Two of my partner Bert’s nephews, Jonathan and Patrick, brothers, returned safely this week from Iraq. Jonathan entered the service first, pre-9/11, and some years ago, Bert and I spent a Christmas with Suzie’s family, when he was home on leave after basic training. As Jonathan regaled us all with stories of Army life down in Texas, he began to describe the cadence that his drill sergeant used to motivate the new recruits while marching or running them. Having read of the complaints made privately by Barry Winchell, the Army Pfc. murdered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, about his drill sergeant’s rhymes, I was braced for what would come next in Jonathan’s story.
But suddenly, his dad cut him off. I instinctively knew that he was trying to spare us all the embarrassment of a story about Army homophobia, out of laudable respect for the feelings of Bert and me. Yet I was silently angry. I wanted Jonathan to finish his story, even if it troubled our Christmas because I felt that it was important for everyone present to confront the hurdles still faced by the son, the brother, and the uncle they all loved, Bert.
I recalled that incident this morning when I heard of the outcry coming from the right wing over what they charged was the inappropriate politicization of the Coretta Scott King funeral. With President George W. Bush sitting center stage, former President Jimmy Carter spoke of the Katrina disaster and reminded everyone of the color of the faces of those stranded in despair. Speaking of King and her late husband Martin, he noted that life was made “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 Reverend Joseph Lowery, who worked with Martin Luther King in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, talked about Mrs. King’s opposition to “the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar” and then said, “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. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor!”
Even before the funeral service ended, the right had erupted with e-mail blasts, Web postings, and Rush Limbaugh on the radio waves denouncing the words coming out of Atlanta. Critics jumped on the mention of wiretapping at a funeral as the country engages a heated political battle over its use by the current president. Yet they also hastened to remind everyone that the spying on the Kings was authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whose last surviving brother Ted was warmly received at the King service.
David Horowitz’s FrontPageMagazine.com posted a particularly ugly article by Ben Johnson that opened by urging Laura Ingraham, author of an attack book on Hollywood and the United Nations titled “Shut Up and Sing” to consider a sequel, “Shut Up and Mourn.”
Even on CNN, morning host Miles O’Brien and resident political wise man Jeff Greenfield glided inexorably into agreement that political talk at a funeral is not “appropriate.”
An implicit, even if unintentional, subtext of all of this is that if there is to be politics in Southern churches, it should be confined to the white ones. Former President Bill Clinton, in his turn at the microphone yesterday, said, “I don’t want us to forget that there’s a woman in there. Not a symbol, a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments.”
Indeed. In the years since her husband’s death, Coretta Scott King not only worked tirelessly to keep his legacy alive, she was also an outspoken activist against poverty, hunger, and war worldwide and on behalf of human rights, including for the past two decades the dignity of LGBT people.
Mrs. King’s advocacy of gay rights drew some critics and even more head shaking, but that response was not so different than the opposition her late husband garnered when he began to speak out against the war in Vietnam and on questions of economic justice. The spring he died, King was planning a massive Poor People’s Campaign that would converge on Washington in June and bring together whites, blacks, Chicano migrant workers, and Puerto Ricans from New York. He was in Memphis that fateful April not to push for open housing legislation, but rather to stand beside striking sanitation workers.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King understood that politics was critical to the salvation of their race and the advancement of human rights. Mrs. King’s work is now complete. I don’t know where people go when they die, but she is surely now reunited with Martin. As she rests in peace, the struggle is left to those of us still here.