Coretta Scott King: Reflections on the Funeral and the Future of the Movement

The following piece was written by Robert Franklin for the National Baptist Voice. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Robert Michael Franklin, PhD

Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics
Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Now that Coretta Scott King has joined Martin on the other side of the Jordan, we may all take comfort in knowing that they are together again. But, judging from the "home going" funeral service near Atlanta, no one wanted to let her depart too soon.

Funerals are sacred times in the life of every culture. And, in the African American village, they are high, holy moments that require sufficient time to cover the full gamut of emotional and spiritual expressions. First Lady King's funeral was just such a high holy moment. And, she deserved it.

But, this was no ordinary VIP funeral. Mrs. King was black royalty, so the funeral took on some of the trappings of a royal funeral with horse drawn carriages and heads of state present. Even more interesting was the way in which many people seemed to project onto Mrs. King the respect, affection, and admiration that they felt for her husband, but were unable to express during his brief life and very simple funeral.

Think about that for a moment. Black America felt that Dr. King deserved a royal funeral but he insisted that his funeral be a modest affair. He recognized the power of the symbolism that would surround his own home-going. Recall that he even scripted his own eulogy with memorable instructions such as, "I don't want a long funeral. Don't tell them I received a PhD or a Nobel Prize, just tell them I was a drum major for justice."

A personal note here. In 1968, as a young high school student on the South Side of Chicago, on television I watched the funeral and procession from Ebenezer to the campus of Morehouse College (King's alma mater) where Morehouse president, Benjamin Elijah Mays delivered a eulogy. Observing the dignity and elegance of that occasion was enough to persuade me that I had to attend Morehouse upon graduation. So, I can testify to the power of the funeral to communicate in profound ways to people far away.

So, what did Coretta Scott King's funeral communicate and what were the most significant "background stories" that may have sent confusing messages? I'd like to briefly consider just a few of them and then ponder whether or not they say something about contemporary black leadership, and about the future direction of the movement for justice and opportunity.

The Symbolism of Sacred Space

First, for several days following Mrs. King's death, friends and supporters speculated about the location for the ceremony. Most assumed that the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, part of the family's legacy would be her final and appropriate resting place. Although the old sanctuary was the site of Dr. King's funeral in 1968, several years ago the Ebenezer congregation led by the distinguished senior pastor, Dr. Joseph Roberts, erected a new and larger sanctuary across the street. These companion sacred sites are now known as the "heritage" and "horizon" sanctuaries. But, neither of them could accommodate the thousands who would want to participate. Speculation about other possible inner city sites intensified - the Civic Center, Phillips Arena, Morehouse, and so on.

But, word soon began to spread that the funeral would convene at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in a suburb several miles outside the city. New Birth's pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, has built a vast and impressive ministry that includes a sanctuary that seats more than 10,000. Long is one of the leading mega-church Bapto-Pentecostal preachers who weds individual prosperity and personal piety while donning the title "bishop". And, Reverend Bernice King (a future bishop?) is on the ministerial staff. So, there were compelling logistical and familial reasons to leave Atlanta. (Note that for several years, New Birth has rented the Georgia Dome for its Easter morning service, thereby dispelling the idea that a sacred service cannot occur in mundane, secular space.)

And while understandable, I found the decision unsettling. In the end, the funeral of the wife of America's most revered religious and civil rights leader and an activist in her own right, was held far from the inner city where the King legacy had deep and lasting roots. Although a memorial service was held at the new 'horizon' Ebenezer sanctuary (where Jesse and Oprah spoke), now led by the very promising Reverend Raphael Warnock, this meant that the masses of poor and inner city residents were not able to participate in the final "high, holy moment" of Coretta's earthly pilgrimage.

I should also point out that the funeral's location at New Birth may have raised the comfort level of President Bush (if not the Secret Service). Bishop Long has been an occasional visitor to the White House and is on good terms with the President. Many in Atlanta took note of the 'special' embrace that the President bestowed upon Long as a symbol of their close collaboration. Recall that Long alluded to his access to the President during the 2005 "State of Black America" hosted by Tavis Smiley at New Birth, a perk that failed to impress Princeton scholar Cornel West and Minister Louis Farrakhan. In fact, their rebuke of Long accounted for the one memorable moment of the all day talk fest.

That's the first message of the holy moment. The location seemed, in part, to be staged more to comfortably accommodate the powerful and the famous than their social subordinates. That message is quite different from the one that Dr. King's funeral conveyed.

A Ritual Passing of the Torch?

Allowing for the logistical reason (size does matter), it is reasonable to ask about the possible symbolism behind the site. Should the viewing public interpret this to mean that Bishop Long is the heir apparent to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the generation of leaders that Mrs. King represented? Was this funeral also a passing of the torch of leadership for the future civil rights struggle?

I should note that I have no personal animus toward Bishop Long and have been on good terms with him in the past. But, this issue pertains to matters that are larger than one man. Many people interpreted Rev. Bernice King's eulogy to suggest that this particular church and pastor were, indeed, part of a divine plan for the spiritual renewal of the church, the nation and the world. Indeed, such renewal might represent the new direction of the social justice movement. That is, society would be improved one soul at a time.

Several months before Mrs. King's death, a ceremony occurred that led many Atlantans to believe that the torch of leadership was being passed to Long. According to several Atlanta pastors, almost two years ago during a service that I did not attend, explicit comments about this 'transfer of charisma' were made in the presence of Mrs. King and Martin L. King, III. Indeed, both were part of a ceremony that included laying hands on the Bishop in a gesture of transferal. By itself, this service and ritual may not have been significant. But, taken together with the funeral, it would appear that at least one member of the King family was actively campaigning to install Long as the legitimate successor to her father.

But, I would respectfully submit that transferring leadership authority is not in the hands of any single person or family. Such promotions come from God. And, in order to be worthy of the 'movement mantle', leaders must earn their credibility by serving the least advantaged members of the community. Although the New Birth congregation sponsors many valuable social service ministries I do not perceive that the congregation or its pastor have been on the front line of the struggle to transform conditions for the poorest of the poor in Atlanta or in the nation. Indeed, I think that it is fair to say that the Bishop represents a new style of pastoral leadership. I refer to it as the "entrepreneurial ecclesial executive," who embraces capitalism and prosperity while urging followers to be pious and hard working. By contrast, King called for fundamental changes in the way capitalism operated, and demanded that a just society protect the "truly disadvantaged."

So, the second message of the funeral may be that a new style and substance of leadership is emerging, embodied in Bishop Long, that has the potential to redefine the movement and lead it in new directions.

The Personal Becomes Political

During the nearly six hour funeral, most of the speakers offered touching personal remarks about the numerous qualities of a "phenomenal woman". But, two speakers seized the opportunity to politicize the funeral. President Jimmy Carter and Reverend Joseph Lowery (SCLC) both called attention to shortcomings, even ethical failures, of President Bush's administration. While the comments may have breached the line of ordinary funeral etiquette, they seemed to stand in Dr. King's tradition of using the funeral to place the personal in a larger political context.

I heard this as an example of what happens when a president fails to listen to those with whom he disagrees politically. Such comments seemed a bit opportunistic but pardonable if they were likely to be shared by Mrs. King herself. I think that they were.

Hence, a third message. At times, the personal can become appropriately political when conventional means of speaking truth to power are ignored.

Finally, what does the funeral suggest about the future of the movement for justice and opportunity?

The Crisis in Black Leadership

In his book, Race Matters, Cornel West observes that contemporary black leadership lacks two important virtues as compared with leaders from the 1960s, anger and humility. West believes that contemporary black political and intellectual leaders are preoccupied with status and money and cannot be courageous voices for the poorest of the poor. He even commends the simple business suits and white shirts worn by Dr. King and Malcolm X as uniforms of humility in contrast to the 'peacock-like' flamboyant dress of many contemporary leaders who want to be seen and celebrated.

I agree with West and think that the challenge may be deeper than the self-presentation and virtues of leaders. The very idea of "black community" has eroded so profoundly that we now need leaders who can help to restore, even redefine, what membership in that community means. And, beyond defining membership, we need leaders who are gifted in the art of reconciliation. I say this because the communities in which black people live are so fragmented and polarized that we need leaders who can mend broken relationships, broken covenants, and broken trust. Reconciliation is the ability to achieve right relationships between parties that have been in tension or open conflict.

We heard and saw many of these voices of black tension during Mrs. King's funeral. There were representatives of tension between young people and the "old school", between the haves and have-nots, between the religious and nonreligious, between straight and gay folk, and between those who want to change the world by converting individual souls and those who want to change social institutions, systems, and policies.

Ironically, on the day of the funeral a conference of preachers and laity focused on keeping alive King's tradition of social justice gathered in Jacksonville. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference is led by Rev. Cynthia Hale (Atlanta), Rev. Freddie Haynes (Dallas), Dr. Jeremiah Wright (Chicago) and Dr. Iva Carruthers (Chicago). Over 700 leaders gathered there to pay tribute to Mrs. King and Dr. William Augustus Jones, and to honor luminaries such as Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney (Seattle), Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith (Oakland), Dr. Jacquelyn Grant (Atlanta), and Rev. Willie Barrow (Chicago). Speakers such as Dr. Otis Moss Jr. and Rev. Calvin Butts urged the black church to stay true to its calling to stand with the least, the last, and the lost.

The challenges that face us as a people are numerous but, we are capable of meeting every one of them. If we will rededicate ourselves to the disciplines and cooperative practices that led to the formation of the National Baptist Convention and other great black church families, we can overcome these obstacles.

Although some of the messages surrounding Mrs. King's funeral were unsettling, they should not obscure the depth of our appreciation for the life she lived and the extraordinary example of dignity, service, and courage that she has bequeathed to all of us.