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Whitewashing a Legacy

February 11, 2006
By Joseph Hughes

America celebrated the legacy of Coretta Scott King Tuesday. More than 10,000 people - including four presidents - gathered at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta to honor King, her work and her memory. The six-hour ceremony was filled with laughter, tears, appreciation and inspiration, truly paying tribute to a woman of King's stature.

Presidents, luminaries and civil rights leaders alike remembered King's steadfast, purposeful activism, highlighting a life spent working for change. So it shouldn't surprise you when those long opposed to everything King stood for disrespected this great woman on her day and at a time when her and her husband's lessons are needed most.

Former President Jimmy Carter drew applause Tuesday when he rightly reminded the audience that "struggle for equal rights is not over." He added, "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." Carter drew further parallels between the past and present when he said, "It was difficult for them personally - with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance, and as you know, harassment from the FBI."

Perhaps the ceremony's most memorable moment came when Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, received a standing ovation when he began a thought by saying, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there." As the raucous applause died down, Lowery continued, "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."

As expected, the right-wing outrage machine quickly swung into motion. On "Hardball," the National Review's Kate O'Beirne said Carter and Lowery were "completely inappropriate," adding, "Liberals don't seem to be able to keep politics away from funerals." Sean Hannity and Michael Reagan lashed out, also comparing Tuesday's proceedings to the Paul Wellstone memorial. Rush Limbaugh called Lowery's standing ovation "a brief Wellstone moment," while the Drudge Report noted that the "King funeral turns political." MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked, "Was this funeral of this great lady really the place go politicking?" One of his guests, fellow MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, called the comments in question "graceless" and "rude as hell." Similarly, Michelle Malkin said, "The Democrats just can't restrain themselves. Absolutely ungodly." Wednesday, a New York Post editorial suggested Carter might be the most shameless president of all time, saying he had "no clue" and "no class."

I'm sorry, but I must have forgotten the fact that funerals are the place to ignore the work of the deceased, not celebrate it. Because, after all, there was nothing purely partisan surrounding President Reagan's funeral. No, that weeklong Republican snuff film you saw had nothing to do with the Gipper - it was merely a coincidence. And those political attacks Bush made last Veterans Day - a day as solemn as Tuesday? Those baseless charges were nothing compared to King's funeral, when the help apparently got a little too uppity for the right.

Or was it that Bush was simply unprepared for what he was hearing? He can't speak to the troops without it being scripted, nor can he appear before an audience without it being staged. Perhaps the unvarnished truth was too much for his pretty little ears. Besides, when else was Bush ever going to hear from a predominantly African American audience? It's not like the president has made an effort to reach out to the black community. He's ignored both the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. His administration's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina still burns in African Americans' memory, making his 2 percent approval rate among them less than surprising.

So how dare the Republican Party lecture anyone about race. How dare a party without a single African American member of Congress tell anyone how to remember a hero like King? How dare a party whose Senators couldn't even unanimously apologize for not doing more about lynching criticize trailblazers like Lowery? How dare a party who turned the death of Rosa Parks into a photo opportunity deride Tuesday's services? How dare a party whose pundits speak about reducing crime by aborting black babies dictate how we should honor a leader of the civil rights movement? How dare a party whose vice says "Fuck yourself" to a U.S. Senator preach about proper etiquette?

Tuesday wasn't about a woman who kept quiet. It was about a woman who spoke truth to power. So how better to honor her legacy than by speaking some of that truth at her funeral? Republicans would be better suited listening to the messages offered Tuesday than attacking the messengers. They would also be wise to heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who, when speaking about his own funeral, said, "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness." He didn't want a whitewashing. Neither did his wife. She wasn't a neutral player in this fight. She was a progressive voice for change. It would be foolish to consider her anything but.

Listen, Republicans, don't speak for the King legacy at the same time you actively speak against it. Don't dishonor a movement by protesting the celebration of ideals you've protested for decades. Don't claim a perspective on a constituency you don't represent. Neither Tuesday's honoree nor her husband got along to go along. They fought for equality. They fought for what's right. They fought to build up the very things your party is fighting to tear down. So expecting King's funeral to avoid those pressing issues ignores her life and dismisses the struggle millions of Americans still face.

 
Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at his blog, Hughes for America.

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