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Slain D.C. Official Spoke for the Voiceless

City Leaders, Clergy Honor Woman Who Struggled, Overcame, Remembered Others

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B03

The city's top elected officials remembered Wanda R. Alston as a formidable political organizer and recalled how she rode herd on the fractious D.C. delegation at the Democratic National Convention last summer. As she listened, Bonnie Lightfoot summoned her own memories.

The two met in Washington in the late 1980s, two addicts fighting to get clean. When Alston was at the convention in Boston, Lightfoot stumbled, using drugs for the first time in 14 years. Her old friend, surrounded by presidential hoopla, launched a long-distance intervention.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams speaks of slain cabinet member Wanda R. Alston, his liaison to the District's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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"She got on the phone, and she made calls and she took care of me. And she got me the help that I needed," Lightfoot said in an interview yesterday at All Souls Unitarian Church, where a memorial service included remarks by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).

Alston, a member of Williams's cabinet and his liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, was celebrated as a woman who ascended the ladder of Democratic and progressive politics but never forgot those who struggled to keep their footing.

"Unlike many, as Wanda climbed, she would turn around, and extend a hand and say, 'Climb with me, for together, we can reach the top,' " Cropp said.

Norton said Alston, 45, was part of "the tradition of the great champions of civil rights in our country. . . . We will never know how many lost souls Wanda saved by her boldness that inspired, especially, young, black gay people, who, to our shame, all too often have been driven to the borders of society -- unwelcome and put down at home, in school and even in our churches."

Loud applause rumbled forth from the 1,000 or so mourners filling the pews in the sanctuary and balcony and lined up three deep against the back walls.

The crowd represented a broad swath of the city. Women in church hats and men in business suits sat among dreadlocked, same-sex couples who clung to each other as they sobbed. Senior city officials shared space with uniformed Metro bus drivers and paramedics.

Except for Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who were out of town, the entire D.C. Council came to pay respects.

Alston's mother, several siblings and other family members sat up front on one side of the aisle; on the other, her partner, Stacey Long, who had been planning a 2006 wedding ceremony with Alston, was comforted by friends. Both women were acknowledged by each of the political leaders who spoke during the service.

The Rev. Sylvia E. Sumter, pastor of Unity of Washington D.C., a church on Capitol Hill where Alston had worshipped, said the outpouring was proof to the family "that they can be proud of every part of who Wanda was."

"When God said, 'I need somebody to speak for those with no voice,' Wanda said, 'Here I am, Lord, send me,' " Sumter said. 'When he said, 'I need somebody to lift up those who are abusing drugs and addicted to substances,' Wanda said . . . 'here I am, Lord, send me.' "

Police said Alston was fatally stabbed Wednesday inside her duplex on East Capitol Street, allegedly by a neighbor who knocked on her door in search of money to buy crack cocaine. Authorities charged William Martin Parrott Jr., 38, with first-degree murder. On Friday, he was ordered jailed without bond, pending a preliminary hearing.

Alston, the 10th of 11 children born to a working-class family in Newport News, Va., came to the District in the early 1980s. She developed a cocaine addiction but overcame it in 1990. She became involved in progressive politics, eventually landing a job as executive assistant to Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organization for Women.

Yesterday, Ireland eulogized Alston as "one of the most determined, caring and best people I know."

Williams said that in struggling to understand Alston's death, he found himself remembering his childhood curiosity about how the Almighty would handle the logistics of Judgment Day.

"It dawned on me this weekend that Wanda's going to be the lead organizer for the Last Judgment," Williams said, evoking the warm laughter of recognition and shared grief. "It's going to be on time and on budget. . . . God's going to think he's in charge, but we know how it's going to happen."

Aides to Williams said he will travel to Newport News today for Alston's burial. The District's Southeastern University, where Alston received a master's degree in 2001, announced the creation of a scholarship fund in her name.

Yesterday's service concluded with "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," known as the African American national anthem.

Then Arabelle Alston, who earlier had tenderly covered her daughter's face and trademark dreadlocks before the top of the coffin was lowered, leaned on her walker and followed the pallbearers down the aisle.

Slowly, the pews emptied behind her.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company