King died last Monday aged 78 at a clinic in Mexico where she had sought alternative treatment for ovarian cancer. She had also suffered a stroke last August.
King was mourned not only by George Bush but three past presidents – George Bush Sr, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, senators, the writer Maya Angelou and the television host Oprah Winfrey. Dozens of members of Congress attended.
The service also gave testimony to her lifelong love of music. She was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music when she met Martin Luther King Jr and yesterday’s programme included performances from Stevie Wonder, BeBe Winans and Michael Bolton, as well as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
In speech after speech, King was lauded for the quiet courage with which she carried on the legacy of her husband after his assassination in 1968. "Her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation. By going forward with a strong and forgiving heart Coretta Scott King not only secured her husband’s legacy – she built her own," Mr Bush said.
Other speakers lifted her out from the shadow of her husband. "Coretta Scott King really institutionalised so much of what Martin Luther King sought to teach us," said Dorothy Height, a major figure from the earliest days of the civil rights movement, who spoke from a wheelchair. "We should never forget that it was she who took the lead, and really helped us to understand that we have to understand something about non-violence."
There was recognition too that King had remained engaged in politics, and had strong feelings about the Iraq war. "She knew there were no weapons of mass destruction over there," Rev Joseph Lowery, a contemporary of her husband, said with Mr Bush behind him. "But Coretta knew and we knew there were weapons of misdirection right here. Millions without health insurance, poverty abounds."
Senator Edward Kennedy was applauded when he recalled how she campaigned to enshrine her husband’s birthday as a national holiday. "Only three Americans in our history have been given that high honour: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr," he said. "Coretta made it happen." During public viewings at the state capitol and the Ebenezer Baptist church where her husband preached, more than 150,000 mourners filed past her coffin. She will be buried near her husband at the Martin Luther King Centre in Atlanta.