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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Harlem's State Funeral

Riverside Church, during the funeral for Ossie Davis

Thousands Bid Farewell to Ossie Davis

Published: February 13, 2005

The actor Ossie Davis was remembered yesterday with rousing eulogies by Harry Belafonte and Bill Clinton and a musical tribute by Wynton Marsalis in a service that lasted almost four hours and was described by several speakers as a state funeral for black America.

The prominent speakers also included Maya Angelou, Burt Reynolds and Alan Alda, who all hailed Mr. Davis for devoting his life to civil rights, and using his considerable talent to that end.

Thousands of mourners packed Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, to pay respects to Mr. Davis, who died on Feb. 4 at the age of 87.

Mr. Clinton arrived about midway through the service and was seated in the front.

"I asked to sit in the back," he said. "I would proudly ride on the back of Ossie Davis's bus any day."

The crowd applauded wildly and did so again when he said of Mr. Davis, "He would have been a very good president of the United States."

Ms. Angelou compared Mr. Davis's death to a great tree falling and all of nature recoiling. She said that when Mr. Davis died, "the heaviest door in the universe slammed shut, and there are no knobs."

Mr. Alda said Mr. Davis taught him how to eat sweet potato pie.

"Ossie was my hero, and he still is," he said. "He spoke of black princes; he was one."

Mr. Reynolds said he came from the same part of Georgia as Mr. Davis. "He took a bad part of the South out of me," he said. "My heroes were a lot of John Waynes. I know what a man is because of Ossie."

Mr. Belafonte recalled Mr. Davis, attributing his drive to succeed to one motivating moment in his youth when the Ku Klux Klan threatened to "shoot down his father like a dog."

So for Mr. Davis, he added, "the performing arts became his rebellion to tyranny."

This was the biggest funeral Harlem has seen in decades. How big?

Well, the viewing was held at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the funeral, all of which ran live on NY 1, over three hours, was held at Riverside Chruch. Now, if you don't know Harlem or New York, mayors have been buried with less ceremony and a lot fewer kind words. The memorial was held at the Schomburg library and was so packed that they had to turn people away and that was invite only.

I've never heard of someone being viewed at Abyssinian and then having the funeral at Riverside. For one thing, the two churches are very different places. Abyssinian is old school Harlem, the political heart of black New York, until Al Sharpton rose from Brooklyn and moved across the river. Riverside, who was run by William Sloane Coffin for decades, and is now run by James Forbes. But the church was more associated with the liberal Upper West Side and had an integrated congregation than Harlem. But it is also a very politically active, liberal church and very large, one of the largest in the city. Which given the turnout, was neccessary. It is very hard to pack Riverside. It was packed today.

It's rare for the funeral of a private citizen to be aired live on cable news. When I talked to my father around 2PM, he was surprised it was still on. When I talked to my mother an hour later, it was still on. It ended around 3:30 and was rebroadcast.

But everything about this funeral was special. There were a ton of celebrities, who dropped what they were doing to come to pay respects, amazing stories and recollections of kindnesses long past.

But it should be remembered, when Malcolm X was left unburied and his family in penury, Ossie Davis stepped in. Not just to bury him, but to support his family afterwards. One of Malcolm's daughters spoke lovingly of her "uncle" today.

I don't know if I would call it a state funeral, because the emotion and respect were not pro-forma, but geniune and heartfelt. But it was touching to see how many people he affected, both as an actor and activist. I wasn't surprised to see it on TV, but I was surprised to see it live for hours.

It was, of course, a fitting tribute, but a surprise all the same.

posted by Steve @ 3:17:00 AM

3:17:00 AM

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