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Carter and Lowery Spoke Truth to Power

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Critics have charged that remarks made at Coretta Scott King’s funeral by former President Jimmy Carter and the Reverend Joseph Lowery were outrageous, inappropriate, and out of line. Were they?

Only four people can truly answer that question. They are Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and the Rev. Bernice King – the four King children. The funeral was their mother’s, and a funeral is first and foremost for the family of the deceased. So theirs is the only opinion that matters.

For now, we are on our own to ponder the questions, “Were Mr. Carter’s and Rev. Lowery’s comments ‘appropriate’? Why or why not?”

In his tribute, President Carter recalled that the Kings’ civil liberties were “violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance, and as you know, harassment from the FBI." He continued, “the struggle for equal rights is not over … 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."

Sitting mere feet away was George W. Bush, gamely taking these verbal eyepokes in the best Stooge tradition from Jimmy Carter’s Moe. OW!

Conservatives were shocked, shocked! and could not wait to say so. The New York Post on Wednesday blared that Carter’s "disgraceful performance yesterday at Coretta Scott King's funeral marks him as the most shameless" president of the 20th century.

National Review’s Kate O’Beirne huffed that Carter’s remarks were “completely inappropriate.” She added the mystifying observation that, “Liberals don't seem to be able to keep politics away from funerals.” Huh?

Another commentator harrumphed that the King wiretaps were carried out during the Johnson administration, when Bobby Kennedy was Attorney General. Touche? Perhaps, but that kind of rejoinder asks us to think back to 1964, when George H. W. Bush was a candidate for the U. S. Senate from Texas, campaigning against the Civil Rights Act.

Yet these contretemps only draw us away from honoring the life and legacy of Mrs. King, and that is inappropriate.

One editorial reported that Mr. Carter “scolded” President Bush. If that’s what it was, then the scolding could not have come from a more credible source. Jimmy Carter speaks not only as a former president but also as one of America’s five living Nobel Peace laureates – an honor he shared with Martin Luther King himself.

Since 1901, 17 people have served as President of the United States and 16 Americans have received the Nobel Prize. Only three have done both: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter’s is the bulliest of pulpits and he should receive great deference and wide latitude to say whatever he believes to be suitable for any occasion.

Personally, I think Mr. Carter’s point might have been made more a little more obliquely, something like, “the Kings’ civil liberties were violated by the unwarranted intrusions of an egomaniacal demagogue.” No, strike that; people may miss the allusion to, uh … J. Edgar Hoover.

How about, “the Kings’ civil liberties were violated by the federal government itself”? That makes the point while keeping the focus on the King family, where it should be.

Reverend Lowery spoke from a different pulpit. He is a co-founder, with Martin Luther King, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as such occupies a moral high ground to which George W. Bush can only pretend. As a minister of the gospel, his job is to move people out of their comfort zones. His opening question did just that: "How marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise, but in the morning, will words become deeds that meet needs?"

Then he read a poem about Mrs. King: "She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew 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."

Was that a political message? Indeed it was; Mrs. King was one of the central political figures of our time. But was the message motivated by a desire to embarrass or chastise the president? I doubt it. Reverend Lowery can and does deliver the same message every day of the week. (Besides, Bush did not decide to attend the funeral until the weekend, by which time Reverend Lowery’s poesy probably was finished.)

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Rick Wise is an industrial psychologist and retired management consultant. For 15 years, he was managing director of ValueNet International, Inc. Before starting ValueNet, Rick was director, corporate training and, later, director, corporate (more...)
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