Homegoing: A Time to Mourn (Grief During the Rise of the Civil Rights Movement)
Featuring excerpts from To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death by Suzanne E. Smith
"Perhaps the most profound lesson to take away from the history of African American funeral directing is that almost anything can happen at a black funeral home. From the earliest slave funerals in the New World and into the antebellum period, the hush harbors served as the first "funeral home" for African Americans. In these wooded, secluded spots, usually under the cover of night, African Americans not only buried their dead with dignity but sometimes conspired to resist their enslavement. By the end of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth century, the hush harbors were replaced by actual funeral parlors, which signaled the rise of the modern funeral industry."
Death was never simply the end of life and funerals were never simply occasions to mourn.
"Often African American funeral home directors would have to figure out how much restoration they were going to do. In the case of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi on August 28th, 1955, his mother wanted the world to see what they had done to her son. They dragged him out of the Tallahatchie River and the sheriff said to the black undertaker, Chester Miller, "Bury him immediately." Then the family showed up and stopped the burial. Funeral directors were right in the thick as to how he was going to be presented to the world."
American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till
Mamie Till Bradley not only opened her son's casket but allowed Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender to publish graphic images of Till's disfigured body, "so the world could see what they did to my boy."
This development occurred parallel to the rise of Jim Crow segregation, and African American funeral directors were quick to use their funeral homes in imaginative ways.
"Some offered them as elegant social gathering places to lessen the stinging indignities of Jim Crow laws that denied their communities access to white establishments. By the Prohibition era, others used their funeral homes as fronts for illegal gambling houses or speakeasies and then funneled the proceeds into their communities or used them to build political power.
By the 1950s and early 1960s, black funeral directors used their funeral establishments and hearses to hide and protect activists under attack and facilitate community movements from behind the scenes. Most poignantly, they directed the funerals of the martyrs of the movement, events that often became a form of protest in their own right and, in some instances, the site of violent conflict."
On June 12th, 1963 Medgar Evers returned home following a meeting. He was shot and killed by Byron De La Beckwith as he stepped out of his car in the driveway of his home.
On Saturday, June 15, national civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins-along with approximately five thousand local mourners-attended the funeral, which was held at the Masonic Temple in Jackson, Mississippi. Clarie Collins Harvey directed the funeral.
"After the service, all those in attendance joined in a march behind the Evers funeral cortege, which traveled twenty blocks from the Masonic Temple back to the Frazier and Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street. While many walked in silent grief, others marched with defiance and shouts of "After Medgar, No More Fear!" as others joined in with choruses of "We Shall Overcome.""
At 10:22 A.M. on Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
"The horror of the attack that ended the lives of four innocent girls reverberated with the outrage black Americans had felt when Emmett Till was murdered just eight years before. Yet stark differences marked the two tragedies and represented the evolution of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1963. In the Emmett Till case, Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open casket, and her courage had energized the struggle. As Birmingham prepared to bury Robertson, McNair, Collins, and Wesley, a different, more internal despair became evident. One news story on the bombing included the headline, "No One Can View Cynthia" -a dramatic counterpoint to Till Bradley's wish for the very public exposure of her son's body."
"The report noted that Cynthia Wesley's "head was blown off by the bomb blast." [Yet a] Birmingham black undertaker performed such an "embalming miracle" on her that he has joined with others here in urging that the public be allowed to view the body. Cynthia's father, however, said "no." Claude Wesley's refusal to open his daughter's casket to the public reflected a deeper shift in the psyche of the national civil rights campaign. The price of the "non-violent" struggle was getting too high and the deaths (and closed caskets) of Wesley, McNair, Collins, and Robertson symbolized that cost as nothing else could have."
"The events of 1963 are still vivid in Fate Morris' memory. "Hosed down with a big, powerful water hose, chased by the dogs down there," Morris said. Fate and his sister, Cynthia, were raised by a single mother. In order to enter a better school, Cynthia stayed with Claude and Gertrude Wesley - who were unable to have children. She came home on weekends. September 15, 1963 left the Morris' with a pain that hasn't faded.
"And then I heard - 'I've got another body over here but she has no head.' But I went home," Morris said. "My friend came by later on and said, 'what happened? You should have stayed. The girl they found with no head - that was your sister. But I didn't stay - I left her buried under all of those bricks." "I first heard on TV they were calling her Cynthia Wesley," Morris said. "I asked my mother, does that bother you? And she said, yeah of course that bothers me."
The Wesley's told Ms. Morris they would send a car to pick them up for the funeral. The car, never came."We waited a long time and we ended up taking a cab to the funeral," Morris said.
Three civil rights workers in Mississippi were reported missing on June 21, 1964.
"James Chaney, a black activist from Meridian, Mississippi; Mickey Schwerner, a white field organizer from the Congress of Racial Equality; and Andrew Goodman, a white volunteer from Queens College in New York, were participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi.
On August 4, the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were finally located and exhumed. Autopsies revealed that Goodman and Schwerner had each been shot once in the head, and that James Chaney had been shot three times, in the head and the chest. As soon as the autopsies were completed, the victims' families proceeded with funeral arrangements that quickly became mired in the racial politics of the moment."
"While Andrew Goodman's family requested that his remains be transported back to New York, Rita Schwerner, the widow of Mickey Schwerner, requested that her husband be buried next to James Chaney, his friend in the struggle, at the black cemetery in Meridian. Her request was denied, however, when James E. Bishop, the black funeral director handling Chaney's remains, refused to accept Schwerner's body. Bishop, who owned Enterprise Funeral Home in Meridian, told the Schwerners that "he feared Mississippi authorities would revoke his license-or worse-if he did."
Then Rita Schwerner contacted several white undertakers to request that they transport Schwerner's remains to the black cemetery, but all of them refused. In the end, the Schwerner family arranged to have Mickey's remains cremated and transported back to New York.The Schwerners' thwarted effort to integrate one Mississippi cemetery revealed that the history of racial segregation even in death, was fully entrenched on both sides of the racial divide.
On August James Chaney was buried alone-only the second person to be buried on the grounds of the newly opened Memorial Park cemetery atop Mount Barton, located a few miles outside side of Meridian. The short, private burial was witnessed by approximately fifteen family members and close friends."
"Later that evening, hundreds of local blacks and a smaller number of white activists marched through Meridian to gather for a public memorial service for Chaney at Meridian's First Union Missionary Church. Unlike the quiet dignity of Chaney's official burial, the memorial service and the march that preceded it were charged with racial tension and dramatic confrontations."
On Sunday, February 21, 1965, just over two weeks after his appearance in Selma, Malcolm X was assassinated at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.
"On Monday, February 22, 1965, Malcolm X's wife, Betty Shabazz, met with Joseph E. Hall, general manager of Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, to make funeral arrangements that combined African American traditions with Muslim burial rituals. With Hall's guidance, Shabazz selected "a six foot nine inch bronze casket lined with egg-shell velvet" and decided to postpone the funeral service until Saturday.
Shabazz's decision to delay the burial conflicted with Muslim beliefs about death, which held that "the sun should not set twice on a believer's body." Shabazz felt strongly, however, that the delay was necessary to enable all those who wanted to attend the service sufficient travel time-a common courtesy in African American funeral practices. Hall also worked with Shabazz to plan how Malcolm X's remains would be presented to the public.
They decided on an open casket, protected by a glass cover and featuring a brass plaque embossed with Malcolm X's adopted Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Although Hall initially dressed Malcolm X's remains in a traditional Western business suit, Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, a Sudanese Sunni Muslim, prepared his body for burial the day before the funeral service. Hassoun washed the body in sacred oil and then draped it in seven white linen shrouds known as a kafan."
"At the graveside service, one final conflict arose when the cemetery's white gravediggers approached to bury the casket. Several of Malcolm X's followers stood in their way and declared, "No white man is going to bury Malcolm." James Hicks, a journalist from the Amsterdam News, interceded on behalf of the gravediggers.
Joseph Hall from Unity Funeral Home reminded the protesters that the funeral procession was scheduled to depart the cemetery immediately and that they might be left behind. One of the men then replied, "We'll bury him first, man . . . We'll walk." The men then started to throw dirt on Malcolm X's casket with their bare hands. Hall and the gravediggers finally stepped aside to let the men pick up the shovels and fill the grave in silence. The defiant standoff at Malcolm X's gravesite seemed an appropriate final coda to the life of a man whose death foreshadowed owed a rising militancy in black America."
"Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family ran into a local diner, Mack's Cafe, in search of safety but instead ran directly into the state troopers. In an effort to protect his mother, Viola, from being beaten, Jackson began tussling with several troopers, one of whom shot him in the stomach at close range. On February 26, 1965, eight days after the shooting, Jackson died from a massive infection at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, Alabama.
The first service in Selma was held at Brown's Chapel AME Church, where Malcolm X had spoken before SNCC activists just one month earlier. To underscore the political significance of the event, SCLC organizers described the proceedings as a "freedom funeral" and emphasized sized that Jackson would be "buried in blue denim overalls, a blue denim jumper, white shirt and necktie-the uniform of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. King." Approximately 3,000 mourners arrived at Brown Chapel for the service and began singing "We Shall Overcome.""
On April 9, 1968, approximately 150,000 mourners gathered in Atlanta for King's funeral.
"Similar to Jimmie Lee Jackson's funeral in 1965-included two services: one smaller service in the morning at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church and a second, more public, gathering in the afternoon on the grounds of Morehouse College, King's alma mater.
"If any of you are around when I meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver an eulogy, tell them not to talk too long." The service, officiated by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, included selected scripture readings from the Old and New Testament and a selection of King's favorite hymns, including "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "In Christ There Is No East or West."
After the Ebenezer service concluded, King's casket was placed on a mule-drawn farm wagon, a symbol of his commitment to the poor, and escorted five miles to the grounds of Morehouse College. Over 100,000 mourners participated in the funeral procession from Ebenezer to Morehouse College, a journey that Coretta Scott King described as King's "last great march" for justice and freedom. The memorial service included tributes from Rosa Parks, the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, and Andrew Young, and a eulogy from King's lifelong mentor, Morehouse President Dr. Benjamin Mays. Mays focused his remarks on King's desire "to give dignity to the common man.""