PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa — Thousands of South Africa's poor and voteless blacks paid an unprecedented tribute here Thursday to a middle-class white woman who had championed their cause over the past two decades in the struggle against apartheid.
The funeral for Molly Blackburn, killed in an auto accident last weekend, quickly became a symbol of the South Africa she hoped and worked for, a nation no longer divided on racial lines and finally at peace with itself, as more than 10,000 blacks and whites came together to honor her memory.
"Molly continues in death doing what she did all her life--bringing us together," the Rev. Allan Boesak, one of the country's leading anti-apartheid activists, said in a eulogy that moved many in the unusual multiracial congregation to tears. "This is what this country can be and should be. This is what we are fighting for, and this is what is worth fighting for. . . .
"In this country, there are precious few white people who have gained so much credibility and earned so much respect and love among our black people as Molly Blackburn did. We hope and pray another Molly Blackburn will rise. If not, then I don't know what we are trying to build together."
Blackburn, 55, a silver-haired mother of seven, had fought for years on behalf of South Africa's blacks, demanding that they be treated with justice, fairness and equality and opposing every extension of racial segregation and minority white rule.
"How strange of God--calling a white, middle-class mother and saying, 'Speak to South Africa about justice and racial equality,' " the Rev. George Irvine, her pastor at St. John's Methodist Church here, said. "Yet, Molly fulfilled her task with little thought of herself. She was driven, motivated by the very love of God for his children, all his children."
Although liberal whites have been honored in the past for their contributions to "the struggle," as blacks call their fight against apartheid, never has there been such a large and emotional tribute as there was to Blackburn, whose funeral far exceeded that of white Cabinet ministers and veteran members of Parliament who have died here recently.
She 'Bridged Gap'
"Molly Blackburn stood for a free, non-racial, democratic South Africa," Mkhuseli Jack, president of the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress, told the mourners. "She simply did not compromise with injustice. She stood firmly with the poverty-stricken and oppressed people of this land. She bridged that gap between whites and blacks. And today, Africans are walking tall on the road that she blazed."
When black mothers had to go in search of their children detained without charges by the police, "Mrs. Molly" went with them, speakers at the funeral recalled. When police shot and killed 20 blacks at Langa outside Uitenhage near Port Elizabeth last March, she was there, insisting that the truth be told about the incident, that justice be done.
When families were separated because of the regulations of apartheid, she worked to reunite them, and when hunger was widespread among the black communities around here, she worked to get them food and jobs, speakers said.
And when the government tried to extinguish the spirit of the black communities in towns such as Cradock, Graaff-Reinet, Cookhouse and Oudtshoorn in Cape province, she was there to help rekindle it.
'Symbol of Good Will'
"To many of my people, Mrs. Molly was that ray of hope, the needed symbol of good will from whites," the Rev. H.M. Dandala, a prominent Methodist minister here, said in his tribute. "Because of Molly, many blacks have kept this hope and resisted the temptation to brand all whites as our oppressors."
In a society based on racial separation, the funeral demonstrated the commitment of some to break down those barriers. Blacks and whites, joined in their grief, wept together and unashamedly.
Several speakers noted that the service, which began with the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" and ended with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," itself became a demonstration that there is as much uniting the people of South Africa as there is dividing them.
"Molly Blackburn was a true daughter of Africa," said Boesak, a Colored, or person of mixed race, "and the children of Africa are here to show how much we loved her."
Busloads of blacks began arriving, some from 400 miles away, more than two hours before the funeral at St. John's Methodist Church in central Port Elizabeth.
By the time the service began, the 93-year-old stone church was packed with more than 1,000 mourners, and the surrounding streets were jammed for a quarter of a mile in all directions as others listened to the service over loudspeakers.