Apr 1 2006

Speak Truth to Power

But not when it can hear you


Coretta Scott King's funeral, Georgia state capitol (cc photo: Yvonne Bowens)

Thousands gather to say farewell to Coretta Scott King at the state capitol in Atlanta. (cc photo: Yvonne Bowens)

If you knew Coretta Scott King’s role in the fight for civil rights and social justice, it might not surprise you that some of the speakers at her memorial service—including close friends and allies in those struggles—would talk about politics. But that fact seemed to shock TV pundits and other journalists after the February 7 ceremony.

King often spoke out against the war in Iraq, so civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery’s remarks about the war shouldn’t have been startling: “We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

Nor, for those familiar with the federal government’s treatment of King and her late husband, Martin Luther King Jr., did former President Jimmy Carter’s words come out of the blue: “It was difficult for them then personally, with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps.”

The Los Angeles Times (2/8/06), however, presented such comments as a major news story, writing that the event was “a succession of civil rights and political leaders assailing White House policies.” Lowery and Carter were the only people the paper cited as “assailing” the White House—a succession of two.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz singled out the L.A. Times story as an example of commendable coverage of the funeral: “Too many wrote predictable leads about the Coretta Scott King funeral, all but ignoring, or at least burying, the Bush-bashing that was going on,” Kurtz wrote in his web column (2/9/06), under the headline “King-Sized Mistake,” adding that the L.A. Times “really nailed it.” On his Reliable Sources show on CNN (2/12/06), Kurtz suggested that the remarks at the service were “inflammatory.”

MSNBC host Chris Matthews (2/7/06) characterized Carter’s comments this way: “Jimmy Carter spoke of the Bush administration’s mishaps with Katrina and its program of wiretapping.” But Carter didn’t mention the Bush administration’s wiretapping, and his comments about Katrina had nothing to do with the administration’s reaction: “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, those who were most devastated by Katrina, to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”

The right-wing campaign to reclaim the King legacy as its own (Extra!, 5-6/95) was on full display with MSNBC hosts Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough (2/7/06), who were livid about what they presented as Lowery and Carter’s slap at the Kings’ memory. Carlson said that the Kings thought it was “their job to bring everybody together, and played it down the middle a little bit more,” while Scarborough asserted that “somebody like Coretta Scott King and her husband, they transcend the Iraq war. . . . They transcend NSA wiretapping. They transcend all these little nitpicking issues.” It’s doubtful that either King would describe the violation of Americans’ civil rights or a war that has cost at least tens of thousands of lives as “nitpicking issues.”

“When I die, I don’t want my demise to be used as a political rally,” warned Bill O’Reilly (Fox News, 2/8/06)—just in case anyone might confuse his stature or accomplishments with those of Coretta Scott King.

What seemed to bother the pundits the most was that George W. Bush, who also spoke at the service, was present when Lowery and Carter made their remarks. “Can you not see attacking a president while he and his former president father are there to honor this woman is inappropriate?” exclaimed Fox News’ Sean Hannity (2/7/06). “Do you not see the lack of decency in that?”

“Coretta Scott King never acted the way in front of George Bush that Lowery did today,” Scarborough complained. Carlson framed it as a question of bad taste: “You can also eat with your hands, but you don’t.”

“I think on appropriateness grounds, you probably would be a lot more subtle,” CNN’s Jeff Greenfield said (2/8/06). “If you want to make your political points about the president, there are other venues to do it.”

It was left to a handful of columnists, like the L.A. Times’ Rosa Brooks, to recall the Kings’ actual legacy (2/10/06):

Let’s keep in mind that King did not start out as a sweet, photogenic old lady with bipartisan appeal. . . . When she marched beside her husband through the streets of Montgomery, Ala., King didn’t worry about being “appropriate.” Had she been a little more “appropriate,” she would have stayed “in her place,” content with the back of the bus and the inferior facilities reserved for “colored” people.

Or as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it on Reliable Sources (2/12/06): “What is unusual about political sentiments being expressed at the funeral of a woman who was a political activist through her entire life until the day she died?”