Paying tribute to rights leader

The Baltimore Sun

Civil rights dignitaries, politicians, friends and family arrived early to pack the pews of West Baltimore's Calvary Baptist Church yesterday to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Enolia P. McMillan.

They remembered the "matriarch of the NAACP" as a woman who used equal parts courage, grace and feistiness to stamp out injustice. They showed a video of her accomplishments and sang rousing spirituals with lyrics that embodied her fight for equal rights.

But amid the pomp and circumstance of the four-hour service, some reflected that McMillan, who died last week at age 102, would not have wanted all the fanfare.

"If she were here today, she would probably remind us that we're making too much of a fuss about her," said Kweisi Mfume, former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to a crowd of more than 200 mourners.

"That the real issue is that there are too many young kids in too many schools that are overcrowded and ill-equipped, with drugs more available than textbooks," he said. "She'd be telling us we need to speak about that. Don't make a fuss over her."

A who's who of Maryland politics offered remarks during the service, including Mayor Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s wife, Kendel. The governor and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele paid their respects but left before the service began.

Those in attendance lauded McMillan's 42-year education career, in which she challenged the segregation practices that kept black teachers underpaid and black students in inferior schools.

On graduation from high school in the 1920s, she dreamed of becoming a physician but pursued education after realizing the barriers for women and blacks during that era. She went on to complete a master's degree at Columbia University in 1933 with a thesis that examined the inequalities facing black students in Maryland.

Mikulski called McMillan a "majestic presence" who set a strong example for women and was ahead of her time in pressing for social justice.

"While she fought for her own education, she fought for the education of others with her thesis titled 'The Factors Affecting Secondary Education for Negroes in Maryland Counties," the senator said. "Martin O'Malley, Governor Ehrlich, maybe you should take a look at it."

"Elijah, Ben, Paul," she said, referring to her fellow members of Congress, "maybe we should do the same."

Being a teacher and principal was only one part of a life full of accomplishments. McMillan reinvigorated the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and later became a fundraising force for the national organization as its first female president. She presided over the Board of Regents of Morgan State University, helping to steer the school from a small college to a university.

Larry S. Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland, offered a sports analogy to describe her role in the Baltimore civil rights era. If the city's civil rights giants - including Thurgood Marshall and the Mitchell and the Murphy families - were a football team, McMillan would have been the center, he said.

"She was the first to the line, she got the ball moving and she ran interference for the other players," he said. "And she did it while calling minimal attention to herself."

NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon implored mourners to follow McMillan's legacy, particularly on issues of voting rights.

"You heard this morning from several elected officials. They serve you because you elect them," he said after a quick glance to the pews full of politicians. "On Nov. 7, Enolia P. McMillan would want you to vote. I think she would insist on it. ... This is not a political statement, this is a participation statement."

Gordon and other NAACP members came to the church wearing pins that read, "I gave" and "NAACP," the same pins that McMillan relentlessly hawked for $1 during the 1980s when the civil rights group struggled financially.

The sale of the pins netted more than $150,000 for the civil rights organization and helped orchestrate its move from New York to Northwest Baltimore. The buttons became synonymous with "Mrs. Mac," as she was affectionately called.

Others remembered McMillan as the force behind Calvary Baptist Church, which she helped found in the 1920s. She taught Sunday school, raised money to keep the ministry afloat and faithfully attended services until she was well into her 90s, said her family.

Throughout her life, McMillan avoided the spotlight, said her granddaughter Tiffany Beth McMillan, insisting on paying for her tickets to NAACP functions, even when as national president she was offered them for free.

"She was a beautiful woman of God, whose life was her service to us," she said. "We love you, Grandmommy."

In a video shown during the service, mourners got a broader look at the life of McMillan, with civil rights-era footage and snapshots of her with presidents, members of Congress and other civil rights heroes.

In one segment, an elderly McMillan reflected on the importance of challenging the status quo.

"If you don't agree with what's going on," she said, "you can't expect someone else to speak up for you."

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