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Thousands of Mourners Send the Rev. Hill 'Down the Road'

A service pays the influential preacher tribute in song and words and with tears.

March 09, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of followers, nationally known preachers, government figures and relatives bade farewell Saturday to the late Rev. E.V. Hill at a marathon service steeped in tributes, tears and joyous proclamations of Gospel hope.

The outpouring for the 69-year-old preacher and confidant of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. came during an hours-long service at West Angeles Cathedral on Crenshaw Boulevard. Hill was also remembered Friday night at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where he was pastor for 42 years until his death Feb. 24.

The Saturday "home going" service was punctuated with fervent prayers, a swaying Gospel choir, the rhythmic clapping of thousands of uplifted hands keeping time with the music, and a soulful solo by Gospel saxophonist Vernard Johnson as a crowd estimated at 4,000 turned out to pay respects.

Shortly before Hill's casket was closed and the service began, his wife, La Dean, and family members approached the bier for a final farewell. Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of the cathedral, placed his arm around the widow, and spoke with her.

Born in poverty in Texas and brought up in a log cabin, Hill rose to become one of the most influential voices in the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest African American denomination, and a power in Los Angeles politics.

After coming to Los Angeles in 1961, Hill earned a reputation for preaching, political activism and serving the poor. The Rev. Billy Graham once visited Hill's church just to hear him preach. President George H.W. Bush visited Hill's church after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Hill was an ally of the late Mayor Sam Yorty, and once backed him over a promising young black police officer who was just entering politics, the late Mayor Tom Bradley.

Unlike most other black preachers, Hill was a conservative Republican. Among those present Saturday was the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Falwell brought the house down when he recalled a question from Hill after Falwell had invited him to preach at Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Va.

" 'Jerry, I don't know how to say this,' " Falwell quoted Hill as saying. " 'I don't want to hurt your feelings, but where did that name "Lynchburg" come from?' "

The Rev. Cecil M. "Chip" Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, long a center of social and political action in the city, called Hill "a perfect bridge between the old guard and the new guard and the black progress toward equality. He was a bridge in politics, being what he termed an ultra right-wing, radical Republican conservative."

Despite his conservative politics, Hill backed the Rev. Jesse Jackson's unsuccessful 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson remembered that during remarks Friday night at Hill's church.

"There was something about E.V. He did not mind swimming upstream," Jackson said in an interview. "Sometimes in controversies to make his point he'd often get before a very black congregation, almost all black Democrats, and say, 'I am a black right-wing Republican!' And people would laugh and could accept him for who he was," Jackson said.

Among political figures present Saturday were Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Kay Cole James, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, represented President Bush.

Most spoke of Hill's preaching. Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of the West Angeles Cathedral and a member of another denomination, paid tribute to Hill's roots. "He was Baptist born. He was Baptist bred. He was a hymn-singing, tear-shedding, eloquent-preaching, Jesus-loving, heaven-and-hell-believing Baptist," Blake said in prepared remarks.

Speaker after speaker said they weren't saying "good-bye" to Hill. Instead, they used an expression that Hill himself often said when leaving friends: "Down the road."

"So, 'down the road,' pastor. Down the road," they said.

Hill was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

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