With the nation’s eyes on Baltimore, local and national pastors presiding over the funeral of Freddie Gray insisted that Gray’s death not be in vain, but lead to substantial reforms.
The funeral was attended by a large media presence—many in clothing far too casual for the occasion—a number of prominent national civil rights figures as well as a significant contingent of the city’s political elite. Among those who attended the funeral at the New Shiloh Baptist Church, just blocks from where Gray lived and suffered his fatal injuries on April 12, were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, Baltimore City Council persons Nick Mosby, Carl Stokes, and Helen Holton, former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson.
“Freddie’s death is going to light a match, not of looting and burning, but [that] laws could change,” said Bishop Walter Scott Thomas, of New Psalmist Baptist Church at the funeral. “When he came into your life years ago as your baby boy, you knew not the purposes that were uniquely his. You had dreams of what he might be and who he might become, but God had bigger dreams. And even in the tragicness of this moment, a bigger dream is going to be blessed. The protests around his death, serves, [in] a sense, as the defibrillator to start the heartbeat of change in this city.”
A little earlier, Gray family attorney Billy Murphy had spoken to what some of that change might look like.
“The [nation] wants to know whether our courts are going to respond at the highest level. Whether our police department will be reformed so that blue wall of justice, that blue wall of police gets torn down. You know the blue wall I’m talking about. The one that says ‘right or wrong, we’re going to cover for you.’”
That Gray’s death would lead to reform remained a theme throughout the service, and one picked up by the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of West Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, who gave the eulogy.
“Freddie’s death is not in vain,” preached Bryant to a loud response from those gathered to mourn Gray. “After this day we will keep on marching. After this day we will keep demanding justice. After this day we will keep exposing a culture of corruption.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke towards the end of the service, addressing the sort of change needed in Baltimore.
“Do we need more state police?” asked Jackson rhetorically. “I think, when I look at the westside, we need more housing and urban development. Sixteen thousand abandoned or vacant homes? Twenty-five percent unemployment? We don’t need more policemen, we need more jobs, job training education . . . The westside needs the same thing the harbor needs: credit, trusts, investment, TIF money.”
The crowd gave loud affirmation to what Jackson was saying, expressing a common frustration with the uneven development in Baltimore that has left some neighborhoods gleaming and others with an unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent. Those frustrations would soon play out more loudly in rioting and looting that would begin to take place shortly after the funeral let out.
But inside New Shiloh the focus was on the significance for structural change held by Gray’s untimely death.
“We’re going to leave this service for Freddie more determined to make a difference in this city,” prayed New Shiloh’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Harold Carter Jr., “this nation, and this world.”