Warren Kimbro’s coffin was covered by an American flag. Wafts of hot, steamy air enveloped the sanctuary room where the coffin lay, in the Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church on Orchard Street. A video screen showcased pictures — fragments of his life as a father, an activist, a Black Panther.
“Praise him!” a woman wailed, her hands in the air. “Praise him!”
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The crowd of 500 — mostly black — echoed the righteous screech. Their voices, a hymn of homage.
At Kimbro’s funeral service Monday morning, the attending men, women and children — many clad in black, some donning jackets emblazoned with the insignia from community activist groups — sat in silence. Friends and family approached the stage, recalling Kimbro’s decades-long crusade for alternative incarceration programs and his mentorship for those seeking the redemption he himself strived to attain. But at some points during the reflective three-hour tribute, the masses could not help but sing.
Women crooned and men hummed along to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Ushers handed out Kleenex and cardboard fans.
And when Gwendolyn Busch, a member of City Hall’s Youth at Work program, belted the last note of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the audience shot up in boisterous applause. The 40-year-old woman knew Kimbro because she befriended his son, Germano.
“He was a hard worker,” Busch said after her performance, one of many acts meant to commemorate Kimbro’s life. “And he loved Project MORE.”
Kimbro, who died from heart attack Feb. 3 at the age of 74, had championed the creation of Project MORE, a well-known local community agency that provides prison re-entry services. Those in attendance agreed that the grandfather of five inspired countless lives to social work and community activism.
But as a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, Kimbro shot and killed Alex Rackley, a party member who they suspected to be an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Within days, New Haven had erupted as the stage of the May Day trials of Black Panther Bobby Seale and others.
Kimbro served four and a half years for his crime — the shortest-ever murder sentence in Connecticut history — and from behind bars, the high school dropout earned his general equivalency degree and studied in a prisoner-targeted program at Eastern Connecticut State University. After prison, he attended Harvard.
(Kimbro did not want to be considered a hero for this turnaround, he repeated throughout his life. He once told high school students: “I don’t want you to pick up a gun like me. I want you to do this revolution by getting into Yale Law School.”)
Former State Rep. Bill Dyson and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. were among the notable speakers chosen to christen Kimbro’s life with final words. Among the famous attendees: State Rep. Pat Dillon and Scot X. Esdaile, state conference president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“He was my heart,” Esdaile said simply.
DeStefano described Kimbro’s central role in the local black community, from the tumultuous days of the Black Panther riots to the recent months in which America has seen its first black president.
The mayor touted the recent passage of the “Ban the Box” initiative — a program created by the city, with help from Kimbro, to remove from job applications a question about past felony experience. Less than an hour before Kimbro’s death last week, the Board of Aldermen Human Services Committee unanimously voted for the program, the most significant City Hall prison re-entry initiative in many months.
“The truth is,” DeStefano imparted, “Warren Kimbro made us better than sometimes we even deserved to be.”
Yet during the service, the man was also recognized for the small idiosyncrasies that defined his character. Kimbro loved to be the first member of his family to hold a newborn infant. He gave his sons, daughters, nieces and nephews quirky nicknames such as “Mano” and “Chatterbox.” He was an avid golf player. (During the funeral, Kimbro’s family distributed packets of golf tees as parting gifts.)
Inside, the shutters were closed; no light was let into the hall. Onlookers stood up as Suffragan Bishop Richard Brooks finished his eulogy. Dennis Cue, 48, remained in the crowd, silently thanking Kimbro for urging him to attain a general equivalency degree and apply for a state pardon.
At the end of the service, Kimbro’s grandson Aaron came to the stage. To laughs, the suave male joked of a phone conversation St. Peter had with him about Kimbro’s passing. According to Aaron, St. Peter said the former Black Panther had a message for the crowds: “Make sure the family stays together.”
Around 1:30 p.m., family members rose the coffin from the floor and carried it firmly to the charcoal-black cars, their hazard lights turned on, ready to join the march of tears to the burial site two miles away at Beaverdale Memorial Park where Kimbro would be laid.
Here, friends and family members murmured, whispering about the atonement of Warren Kimbro. There, the military salute squad held its guns in the air, ready to shoot.