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Thousands Remember Coretta Scott King

Music and applause filled the Georgia church where mourners including four U.S. presidents paid tribute to Coretta Scott King at her funeral Tuesday. Hymns of glory were sung and words of admiration uttered to celebrate the life of a founding mother of the equal rights movement.

The woman known as the "first lady of the civil rights movement" and the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. carried on his legacy for the nearly four decades after his 1968 assassination.

"We are better because she was here," said Bishop Eddie L. Long, leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia in his opening call to worship. Because of King and her late husband, he said, "we are all in a better place, doing greater things. Doors have been opened."

King, who worked hard to realize her husband's dream of racial equality, died Jan. 30 at the age of 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.

President Bush ordered flags flown at half-staff Tuesday outside the Capitol and around the country in King's honor.

Bush, three former presidents, at least 14 senators and several members of the House were among the estimated 10,000 people who attended the funeral.

The crowd stood as King's four children walked into the church with Bush and former presidents Clinton, Bush and Carter. All were among the more than three dozen speakers, along with poet Maya Angelou, at the funeral. Stevie Wonder and Michael Bolton performed.

Among the civil rights veterans at the funeral were Dorothy Height, longtime chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women; Rep. John Lewis, former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who led the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Ala.; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

The Kings' daughter and youngest child, Bernice — a minister at the New Birth Missionary megachurch — delivered the eulogy. She was 5 when her father was assassinated and is perhaps best remembered for the photographs of her lying in her black-veiled mother's lap during her father's funeral.

Her remarks that were part fiery sermon and part eulogy. She yelled at times as she preached against violence and materialism, saying that her mother's purpose in life was to spread her father's message of peace and unconditional love.

"Thank you, mother, for your incredible example of Christ-like love and obedience," she said.

President Bush described Coretta Scott King as "one of the most admired Americans of our time."

"I've come today to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole," Bush told the congregation. "She is rightly mourned. She is deeply missed."

He documented her husband's life and untimely death and then her own plight and subsequent accomplishments as a young widow.

"Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband's legacy, she built her own. Having loved a leader, she became a leader, and when she spoke, Americans listened closely," he said.

Long recalled a time when he asked King how she handled all the pressure associated with being a mother and the wife of such a powerful, influential man.

"She said, 'I understood when I married Martin that I did not just marry a man. I married a vision. I married a destiny,'" he remembered her replying.

"The dream is still alive," Long said, referring to Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. "This is a celebration."

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said Coretta King spoke out, not just against racism, but against "the senselessness of war and the solutions for poverty."

"She sang for liberation, she sang for those who had no earthly reason to sing a song," with a voice that was heard "from the tintop roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad," Franklin said.

"The last stanza and highest note of Coretta King's freedom song remains to be sung. She's gathered us here today from all walks of life and all persuasions to lift our voices in a song of freedom, equality, social and economic justice, not just for our own sake but for the sake of the children the world over."

Former presidents Bush and Clinton each received enthusiastic standing ovations, with cheers and, at times, laughter echoing through the church when they spoke.

"She endured the saddest of human tragedies with the greatest of grace," Bush Sr. said, adding that the Kings' "unyielding force changed the course of the nation."

Clinton, who stood with his wife Sen. Hillary Clinton, asked the crowd to remember that King wasn't just an icon; she was a human being.

"I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there," he said, pointing to her casket, "not a symbol but a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt. ... We're here to honor a person."

Clinton brought the focus back to the Kings' grieving children, because they not only bear the burden of coping with their mother's death but of continuing their parents' legacy and work, he said. He asked mourners to pray for them.

Sen. Clinton said the responsibility to "take up her burden" belongs to all of us.

"We'll have to split it up because it was a heavy burden to bear," she said. But together we can, she added, because "we know the work of peace never ends."

Sen. Edward Kennedy told the crowd that Coretta Scott King was the impetus behind designating a national holiday to honor her late husband.

"Only three Americans have been given that honor: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.," he said as attendees broke into applause and jumped to their feet. "And Coretta made it happen."

He described her as "the wind at our backs" for decades as the nation struggled to uphold civil rights laws.

The day was not without politically charged references, most notably by former President Jimmy Carter — who has been a staunch critic of Bush administration policies.

Carter invoked the issue of the current wiretapping probe involving Bush by remembering that for the Kings "it was difficult for them then personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps." Later, he said that Hurricane Katrina showed all are not yet equal in America, and made a veiled reference to the war in Iraq and the existing government's international strategies.

"We do not have a monopoly on the hunger for democracy and freedom," Carter told the congregation. "[The Kings] overcame one of the greatest challenges of life, to wage a fierce struggle for freedom and justice and to do it peacefully."

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., spoke directly to the current administration's foreign and domestic policies.

"Our marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise ... but in the morning will words become deeds that meet need?" Lowery asked.

"For war, billions more, but no more for the poor," he said, in a take-off of a lyric from Stevie Wonder's song "A Time to Love," which drew a roaring standing ovation. The comments drew head shakes from President Bush and his father as they sat behind the pulpit.

Angelou spoke of King as a sister with whom she shared her pain and laughter.

"Those of us who have gathered here ... we owe something from this minute on, so this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history," Angelou said.

"I mean to say I want to see a better world. I mean to say I want to see some peace somewhere," she said to thundering applause.

The lavish service, which began just after noon EST and didn't end until after 6 p.m., stood in sharp contrast to the 1968 funeral for King's husband.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did not attend those services, which were held in the much smaller and older Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, where King had preached. The suburban Atlanta county where his widow was honored Tuesday was once a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan but today has one of the most affluent black populations in the country.

Earlier in the day, thousands waited in line Tuesday morning for a chance to say goodbye to King at a final viewing before the funeral. Crowds began gathering as early as 3 a.m. to view King's body. An estimated 8,000 mourners shuffled by the casket before the Secret Service ended the viewing to allow the room to be searched.

"There's one word to describe going to go see Coretta — historic. It's good to finally see her at peace," said Robert Jackson, a 34-year-old financial consultant from Atlanta whose 10-year-old daughter, Ebony, persuaded him to take her to the church Tuesday.

More than 160,000 mourners have waited in long lines at public viewings to file past her casket and pay their respects since King's body was returned to Georgia.

Viewings were at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her husband preached in the 1960s, on Monday; at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday morning; and during the weekend at the Georgia Capitol, where King became the first woman and the first black person to lie in honor there.

"I'm here to pay my respects for a woman who has gotten me to the place I am today," said Theresa Wade, of Mapleton, waiting outside the church Tuesday. "I believe everyone should pay tribute because the King family has done so much for us."

The funeral followed the previous day's of tributes at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Gladys Knight performed and television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, former Atlanta mayor and King lieutenant Andrew Young and others shared their memories.

"For me, she embodied royalty. She was the queen. ... You knew she was a force," Winfrey told an audience of 1,700 at the musical celebration in King's honor.

Winfrey laughed as she told how she once persuaded King to get a new hairdo on her TV show. And she became emotional when she told how King, in the week before her death, sent her a handmade quilt that her husband's mother had passed down.

"She leaves us all a better America than the America of her childhood," Winfrey said.

At a service Monday night, the Revs. Jackson and Al Sharpton galvanized the crowd with fiery speeches that blasted the government and public figures for trying to make the King legacy their own while doing nothing for world peace or poor black Americans.

After the funeral, King's body was taken to a crypt near her husband's tomb at the King Center, which she built to promote his memory.

Between the tombs is the eternal flame placed there years ago in Martin Luther King Jr.'s honor. On the crypt, inscribed in black, is the Bible passage First Corinthians 13:13, which reads: "And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, These Three; but the greatest of these is Love."

FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.