Leaders hail Graham as martyr during funeral

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Executed killer compared to Moses, Jesus, MLK during music-filled 3-hour service

HOUSTON – A week after his execution for a murder he denied committing, Gary Graham was laid to rest Thursday with a funeral at which religious and political leaders used his death to promote black voter registration and opposition to the death penalty.

"Sleep on, prince," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, gesturing toward Mr. Graham's coffin covered with yellow roses. "You've done your job. You organized us. Because you sleep, we are awake."

Mr. Graham, who pleaded guilty to 10 other armed robberies and was implicated in several other crimes, received a lethal injection June 22 for the robbery-slaying of Bobby Gene Lambert in a Houston grocery store parking lot in May 1981.

Speakers during the three-hour service at Community of Faith church compared him to Moses, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroes of history.

The crowd that nearly filled the 3,000-seat sanctuary was moved repeatedly to cheers and standing ovations by an ecumenical list of speakers across the spectrum, including Catholic priests, Muslim ministers and political activists.

"This boy had a terrible background," acknowledged Mr. Jackson. "But then Jesus defended the prostitute ... the centurion ... the tax collector." And the case against Mr. Graham should have been reheard, Mr. Jackson argued.

Mr. Jackson chided blacks for failing to turn out to vote against Gov. George W. Bush in the last Texas election. He urged the congregation to register to vote in the presidential election and to take political action to change the system.

As his aides handed out voter registration cards, Mr. Jackson said: "You must make power by using what God has given you."

The service mixed African and American themes, Muslim and Christian traditions, black power salutes with quiet prayers.

A ritual billed as a traditional African "libation" for the dead was performed with drums beating. Big-screen monitors showed a video of Mr. Graham and his supporters backed by Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings."

A Nation of Islam minister in uniform spoke a prayer in Arabic. The church's big choir sang gospel tunes. A soloist sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Going to Come." Several other Christian ministers gave stem-winding sermonettes.

Among the mourners was Rita Jackson, 65, a native Houstonian, who said she thought many were drawn to the case by their sense of injustice in America.

"I feel he was innocent ... because it has happened so many times," said Ms. Jackson, a retired nurse. "The system just is not fair towards black people. It's a general thing."

Mr. Jackson told the congregation that the funeral, including burial in Paradise Cemetery, cost $10,000 and called for contributions to help pay the bill.