'Together at last, thank God almighty, together at last!'
It's the 17th anniversary of Coretta Scott King's funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia.
Coretta Scott King died at the age of 78 on 30th of January 2006. She was 78 years old and had dedicated much of her life to building her husband’s legacy. Her funeral was on this day 17 years ago.
I love the eulogy by civil rights legend Reverend Joseph Lowery. It’s rollicking and joyous, starting with a standing ovation and joke — ‘Sit down, before I take up an offering!’ — and then some trademark Lowery rhyming couplets.
I am neither a gambler nor better. But who could have brought this crowd together except Coretta?
Lowery earns another standing ovation for slapping the politicians present and then composes a lovely verse:
What a family reunion!
Rosa and Martin reminiscing.
They'd just begun to talk
when Martin seemed to not to listen
He started to walk
The wind had whispered in his ear,
"I believe somebody is almost here."
"Excuse me, Rosa," Martin said as he did depart.
His soul was on fire, he just couldn't wait.
His spirit leaped with joy as he moved toward the pearly gates.
And after 40 years, almost 40 years, together at last, together at last.
Thank god, almighty, together at last.
Lowery is as comfortable at the microphone as Dr King was, and the congregation is in for the ride. He then embarks on Coretta’s life and achievements, still in loose rhyme:
Didn't she carry her grief with dignity?
Her growing influence with humility?
She secured his seed, nurtured his nobility.
She declared humanity's worth and vented their vision,
his and hers, for peace on all the earth.
She opposed discrimination based on race.
She frowned on homophobia.
And gender bias she rejected on its face.
She summoned the nations to steady war no more.
She embraced the wonders of a human family from shoulder to shoulder.
He then apologises to Maya Angelou for his poetry.
Coretta King’s life achievements was something Dr Clayborne Carson focused on in an episode of the Speakola podcast. It was Coretta Scott King who lobbied for her late husband’s birthday to be a public holiday, and she battled on for years, succeeding with President Reagan, decades after MLK’s death.
She collected his writing and papers and commissioned Dr Carson to embark upon a publishing and scholarship project at the King Center that has consumed much of his working life.
She was remarkable. Two days after Dr King’s assassination, she spoke at at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She said her husband told their children, "If a man had nothing that was worth dying for, then he was not fit to live." She brought up his ideals and the fact that he may be dead, but concluded that "his spirit will never die.
Then, famously, three weeks later, she addressed an anti-Vietnam War rally in Central Park, and issued King’s' ‘10 Commandments on Vietnam’ drawn from ‘notes taken from my husband’s pockets upon his death’.
1. Thou shalt not believe in a military victory.
2. Thou shall not believe in a political victory.
3. Thou shall not believe that they, the Vietnamese love us.
4. Thou shall not believe that the Saigon government has the support of the people.
5. Thou shall not believe that the majority of the South Vietnamese look upon the Vietcong as terrorists.
6. Thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans.
7. Thou shall not believe that the generals know best.
8. Thou shalt not believe that the enemy's victory means communism.
9. Thou shall not believe that the world supports the United States.
10. Thou shall not kill.
These are Martin Luther King's ten commandments on Vietnam.
Dr Carson emphasised on the podcast how underrated he believed Coretta has been as an activist and civil rights leader in her own right. He knew her for more than twenty years, and describes how formidable she was, how strong she was at standing up for her beliefs, whether as a political activist or as a spokesperson for her husband’s legacy.
He also laid out that in the early years of their courtship, Coretta was better connected to the civil rights movement than Martin, who was her junior by two years:
When they met, Coretta had been a delegate to a national progressive party convention. Martin Luther King at that time had never even voted . He wasn’t old enough. So she knew people like Bayard Rustin and Paul Robeson and some of the heroic figures of that era of the late forties and early fifties. Martin Luther King is unfamiliar with these people. When Bayard Rustin comes to Montgomery, she’s the one who introduces him to Martin, because Martin hasn’t heard of him. And he’s the one who goes on to organise the March on Washington.
One of the things I found out is that she has her own FBI file. Quite apart from Martin. Because the FBI was concerned about her peace activities. She was the member of a group called ‘Women’s International Strike for Peace’. So she’s taking stands on the Vietnam War years before Martin does.
So I think that she’s like many women of that era, in that she makes the deal. That the man’s career has priority. That she has to prioritise staying home with the kids. So she becomes for sixteen years, her identity as Mrs King. But before and after that sixteen year stretch, which was a relatively small part of her life, she’s Coretta King, her own woman.
I highly recommend this episode of the podcast. It’s also about ‘I Have a Dream’ and Dr Carson’s personal roadtrip to the March on Washington to hear perhaps the greatest speech of the 20th century.
The podcast will return with a new episode later this week. I’ve interviewed Walkley winning journalist and true crime writer Andrew Rule about the eulogy he delivered for his father, Keith Rule which ran in the The Age in 1998 as ‘Solomon in a singlet’. It’s one of the loveliest eulogies I’ve ever read, and Andrew is doing an audio read for me now. Hopefully, up by Friday. Subscribe now and it will drop into your feed.
Thanks to everyone who has either joined the patreon or become a paid subscriber here on the newsletter. These pieces take time. So does finding guests and recording and editing the podcast. If you can help this become a job and not a hobby, I can keep finding speeches, great and small.
Speakola newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thanks to recent paid subscribers ⭐ Rob Clancy ⭐lsheean ⭐Maria Rerakis ⭐Teri Bellamy ⭐