Historic events have a way of burning off the mists. Coretta Scott King’s Feb. 7 funeral surfaced age-old political rip tides. The Republican establishment ignored Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. This time around, they tried to make political amends by showing up at his wife’s ceremony.
They brought along their characteristic hypocrisy. In his tribute, George H.W. Bush waxed, “I respected Coretta, like her husband, because they rejected race-baiting by those who opposed, as well as those who supported, the civil rights movement.” Some chutzpah from the man who made Willie Horton a household name.
A chorus of right wingers has since railed at the “politicization” of Mrs. King’s last rites. “Political grandstanding at a funeral erodes the dignity of the occasion,” sniffed Fox-TV talk king Bill O’Reilly. Those, however, who carp about the political hijacking of King’s homecoming should rewind to the 2004 canonization – er, funeral – of Ronald Reagan. The political pageantry of that event left Democrats gasping for oxygen.
Listen up, girls and boys: The civil rights movement boasts a long and esteemed history of using assassinations, murders and funerals toward political ends. Mrs. King was a singularly fervent anti-war crusader who abhorred W’s war.
The funeral also showed that the South can rise again. The civil rights movement of the ’60s was born in the South, and dominated by southerners like the Kings, but 50 years later its best-known stalwarts are based in the North. Today’s posse is led by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Rev. Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan and Sen. Barack Obama.
It was no accident at this Georgia funeral that among three dozen speakers, not one was a black civil rights activist from the upside of the Mason-Dixon line.
Rarely at a major civil rights event does one find Jesse Jackson, Sr. sitting on his hands in the front row. Movement insiders know that bad blood has long boiled between Jackson and the Kings. Yet even the veterans were agape when “Rev” was muzzled at the funeral.
Another northerner, entertainer Harry Belafonte, wasn’t even at the service. He was close to the Kings, and was at Coretta’s side at her husband’s funeral. King watchers opine that Belafonte was “disinvited” from her ceremony for fear that he would antagonize President George W. Bush, a charge the family denies. Belafonte had delivered a scorching critique of the Bush presidency days before the funeral, calling Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”
This North/South leadership divide remains both a source of tension and weakness. African Americans need to get it together. After all, what kind of black leadership allows a white man to scold the African-American elite about its obligation to black history? When former President Bill Clinton took his turn at the funeral daïs, he was greeted with roaring applause from the audience, then proceeded to admonish the crowd: “What’s your responsibility for the future of the King Center?” Clinton noted, and rightly so, that “there’s more rich black folks in this county than anyone in America except Montgomery County, Maryland.”
It’s about more than money. The recent deaths of Mrs. King, Ossie Davis, Constance Baker Motley, C. Delores Tucker and Rosa Parks have left a yawning void. A new poll from the Associated Press and AOL Black Voices asked African Americans to name the nation’s “most important black leader.” Jackson led the field with 15 percent of those surveyed, followed by Republicans Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Only 18 percent of those polled said that African-American leaders were doing a “very effective job.”
Most intriguing, however, was the silence. About one-third of respondents declined to offer up a name.
The mists may have cleared, but a gloomy picture emerges. Black political leadership is faltering.