With all due respect to abiding faith and greater rewards, it‘s rough being dead. You can’t stick up for yourself. You can‘t raise a protest when those least deserving to have been in your company show up at your memorial service, so eager for their turn at the podium they crouch in the front row like dogs waiting to spring on fresh meat. Like dogs, they have their fill and leave as rudely as they appeared — which is exactly what happened at the memorial service for Richard Fulton, the much-loved proprietor of Fifth Street Dick’s Coffeehouse and a real grassroots steward of urban renewal. The nearly four-hour program testified to Fulton‘s good deeds, in a sobering but wonderful and cathartic afternoon that ended very appropriately, with food, jazz music, dancing and mingling in the streets.
But before that came the pols, who stood first in line to take some kind of credit for all the good feeling. Fifth Street Dick had about as much use for politicians and demagogues as a ship has for dry land, but the bloodhounds got on the bill at the memorial — the top of the bill — before any of Richard’s many, many friends who had thronged the service knew what happened. Evidently, the bigwigs had all heard that someone significant in ”the community“ had passed, and they were damned if they were going to miss the opportunity to be announced, shed some crocodile tears, whip out a posthumous resolution in a cheap frame, and mourn the loss of this fallen soldier who fought right alongside them in the ongoing battle for black dignity and economic self-sufficiency. Oh yes, Richard Fulton, they all said solemnly, clasping their hands, was indeed a spirit.
As Fulton would have said: Bullshit.
Oh, he was a spirit all right, and a soldier of the highest rank, but the elected officials (or their representatives) who showed up April 1 to say so had no business taking the dais to say anything. Fulton was a community man in the truest sense of the word; he loved Leimert Park, believed in it, nurtured it, watched over it — coffee cup in hand — and, in the seven years he ran his place, rarely left the block. state Assemblyman Rod Wright, state Senator Kevin Murray, county Supervisor Yvonne Burke and city Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas — where the hell have they been in the last decade, except to various and sundry functions extolling the virtues of the black community, its pain and noble suffering, while that community has withered on the vine of political indifference? The suits were anxious to telegraph that they are not sellouts but black representatives, and attaching themselves to Dick‘s memory was a clever and expeditious way to do that — except that Dick did all the caring and made all the sacrifices. Leimert Park’s small but vibrant arts district is the city‘s best hope for preserving and growing small black-owned businesses, and its last bright light of the black culture that once flourished in the face of incredible odds. But de facto segregation, as it turns out, had nothing on de facto leadership.
It was the ex–dope dealer who came closest to establishing the moral ground for the afternoon. This was a man who had been in the streets with Richard in his Skid Row days — his Fifth Street days — and who, like Richard, had pulled his life back from the brink of early extinction, with Richard’s help. This man, his face wet with tears behind dark glasses, movingly attested to his friend‘s reputation as a healer, and a doer. ”Richard was humble,“ he told the crowd. ”He embraced humility, but he hated arrogance.“ That included those who said but never did, who waxed pious on ”community“ but always stayed comfortably within the sphere of themselves. Too bad Rod Wright was not there to catch the comment; in the time-honored tradition of politics, he and others had to speak and run. I’m sure Ridley-Thomas, who sent a proxy, never intended to come: Fulton was his loudest and most consistent critic
I‘m not done with responsibility. The elected officials should never have headlined Richard’s service in the first place, and those who organized the event and coordinated the program, Richard‘s fellow Leimert Park merchants, should have recognized that. The problem here is what it’s always been: Black people may privately complain about their so-called leaders — often justly so — but the public face is always one of solidarity. While I understand the emotional and political necessity of putting the collective before the individual, this was hardly the time or place to do it. Richard‘s commitment was bigger than that of most people sitting in the storefront space that afternoon, and most of them were very committed. The politicians were the weakest links there. Ask the former dope dealer. I’m sure he still knows bad product when he sees it.
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