Several hundred people, including Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, gathered at Southern University Friday morning for a 2.5-hour memorial service honoring Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old father of five who was shot and killed by police officers at point blank range at a Baton Rouge convenience store July 5.
Kip Holden, the embattled mayor of Baton Rouge, however, was noticeably absent. “We need our elected officials to stand up, to show up and to speak up,” Richmond said, a veiled reference to Holden, who has been heavily criticized for his insensitivity toward the Sterling family and who is currently challenging Richmond for Congress.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and President Barack Obama both sent representatives to the service. The family personally thanked Gov. Edwards in the program.
On Thursday, Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son Cameron participated in a town hall hosted by President Obama. Two days before, while he was en route to a memorial in Dallas for the five officers killed in an ambush during a protest against police violence, the president also called Alton Sterling’s aunt to express his condolences.
Holden has consistently argued that it would be inappropriate for him to reach out to the Sterling family, and although the event was open to the public, Holden was not “directly invited,” according to Sterling family spokesman Gary Chambers, who served as the memorial’s “master of ceremonies.” Like Sterling, Holden is from the close-knit community of Scotlandville, a predominately African-American pocket of North Baton Rouge. “This is an election year for a new mayor,” state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey told the audience. “You may clap.”
During the service, both Sharpton and Jackson praised the Black Lives Matter movement for shining a light on the mistreatment of African-American men by law enforcement. “The shooter in Dallas wasn’t trained by Black Lives Matter,” Jackson said. “He was trained by the military.”
Sharpton argued that the movement was about ending “wickedness,” not about scapegoating all police officers. He also praised the city of Baton Rouge, noting that it was Baton Rouge — and not Montgomery — that hosted the nation’s very first bus boycott, which was organized by the late Rev. T.J. Jemison in 1953. “This is the birthplace [of the civil rights movement],” Sharpton said to raucous applause.
Although the nation’s most famous African-American activists served as the memorial’s headliners, the most stirring remarks were delivered by someone who was not even listed on the program. Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the Triple S convenience store where Sterling was killed, gave an impromptu and emotional eulogy to his friend, whom he described as the “definition of Southern hospitality.” Muflahi was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation, and at times, struggled through tears.
“Take your time,” members of the audience implored, wise advice for both Muflahi and for a city still reeling from a senseless killing.