ST. LOUIS — Family and supporters on Monday celebrated the life of Michael Brown, a black teenager slain by police in Ferguson, Missouri, with a music-filled funeral service and calls to remember him with peace and political change.
Brown’s body lay at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in a black and gold casket, topped with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap he was wearing when he was killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson.
Thousands of people jammed inside the modern red-brick church and gathered outside on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis for the service, a markedly different scene from the violent protests that rocked the St. Louis suburb after the shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old.
Brown’s slaying has focused attention on racial tensions and relations in the United States, and the protests have evoked criticism of the predominantly white local police force using military gear and heavy-handed tactics and racially profiling blacks for arrest.
The teenager’s coffin was surrounded by photos of him as a child, graduating from school and smiling while wearing his Cardinals cap.
Spiritual music by a gospel choir and horn players filled the sanctuary, and mourners clapped their hands and danced in the aisles. Readings from the Bible were met with whoops and cheers.
Printed in a program for the service were letters from his parents to their late son.
A letter by Michael Brown Sr. read: “I always told you I would never let nothing happen to you, and that’s what hurts so much, that I couldn’t protect you.”
A grand jury has begun hearing evidence in the shooting and the U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation.
Eulogizing Brown, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton called for a fair and impartial investigation into the shooting an end to police brutality.
“Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for riots,” Sharpton said. “He wants to be remembered as the one that made America deal with how we’re going to police in the United States.”
But he called on the black community to end the kind of street violence and looting that has put Ferguson in a negative light.
“We have to be outraged for our disrespect for each other,” he said. “Some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go.
“Blackness has never been about being a gangster or a thug. Blackness was no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow,” he said.
Family and friends rose to speak as well, recalling Brown’s nicknames of “Gentle Giant,” and “Big Mike.”
Pastor Charles Ewing, who is Brown’s uncle, recalled Brown once telling him: “One day the whole world will know my name.”
“Michael Brown’s blood is crying from the ground, crying for vengeance, crying for justice,” Ewing said.
Outside, under the hot midday sun, the police presence was heavy but relaxed. Authorities had braced for a possible flare-up, although clashes between protesters and police have waned significantly in recent days.
The crowd repeated the familiar “hands up, don’t shoot,” which protesters have chanted in the streets of Ferguson.
In differing accounts of Brown’s shooting, police have said he struggled with the officer who shot and killed him. But some witnesses say Brown held up his hands and was surrendering when he was shot multiple times in the head and chest.
Among those outside the church was Travis Jackson, a black, 25-year-old retail store employee who said he took the day off from work to pay his respects.
“I had to be here. After all the emotions and pain of the past two weeks, this is an important moment for this community,” he said.
“Today I am focused on peace for Michael Brown. Tomorrow I can think about justice,” he added.
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson was on hand for the funeral, and the White House said it was sending three presidential aides to attend the service.