The Washington Post

At Michael Brown funeral, grief and calls for change

Relatives and community leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton shared memories and guidance for moving forward at a funeral held for 18-year-old Michael Brown in St. Louis, Mo., on Monday. Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

When it was her turn at the church lectern that overlooked her stepson’s glossy black coffin, Calvina Brown took a deep, relaxing breath. She was about to tell the story of what Michael Brown said to her in his last days, before a controversial shooting by a police officer ended his life.

It wasn’t going to be easy. She faced so many members of Brown’s extended family — 600, the church pastor said — that the funeral, at 10 a.m. local time Monday, was delayed nearly 30 minutes as they streamed in. She faced some of the brightest luminaries of the black civil rights movement, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as movie director Spike Lee, several members of Congress and representatives of the White House.

She said her stepson told her months ago, after she fell ill and was taken to a hospital, that “I’ve been dreaming of death. . . . I’ve been dreaming of bloody sheets.”

Brown paused, looking toward an overflow audience of at least 2,500 at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church. “He pretty much prophesized his own death and didn’t know it.” The sheet he dreamed of, she said, is what eventually covered him after his body lay outside in Ferguson, Mo., for hours after he was shot.

Rather than providing a coda after all the national attention focused on Ferguson in the past two weeks, the emotional funeral was as complex and conflicted as the country’s reaction to the shooting. The two-hour service was mostly a somber tribute to Brown, in deference to his mother and father’s request to keep politics and protest out of laying their son to rest.

But it ended with a fiery exhortation to action from Sharpton, who called for an end to the gun violence that’s taking the lives of black youngsters regardless of who pulls the trigger.

Neither of Michael’s parents spoke at the funeral. After requesting that there be no protest and that civilian motorcyclists, not police, escort the long funeral procession to their son’s grave, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. sat quietly in the pews, surrounded in a cocoon of relatives.

Calvina Brown, the wife of Michael Brown Sr., was one of four family members who came to the lectern to express their anger and dismay at the actions of police in the St. Louis suburb.

They strived to humanize a teenager whose death has come to symbolize violence that is taking the lives of black teenagers across the country.

“Mike Mike,” as she called him, “was an awesome man. . . . He just wanted so much. He wanted to go to college. He wanted to have a family. He wanted to be a good father.”

Other family members described him as a sweet boy, a gentle giant who loved to rap, tinker with computers and do little else. Standing at nearly 6-foot-4 in high school, he practiced football for a week before giving up the sport because he didn’t like to hit people, relatives recalled.

On the funeral program, Michael Brown Sr.’s tribute read like a cry: “I think of you day and night and just wish I was there to save you from harm. I always told you I would never let anything happen to you. And that’s why it hurts sooooo much. I will never let you die in my heart.”

Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, heads into Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of her son in St. Louis. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

McSpadden’s tribute read: “I want you to know you were the purpose in my life. Out of everything I did, it was you that I did right.”

In death, Brown has become larger than he ever was in life.

In the pews, teacher Carmen Austell of St. Louis said he might well become “a sacrificial lamb” who motivates black majorities in St. Louis and Ferguson to throw out white mayors — and elect someone who might start to remake police departments that are a constant target of black complaints of harassment.

“I feel like this has been going on for too long,” Austell said, dressed in white from head to toe. “It’s a majority in St. Louis ruled by a minority. The same in Ferguson. They didn’t just take Mike Brown’s life. They took his family’s life.”

A few seats away, Pam Britt, a custodian, sprang to her feet when a clapping and swaying mass choir roared into song. “St. Louis City has whites living on one side of town, the south side, and blacks on the other. No one wants to talk about it until Mike Brown gets killed and all that racial tension comes out.”

Britt said black residents have said for years that real estate agents steer people to one side or the other based on race. In greater St. Louis, the same is true, she said, and she expressed little hope that Brown’s death will change that.

When he took the lectern near the end of the service, Sharpton issued a call for the change that Britt could not foresee. He started with police in Ferguson. Brown was unarmed, reportedly with his hands raised, when he was shot multiple times by officer Darren Wilson in the middle of Canfield Drive. The shooting came after the two reportedly struggled.

“To have that boy lay there, like nobody cared about him, like he didn’t have loved ones,” surrounded by white police who at first did not bother to cover him, was a disgrace, Sharpton said.

Ferguson police released Wilson’s name six days after the shooting, at the same time they released a video of a cigar theft that Brown allegedly committed.

“How do you think you look when you can’t come up with a police report, but you can find a video?” he said. “How do you think you look when people are marching nonviolently . . . and you put snipers on the roof?” He asked how it looked to viewers around the world when white people supporting the police officers were largely left alone while black protesters were met with military force.

Having said that, Sharpton pivoted to a tough-love message. He angrily recalled the looting that marked the mostly peaceful protests that followed Brown’s death.

When it started, he said, Brown’s family “had to break their mourning to ask folks to stop,” Sharpton said. “They had to stop their mourning to ask you to control your anger, like you are angrier than they are. This is not about you. It’s about justice. This is about families.”

He criticized black youngsters who address one another with the N-word, refer to women as whores and fire weapons wildly in their communities.

“We need to be straight up with our community, too,” Sharpton said. Black Americans must show as much sympathy for 9-year-old Chastity Turner, who was killed by black gang members in Chicago, as they do for black victims of white shooters such as Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Fla., and Brown.

Sharpton then turned on the clergy, criticizing jealous local clergy members who decried that they were not on the program. He lamented “preachers who were mad that other preachers were in town,” believing they were stealing their thunder.

“Religion should confirm what we’re doing, not be an escape,” he said. “Some of us are so heavenly bound that we’re no earthly good. When Michael Brown was on the ground, what did you do?”

As she filed out of the church into a blazing sun, Shirley Davis of Ferguson, who works at a college accounting office, said she had no problem with what Sharpton said. She called the service “fantastic and informative” and said she believed that Brown’s death would lead to change that could sweep politicians out of office, at the very least.

Near the church, a table was set up, covered with T-shirts that were being sold for $10 each before the service. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” one shirt said. “RIP Mike Brown,” said another.

Bryant Stewart, 24, of Ferguson said his generation was largely the target of Sharpton’s tough message. “I think it’s accurate for what’s going on today,” Stewart said. Many young people exhibit the mentality of the oppressed, people who devalue their lives and everyone else’s, he said.

“Hopefully, there will be some change, legislation. It’s a slow process,” he said. “But maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

At around 8 p.m., there were only about 20 people on Canfield Drive, lingering outside near where Brown was shot.

West Florissant Avenue was also quiet as night fell in St. Louis on Monday. Brown’s family had called for calm in the city, asking that the protests stop for the day.

“It looks as if they honored their wish,” said Kizzie Davis, co-owner of a local burger restaurant.

Sarah Larimer contributed to this report. To view a video of the funeral, go to

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.


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