I gave him another embrace. It pleased me greatly to hear someone I admired and knew Percy say what I always felt and believed about Percy's feelings toward me. Now it was confirmed.
Dr. Roscoe Brown—one of the Black Eagles, Tuskegee Airmen, the African American fighter pilots famous for their exploits during World War II— moved towards the coffin slower than most of the mourners. Roscoe owned the distinction of being the first pilot to shoot down a German jet. We discussed the New York Yankee Council, a group that he, Judge Laura Blackburn, and I, with the New York Yankee President George Steinbrenner formed. It came as a result of derogatory remarks made by one of the executives of that New York baseball franchise. We sought and received a meeting with Mr. Steinbrenner and encouraged him to become more responsive to the black community in general and the Bronx in particular. Out of this meeting was born the New York Yankee Council funded by Mr. Steinbrenner. Roscoe who was also president of Bronx Community College became president of the Council following the presidency of Bob Williams. I asked him about the next meeting. I said, "Now that the Yankees have won the World Series, they ought to make available more funds." He replied, "The meeting will take place."
I always liked Dr. Brown. His support was always consistent even on the most controversial issues. One of my touching recollections of Dr. Brown happened over thirty years ago. I was becoming a vegetarian, and my body reflected the change. My face had begun to look gaunt and sallow. I had all the appearance of a very sick man. Roscoe gingerly came to me, choosing his words very carefully, and said, "We have been observing you, and you're not looking well. I have been delegated to approach you and ask you how you are doing, and if there is anything we can do for you." I was so moved. I said, "I love you very much. I appreciate your concern, but I am becoming a vegetarian, thus I am going through changes. But I will be all right shortly." Dr. Brown smiled. A conspicuous relief enveloped him.
More Memories and Reflections
When I looked up, New York Governor David Paterson and Rev. Al Sharpton were heading towards the coffin. I approached the governor with a hello and an embrace. I said to him, "How are you doing, man? I want you to know that we are praying for you all the time." He smiled and said, "Hi Reverend, you have a birthday coming up soon?" I responded, "Man! How do you remember that? All of the stuff on your head, how do you remember my birthday?" I asked rhetorically. Then I recall at the Democratic Convention in 2009, he remembered my daughter Leah's birthday and sent her flowers. I was startled then and even more so now. I wanted to ask him how he planned to participate in the funeral and be in Albany by 1 p.m. for the Annual State of the State Address. I later turned on the television, and there he was sternly announcing a new day in Albany in which ethics would be high on the agenda.
Charlie Rangel stood long at the coffin. He seemed more devastated than all the rest. As he passed me, I hesitated to disturb his thoughts. He looked up and said, "Hi, Reverend" shaking his head, "How's the family? How are you doing?" I responded, "I'm doing well under the circumstances. These are challenging times." He nodded his head and moved away. I always liked Charlie Rangel. To me, he has always been a gentleman in the best sense of that word, and the consummate elected official.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with his daughter, Santita, seemed to appear out of nowhere. That's probably the way Jesse wanted it. As always, his head seemed to be above the crowd. He seemed to be all-surveying and all-knowing. Without fanfare, we greeted each other. I think we have a mutual admiration society. No matter how long the distance since our communication we always knew our affection for each other was intact.
“How are you doing? How's the family?” I asked.
“Everybody's fine. How is yours?” he responded.
“Everybody's okay,” I said.
As he walked away, I thought to myself he will always be my hero. I will always be grateful for the years that we spent struggling and traveling together. I learned so much from him. I remembered when he did the eulogy for Jackie Robinson in this same church in 1972. I could still hear the smooth, melodious voice of Roberta Flack singing, "I told Jesus he could change my name…"
There was an incident in the 1984 presidential campaign that came to mind. Jesse or his staff had made some moves that deeply disturbed me. After a long day of campaigning, I cornered him in his hotel room. In the strongest language, I could command, I criticized him. He was so hurt and startled that he called Percy that same night. The next day, Percy called me and said, “Jesse called me last night or early this morning. What did you say to him? He said you accused him of giving away our campaign. You need to go back and talk to him. He's under a lot of pressure. He needs us.” I humbly responded, “Yes, Mr. Chairman. I will call him immediately.” Which I did. The Chairman had spoken. Who could do otherwise?
As Jesse moved further down the aisle, I looked back at Percy and smiled, and said to myself, "Yes, Mr. Chairman."
Hazel Dukes, a National Board member of the NAACP and a veteran activist, was an early arrival. We waved at each other, seeming to share the sorrow of a mutual loss. I wondered how many times we have been sharing the pain of tragedy, death, and violence. So many, many funerals we have attended. So many, many times we have been on the frontlines of so many, many battles.
I waved at John Edmonds across the aisle. He was a member of the conglomerate that participated with Sutton in various enterprises. He is a big man with a big round face, all of which seemed to heighten and enlarge his sorrow. He radiated a pain that was huge. We exchanged no words. We simply nodded. We knew what each felt.
Eric Eve was there. After embracing, we discussed his new job as New York City Deputy Comptroller. He had been a vice president of Citibank. Eric was a little boy running around the house with his brother and sister when I first saw him. I had organized a couple of buses filled to capacity to support his father Arthur Eve in his run for the mayoral seat in Buffalo, New York. I spent the last week of the campaign living with the Eves in their home, daily campaigning with Arthur. I was there the night Arthur celebrated winning the Democratic Primary. Afterwards, we went to a soul food restaurant called Gigi. Eric was always pleasant, and mannerly, and had been very helpful to many community leaders and organizations. He thought that the time had come for him to move on to another job. However, he assured me that all the right people were in the right places.
To be continued…