Sunday, April 15, 2001

Mourners hear call for new Cincinnati

Hundreds pack church for Thomas' funeral

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Timothy Thomas could never have dreamed he'd be the one to unite city, state and national leaders at a gathering so powerful they left promising to fight for global social change. But there they were, Saturday afternoon in a corner church in troubled Over-the-Rhine, at Mr. Thomas' funeral.

Angela Leisure sits with her husband, Eric, during the funeral of her son.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. Martin Luther King III. Mayor Charlie Luken and almost the entire City Council.

        All talking about the 19-year-old man, a father and fiance, killed April 7 by a Cincinnati police officer.

        All demanding his death not be in vain, that it become a turning point for a new Cincinnati. A new nonracist, nonviolent Cincinnati.

        “God still uses ordinary people,” Mr. Mfume told the packed church. “And although ordinary in his life, he is extraordinary in his death. Because he got us talking to each other and looking at each other.”

Gov. Bob Taft pays condolences to Ms. Leisure.
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        The message echoed what officials have been saying for days — calm the riots and let's work together to mend the rift caused by the police-involved deaths of Mr. Thomas and 14 other black men since 1995. But buoyed by microphones and four-part gospel harmony, this time it rang from the church and out into the streets.

        “Stand up!” the Rev. Damon Lynch III shouted from the pulpit. “And stand up for something! Stand up! And we've got to keep on standing until everyone is free.”

        More than 500 people crowded into New Prospect Baptist Church across from Findlay Market. An estimated 1,500 more, most of them young African-Americans, filed through. They passed the open silver casket that held the body of the man shot to death in a dark alley early April 7 by Officer Steven Roach.

        Evangelist Jan Houseton read Timothy Dewayne Thomas' obituary. He told of how Mr. Thomas moved from Chicago in 1997 with his mother, two brothers and three sisters. He dreamed of a career in electronics after getting his general equivalency diploma from Nativity Learning Center in Price Hill.

        Somebody tucked a bouquet of red roses under the casket lid. On the card: “To Souljah Tim.”

Orlando Harper, father of Timothy Thomas, and his daughter at the funeral.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Mr. Thomas' face, in the now-familiar picture of him in a tuxedo, smiled out from T-shirts worn by some of the mourners. Tears fell down their faces.

        Some broke down in sobs as they passed in front of Mr. Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, who was helped to her seat in the front row. Mr. Taft called her brave and courageous for, in the midst of her grief, begging rioters to stop. The governor's wife, Hope, wiped her eyes.

        Mr. King, recalling the assassination of his father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was only 10, told Mr. Thomas' mother she'll never get over the pain. But he likened Mr. Thomas' death to his father's — because they were violent, they hold more promise for bringing about change. If his father had been hit by a bus, he said, it wouldn't have brought the same reaction.

        “Cincinnati can become a great city,” Mr. King said. “But it's not a great city today.”

Mourners weep at the funeral.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Mr. Luken hadn't planned to speak. But called to the podium, he apologized again to Mrs. Leisure and her family. The crowd came to its feet.

        “Words cannot express our sorrow,” said the mayor, who proclaimed todaya day of prayer and called for a Cincinnati that seriously embraces economic and social justice. “I pledge to you the city will be better one day.”

        Councilman Chris Monzel, a father himself, sat thinking about Mr. Thomas' 3-month-old son, Tywon. The baby's mother, Monique Wilcox, held the boy throughout his father's funeral.

        “I never hope I have to come to another one of these again,” Mr. Monzel said. “That's our job: to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume assist Ms. Leisure as she leaves the funeral.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The Rev. Dr. Osborne Richards, pastor of Newlife Outreach Church, where Mrs. Leisure sings in the choir, delivered Mr. Thomas' eulogy. He called for today, the day Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection, to also be the start of the resurrection — in Mr. Thomas' name — of Cincinnati.

        “Whether you are white or black, he made you the way he wanted you to be in order to fit into this life,” the Rev. Dr. Richards said. “Because God has a plan.”

        He emphasized that everyone, black and white, has to work together to keep Mr. Thomas' death from being in vain. Everyone turn to each other, he said, and say to your neighbor:

        “Everything's gonna be all right. Everything's gonna be all right.”

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Notebook: Here and there