"Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." This aphorism wasn't the Rev. Martin Luther King's motto, but it might have been. The Rev. King had a dream, but wasn't a dreamer. He was a remarkable orator, but he was not just a talker. He preached nonviolence and respect, but he wasn't passive in the face of injustice.
That is why the right-wing assault on Coretta Scott King's memorial service is so misplaced. The right-wing choir is in high voice denouncing former President Jimmy Carter and former SCLC President the Rev. Joseph Lowery for bringing politics into a funeral and for using the platform to criticize President George Bush's policies implicitly but clearly.
Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin called their remarks "ungodly." "Inappropriate" and designed to "embarrass the president," said TV host Sean Hannity. Rush Limbaugh even had the nerve to suggest that he knew Coretta and the Rev. King would be angry at the statements. How dare anyone say something that would discomfit the president of the United States, who had placed himself in the pulpit for maximum camera time?
The Rev. Lowery said, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there [in Iraq] ... But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right here... . Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more — but no more for the poor…."
President Jimmy Carter evoked the pain suffered by the Rev. King from the illegal surveillance and wiretaps of the FBI. (Few remember that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who loathed King and targeted civil rights activists, protecting those who were brutalizing them, used illegal surveillance to try to pressure King into suicide.)
Memorial services are meant to pay tribute to the lives and the struggles of the deceased. The Rev. Lowery and President Carter's words paid direct tribute to the Rev. King and Coretta Scott King. Their willingness to afflict the comfortable was faithful to the teachings of the heroine they mourned. It was the Rev. King who taught us to use every occasion to challenge those who supported injustice with their action or their inaction.
For example, two weeks after his famous speech at the March on Washington in August 1963, the Rev. King delivered the eulogy at the funeral for four little girls killed when their Birmingham, Ala. church was firebombed. Their loss weighed heavily on the Rev. King, Coretta and civil rights activists. They realized that they were putting their lives on the line and that they were challenging others to do the same. It was a lot easier to talk big than to actually engage in nonviolent protest. And when the church was bombed and the little innocents murdered, their grief was profound.
the Rev. King felt that agony personally. He bore the responsibility. At the funeral service, he paid memorable tribute to those innocent spirits. He comforted their grieving families. But he also invoked the slain children to challenge the powerful and the contented:
"They are ... martyred heroines ... they have something to say to every minister of the Gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows ....
"... They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism ....
"… They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans ....
"... They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice."
In discomfiting President Bush and the powerful in the congregation, President Carter and the Rev. Lowery were in fact paying tribute to the remarkable example set by Coretta Scott King and her beloved Martin.
President Bush chose to come to the funeral, but he stands on the other side of history from the Rev. King and Coretta. Coretta King opposed the war in Iraq, and decried the immoral priorities of this Bush administration.
President Bush went directly from the memorial service to release a federal budget that mocked the memory of the Rev. King and Coretta. Over $500 billion for the Pentagon, including another $100 billion for Iraq, more tax cuts for millionaires, while cutting children from Head Start, raising health care costs on the poor and the elderly, cutting back on home heating and raising the cost of student loans. No one could pay honest tribute to Coretta Scott King without challenging this president.
The fiercely organized right wing in America now wants to transform The Rev. King and Coretta from freedom fighters into trophies. They see the human family through a keyhole, not through an open door. They use religion to justify tax cuts to the very wealthy, and job cuts and benefit cuts for the working poor.
The basic message of Jesus and the Rev. King was amplified by the views expressed by the Rev. Lowery and President Carter. Jesus' mission was to heal the brokenhearted, defend the poor, deliver the needy and set the captives free.
It is because of these views that the Kings were hounded by our government. It is because of these views the Kings sought to include all in the bountiful fruits of life and leave no one behind. They were the countercultural architects that designed the new America — the one-big-tent America — hounded in life and now exalted in death.
There are those that want to separate an airbrushed version of these giants from the civil rights activists on whose shoulders they stood. They want to erase the reality that the president was and is on the wrong side of the human rights and justice struggle in America that the Kings led.
The president has a right to be on that side of history. What he does not have a right to pretend to support the civil rights and human rights struggle that others lived. The Rev. Lowery and President Carter ensured that the funeral service broke through that lie.
The Rev. Lowery and President Carter brought clarity where there was confusion in an attempt to blur history. No greater tribute could be paid to Coretta Scott King and the Rev. King than to use every exalted mountain and every low valley to put forth principle for the sake of justice.
Coretta Scott King's life exemplified the scripture in Micah that reads, "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before thy God."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.