The mother of slain former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. stood in front of thousands of mourners at her son's funeral yesterday and said she was thankful for the "abject poverty" in which she brought him up.
The horrors of being poor in blighted Park Heights, she said, shaped Harris into a good and a strong man who would rise in city politics and spend a lifetime reaching out to help others follow the same path.
"It doesn't matter where you come from," she said to the mourners, who included many of the most powerful lawmakers in the state. "It doesn't matter where you start. It matters where you end."
Her words brought those at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center to their feet with applause.
The three-hour service included tributes from 11 other people close to Harris, including his daughter, Nicole; Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat; state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat; and talk show host Sen. Larry Young, a former state senator.
They talked about the irony that Harris, who spent so much time in office combating the city's violence, would be cut down in a shooting. He was killed early Saturday morning during an encounter with a group of masked gunmen outside the New Haven Lounge, a jazz club located a few blocks south of the university.
Tributes from friends - ranging from former constituents to U.S. senators - flowed in to the family and to news outlets all week. Mayor Sheila Dixon and Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered city and state flags flown at half-staff. And in a City Council hearing, members rushed through a resolution in his honor.
Traffic on Argonne Drive near the fine arts center was blocked off all yesterday morning, and nearby parking was difficult to find an hour before the funeral. Dignitaries, including State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, waited in line to get in.
All conversations quieted around 10:30 a.m. when the men's choir for Huber Memorial Church sang "Amazing Grace." Later in the service they sang one of Harris' favorite songs: "Never Would Have Made It."
Just before the funeral started, several members of the City Council were ushered unto their seats near the front. O'Malley, who would often spar with Harris, arrived around 11 a.m. and walked down to hug Harris' family members. He stood for a while near U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Harris' long-time political ally, and former U.S. Rep. and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume.
Members of the city's fire and police command staff, including Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Fire Chief James S. Clack, sat together.
Mayor is absent
Absent was Dixon, who was on a scheduled vacation, according to her spokesman Sterling Clifford. Her spokesman said that she'd spent hours with the Harris family over the weekend. He said he did not know where she was vacationing. The explanation was not enough for some who expected her there. "She is the president and CEO of the city," said Louis Fields, president of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce. "Her absence shows a lack of sensitivity to the family."
The funeral was set to begin at 11 a.m., but well-wishers were still talking to the family, and it was around 11:45 when ushers closed the coffin. Cries from his family could be heard over the sound of a bagpipe. Several friends stood and fanned his wife, Annette, to comfort her.
Ruppersberger rose first and praised Harris for "speaking truth to power." He called Harris an optimist with "amazing grace" who "could see a better future for his city."
A daughter remembers
Harris' newly married daughter, Nicole, also took the stage - her brother Kenneth Jr. at her side - and talked about how their father sometimes called her for no reason other than to play her favorite song over the phone. "I'm just glad and thankful that I had a father," she said. When she looked at her dad's eye, she said, sometimes she could detect a sadness that he'd never known his own father.
The Rev. P.M. Smith of the Huber Memorial Church emceed the event and told speakers to respect a three-minute rule for their remembrances, much as a City Council president might for public comments at a hearing. During one talk Dr. William Benjamin, an author, exceeded his time and the audience laughed as Smith prompted him to hurry up. Benjamin, undeterred, just read his speech faster.
A touch of laughter
"I told him to save some of this for his next book," Smith quipped on stage.
Harry Black, Harris' best friend from childhood, reflected about how far they'd come in life. But Harris, he said, was not satisfied.
"We would talk about making it out of the neighborhood," he said. "If we all don't make it out, do any of us really make it out?" he asked.
With Harris' death, he said, "the world has one less super person."
Others talked about the theme of Harris' last campaign, when he sought to become City Council president: being serious about Baltimore. When Harris announced his intention to run for City Council president he said to a roomful of people he talked about giving the community resources and support "to break the cycle of violence that is destroying our families and our neighborhoods."
In a January interview with a Sun reporter, Harris talked about what he called one of the most terrifying moments in his life. He said he was 17, living in Park Heights, and a man put a gun to his head.
Thankful for life
"Thank God he didn't kill me," Harris said in a taped interview. "That has an everlasting effect on me. I said if I ever got out of that situation I would try to make a difference in life."
Since Harris was murdered on Saturday, a 15-year old boy was shot and killed in the city. And yesterday about an hour before Harris' funeral, city police officers were putting up crime tape and blocking streets just south of North Avenue responding to a call for a shooting in the Greenmount West neighborhood. And as the funeral was starting, a call went out for an incident in which police shot a man in Reservoir Hill.
Referring in general to the city's violence, Smith, the pastor, said in his eulogy: "Where we are is called a community," he said. "But it is really not if we have homicidal maniacs."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.
Online For video from the funeral and coverage of the slaying of Kenneth Harris , go to baltimoresun.com/harris