and her late husband, Bush said "the God of Moses was not neutral about their captivity."

But the real energy came from the ex-presidents. It all started when Joseph Lowery, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once headed by Dr. King, used his few minutes at the pulpit to read a sharp-edged poem that praised Mrs. King and cut at the current president. "Coretta knew, and we knew, there were no weapons of mass destruction over there but there were weapons of misdirection right down here."

When the President's father took the pulpit he offered a gentle riposte to Lowery, saying that he was from a small Episcopal parish and was humbled by the surroundings but that he felt compelled to respond to Lowery. He went on to note that when he was president and he met with Lowery, the African-American preacher usually got the best of him. "It was Lowery 21, Bush 3." Bush added in a reference to the poet Maya Angelou, "Maya, you have nothing to worry about." And in a rebuke to Lowery's poem, he quipped: " Joe, don't quit your day job." When former President Clinton mounted the pulpit, to thunderous applause reflecting his enduring popularity among African-Americans, he joked that Bush may have said he was a humble Episcopalian but that he'd gotten off a good shot at Lowery. "Not bad for a member of God's frozen chosen," Clinton joked, as both presidents Bush's laughed at the stereotype of icy WASPs.

For his part, Jimmy Carter seemed to take a couple of jabs at Bush, noting the "forgotten" of Hurricane Katrina and denounced the "secret government wiretapping" that Martin Luther King endured in what seemed to be a thinly veiled reference to President Bush's controversial authorization of National Security Agency listening to domestic calls.

There were touching moments, too. Former FBI Director William Sessions noted how Mrs. King had befriended him, despite the FBI's eavesdropping and harassment of Dr. King. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was cheered when she said that Mrs. King had joined a "freedom choir" of late civil rights crusaders. Perhaps the most touching sight of all were the thousands of ordinary Americans who filled the massive sanctuary, each one there to praise Mrs. King and perhaps be a part of history.