They were the veterans of the civil rights wars, the men and women gathered in the church basement this morning waiting to bury Roy Wilkins. Old friends reminisced about the glories of the past, and looked ahead toward an uncertain future.
In the words of Lucile Smiley, a Harlem woman who attended the funeral at the Community Church of New York, Roy Wilkins, who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 22 years, was "Mr. Civil Rights."
But now the movement has lost another of its titans, and the current lack of excitement around civil rights issues has made many of Wilkins' old friends feel a special loss at his death.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was engulfed by friends and admirers in the middle of the room. Urban League President Vernon Jordan, who this week announced plans to resign, chatted with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson wandered through, as did former vice president Walter F. Mondale, civil rights lawyer Joseph L. Rauh, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and dozens of others.
Their reaction to Wilkins' death was summed up by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who stood by himself at the fringe of the group. "We've lost one of the giants, and now we have to look for more," Clark said. "I think our people are insecure and a little frightened. What Roy did was a heroic effort . . . but now we've got to get on the move again."
The funeral was also attended by Vice President Bush, New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey, New York City Mayor Edward Koch and a host of other officials.
But the significance of the day was captured by that basement gathering just before the ceremony: the gathering of the clan, in a time of great uncertainty, at the passing of one of its elders.
"Mr. Wilkins' death is symbolic of the end of a period where blacks were fighting as blacks for their rights in the political and social fields," said civil rights veteran Bayard Rustin, leaning on an ornate walking stick. "The reason we are in such confusion now is that there is a new period upon us. It is the period now for an economic bill of rights."
The fights that Wilkins led were for changes in law to eradicate discrimination according to race. But now, after the laws have been changed, vastly disproportionate numbers of blacks still live in poverty, and concepts like affirmative action are under attack. Rustin said he believes blacks must look for new solutions based around economic issues, not racial ones.
"I think the nation is in a slump," Lowery said. "The civil rights movement is trying to find new directions, new handles." He said he believed the country's news organizations, once allies, have turned their backs on civil rights.
"I see white leadership in a slump," said Benjamin Hooks, who succeeded the then-ailing Wilkins as head of the NAACP in 1977. "Where is the white leadership that's going to get rid of inflation and unemployment?"
For the last several years of his life, Wilkins, who died Tuesday of kidney failure at the age of 80, was not active in the movement. But he remained an important symbol, and was praised today even by leaders who had disagreed strongly with his moderate approach.
"I personally had more respect for him than any of the other black leaders, not that we agreed on anything," said Roy Innis, executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality, who has always been regarded as more militant than Wilkins. CORE's fund-raising practices have been questioned, and the organization is now caught in a power struggle between bitterly opposed factions.
"Today we're in sad shape," Innis said. "This is the passing of one great man who was committed to something. This I can't say about most black leaders today."
Social critic Dick Gregory, who diverged from the mainstream of the civil rights movement toward conspiracy theories and prolonged fasting, said he considered Wilkins a good friend. "It's just a different day now," he said. "We'll be here."
Urban Coalition President M. Carl Holman said,"To me, this funeral should be a reaffirmation and a rededication. With all the whining that's going on now, we should consider what Roy Wilkins had to go through, the great despair he had to fight. We've got to pull together. The torch will be picked up."
Cardinal Terence Cooke said a prayer during the ceremony, and soprano Leontyne Price sang "Precious Lord" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
As pallbearers brought Wilkins' casket down the steps of the unadorned Unitarian church, Price led the approximately 1,000 mourners who had attended the service, and another thousand who lined East 35th Street, in chorus after chorus of "We Shall Overcome."