When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Lester Maddox, the governor of Georgia, refused to attend his funeral in Atlanta, branding the civil rights leader “an enemy of the country”.

So it was a sign of how much the US has changed over the past four decades that the funeral of his wife, Coretta Scott King, in the same city was attended on Tuesday not only by the state governor but also by four presidents.

George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were among about 10,000 mourners at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, an arena-style megachurch in suburban Atlanta.

Most of the six-hour ceremony was dedicated to celebration of Mrs King’s life, with President George W. Bush leading the tributes to “a woman who worked to make our nation whole”.

But there was a strong political undercurrent, with several speakers making veiled and in some cases open criticism of the Bush administration from a podium situated just feet from where the president sat.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin recalled how Mrs Scott hadspoken out against “the senselessness of war” with a voice that was heard “from the tin rooftops of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad.”

In an apparent swipe at the domestic eavesdropping programme authorised by Mr Bush as part of the war against terror, Mr Carter recalled how Mrs King and her husband had been the targets of secret government wiretapping.

“It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance,” he said.

Mr Carter also referred to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as evidence that the struggle for civil rights was not complete. “We only have to recall the colour of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans,” he said.

Mr Clinton was joined at the podium by his wife, Hillary. When he said how pleased he was to be in attendance with the current and former presidents a voice in the crowd shouted, “and the future president”, provoking first laughter and then applause.

Rev Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Mr King, drew loud applause from the largely black congregation when he said in verse: “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

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