U.S. Supreme Court justices, civil rights leaders, judges, politicians and courtroom clerks packed the National Presbyterian Church yesterday to eulogize H. Carl Moultrie I, a poor southern youth who became the first black chief judge of D.C. Superior Court.
For more than two hours an overflow audience of 2,000 listened as close acquaintances remembered Moultrie, who became a lawyer at the age of 41, as a civil rights leader, eminent jurist, friend, a "prince among men."
His widow, Sara, seated in the second row of the Northwest Washington church beside her only child, H. Carl II, and other relatives, put a black-gloved finger to her lips and bowed her head slightly as the steel-gray coffin with a spray of purple orchids and a purple ribbon with the word "Daddy" passed by.
"Our paths crossed continuously," said D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, recalling how the two men reminisced recently about the time in 1968 when Moultrie was head of the local branch of the NAACP and Barry led the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "He, Carl, was a community activist for equality and justice . . . . His legal acumen, his judicial temperament . . . will forever remain a monument to this great lawyer," Barry said. Moultrie died Wednesday of inoperable bone cancer. He was 71.
Among the mourners who filled the church aisles were those who witnessed Moultrie in his various roles -- civil rights leader, bible class leader, judge, ardent friend. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who spent the night before the 1963 March on Washington sleeping on Moultrie's floor, sat in the second row with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Barry and D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova sat farther back in the cavernous church, which was filled with several rows of black-robed judges. Former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington was one of the pallbearers.
Between hymns and the song "My Way," speaker after speaker praised Moultrie for his work both in molding the local trial court and shaping the history of black Washington.
Moultrie, who came to Washington in 1948 as the national executive secretary of the noted black fraternity Omega Psi Phi and then later rode through the torched streets during the 1968 riots as head of the local NAACP, spanned two generations of black Washington, speakers recalled.
"The chief's hand touched every corner of our court and every one of our lives," said Judge Fred B. Ugast, who was acting chief judge frequently during Moultrie's illness during the past two months. "Our justice system is far the better for it and we, his friends, are the stronger for it."
"Dozens of programs and procedures now in effect at the court were the result of his implementation if not origination," said Frederick Abramson, president of the D.C. Bar.
Other speakers at the service talked of Moultrie's constancy as a friend. "A year and a half ago when my wife became ill, he called her every single day," recalled Wiley A. Branton, head of the District's Judicial Nomination Commission and a friend for more than 30 years. Branton said that when he became ill in February and was hospitalized, Moultrie, who was also in the hospital, appeared at Branton's bedside. "Every conversation ended with 'Keep your chin up, keep your chin up.' Carl gave so much to this city, to its people."
Barry hugged his widow before advancing to the altar behind the coffin. Barry said he was proud to be the mayor of the "greatest city in the world" but that he was "even prouder and more thankful" to be asked to participate in the funeral as a "friend."
His voice quieting, Barry described how Moultrie told him several months ago that he had cancer but had told only four other persons. "I don't want anyone to have pity for me . . . ," Barry quoted Moultrie. "Carl, we'll miss you, God bless you," the mayor said.
While those inside the church prayed and sang, hundreds of others sat in a basement room listening to the service through loudspeakers. D.C. Superior Court was closed for four hours for the funeral and the mayor had ordered all city flags flown at half-staff.
At the end of the service, Jackson, who did not speak, crossed the aisle and kissed Sara Moultrie, who nodded to the long line of judges before taking her son's arm to walk to a waiting limousine.
A procession of more than 100 cars made the nearly 20-minute journey with police escort to the burial site at Fort Lincoln Cemetery. There, under a warm sky and with a light breeze, Moultrie's coffin was placed in the Garden of the Apostles while his brothers from Omega Psi Phi, sang their anthem in soft and melodious voices.
When the words "when we say our last goodbye" were sung Sara Moultrie, a former D.C. school teacher, removed her glasses, wiped her eyes and squeezed the hand of her son.