As the funeral procession for Dudley Laws reached the cemetery and as the hearse began its turn off Highway 50, five uniformed police officers stood at attention and saluted. It was one of the most poignant of a host of poignant moments for me on a day which in itself was as historic as we may ever experience.
I don’t mind revealing that the scene brought tears to my eyes.
What a difference a few years have made. What a difference have the work and the unyielding spirit of this man wrought.
Following a march – in the spirit of Dudley Laws – early on Saturday morning along Eglinton Avenue West with a few hundred people in attendance, more than 2,000 people packed Revivaltime Tabernacle to celebrate his life and to bid him farewell. It was undoubtedly the largest funeral service ever conducted in this or any other church in our community, maybe in the city itself – for a civilian.
There were politicians and police, members of our community and of the wider community from all walks of life – maybe some who initially did not support or agree with his approach but who have now come to understand that when he stood up, he stood up for all of us; when he spoke out, he spoke out for all of us; when he suffered humiliation and abuse it was because of the stand he took for all of us.
While some may still not acknowledge it, a lot of the gains we have made as a community have been the result of the work of Dudley Laws and his Black Action Defence Committee and other organizations with which he has been involved. It was he and they who raised the issues, drew attention to the disparities faced by Blacks in this city and demanded justice, promising that without it there would be no peace. It was he and they who dared to call the police to account for shooting Black men in this city.
When he called the Toronto police the most murderous police force in North America, no one really believed that. In fact, I don’t think even he believed it. But it was his way of drawing attention to his message; it was his way of placing the spotlight on what many of us saw as very horrifying reality, especially for Black men, in this city.
There was a lot of anger in the community towards the police. Helpless anger. Then came Dudley Laws. He channeled that anger into peaceful protest – loud, boisterous at times – and he got results. But at incredible cost to his name, his character.
Former deputy Toronto police chief, Keith Forde, who came to understand Dudley Laws over the years, paid tribute to him at the funeral service. He said that many people saw Laws as a radical because of the things he demanded, such as police accountability.
“How could these things be considered as radical,” he said. And he reeled off a list of names of Black senior police officers who, he said, could credit their success up the ranks to the efforts of Dudley Laws. Including himself.
It is no wonder that a number of police officers volunteered their time to provide an honour guard outside the Revivaltime Tabernacle. It is no wonder that Police Chief Bill Blair and the Police Command donated the use of several cruisers to escort this wonderfully humble man to his final resting place.
If you believe we have a great police force in this city today – and we at Share sincerely do – we can give the credit both to Dudley Laws for his uncompromising resolve and to the police themselves who actually paid attention and made the effort to better reflect and serve our community.
And that benefits all of us – both the believers and the non-believers.
Dudley Laws was also troubled by other issues facing Blacks in this city. He was deeply concerned about the education of our youth and fought for the establishment of the Africentric School (which, hopefully, one day will bear his name). He cared intensely for prison inmates, especially young Black men who were incarcerated. He travelled constantly to the prisons to visit them and, as others have said, on the day before he was hospitalized for the last time, and in his weakened state, he made the long, uncomfortable journey to visit one of the prisons to help “his boys” celebrate Black History Month. It would be the last time they would ever see him.
They will miss him. As would we. As would those facing problems in the future who would not have his gentle, caring voice and compassion to soothe their anguish.
Some have expressed concern that there is no one to fill his shoes; that there is no other like him to take his place. And that is true. There was, and will ever only be, one Dudley Laws.
However, because Dudley Laws was Dudley Laws, there is no longer a need for a Dudley Laws. He did what he was sent here to do. His job is finished. He is now at rest.
But there remains a job for us; each of us.
Some said that the entire day of Dudley Laws’ funeral was remarkable in that there was such a spirit of togetherness, of cooperation, of solidarity, of affection.
It doesn’t have to end.
Dudley Laws loved his community and worked diligently to make it better; to make us better and to make our road a bit easier. His is an example we can follow. And not just for our community.
We can support each other. We can speak up for each other. We can comfort each other in time of need. We can make our voices heard whether we are sitting in one of our nation’s parliaments; around the board table in one of our major corporations, banks or law firms; in our schools and universities; in the workplace; in our churches. Even on the street. We can choose to follow Dudley Laws’ example.
One thing that Dudley Laws taught us – if we were paying attention – is that, while it may be uncomfortable at times, there really is no alternative to speaking truth to power. Some may not like what you say or even how you say it but they will come to respect you if you are principled and if your cause is just.
And, if you are, in the end you will win. As Dudley Laws did.
Just ask all those people at his funeral.