Mourners stood and danced in the aisle, one even shaking a tambourine as the choir sang. It may have been a funeral but there was no question this was a celebration honoring the life of Emma Darnell, a Fulton County commissioner who died last week after 27 years in office.
In speeches and song, Darnell’s colleagues and friends recalled a fierce woman, a warrior, whose presence they said made all of Fulton County better — especially for the elderly and the poor.
“She was a trailblazer,” Bishop Thomas L Brown, Sr. said in Darnell’s eulogy. “She was an advocate for people who had no voice. Sometimes she spoke by herself, but she knew she was not speaking alone.”
Brown, the presiding bishop of the sixth district of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said he had known Darnell since 1973. In that time, he said, he learned Darnell knew that what was right mattered most, and that she would continue to press for it.
“Here is a fallen soldier that won the battle,” he said.
Darnell died May 5 at 84, following an illness. She was serving her eighth term on the Fulton County commission, having first been elected in 1992.
Remembrances came from all parts of Darnell’s political life. Sam Massell, the former mayor of Atlanta, recounted seeing Darnell speak at a YMCA for the first time in the 1960s and insisting she join him in the mayor’s office should he ever be elected. He said he was impressed with her composure and her intellect, and credited her with helping to peacefully shift the city’s power structure from all-white to majority African-American. Bill Campbell, another former mayor, said Darnell fought to balance the scales of inequality. He said she wasn’t scared of anyone — though there were many who feared her.
And Keisha Lance Bottoms, the current mayor, presented Darnell posthumously with the city’s Phoenix Award, the highest honor the mayor can bestow. She credited Darnell with fighting courageously for “a seat at the table that had a full place setting.”
“She knew we as a people deserved nothing less,” Bottoms said. “This is a better nation because she came our way.”
Robb Pitts, the chairman of the Fulton County commission, recited a litany of words people used to describe Darnell: brilliant, dynamic, sometimes long-winded, feisty, witty, always well-prepared. He said Darnell embodied all of those qualities and more as she worked to remind other elected officials that they were serving the people.
At times both raucous and somber, the two-and-a-half-hour funeral began with a standing ovation for Darnell’s service. The readings, songs and speeches were often punctuated by shouts of praise from attendees.
“All politicians need to take note of the life of Emma Darnell,” said the Rev. Jasper W. Williams, Sr., the senior pastor of Salem Bible Church. “She represented us with A No. 1 class.”
Darnell represented the south part of Fulton County, but leaders across the community honored her with more than a dozen flower arrangements. Before the service started, the line to sign the guest book stretched out of the church. Constituents, loved ones, colleagues and friends stopped by the open casket before the service to pay their respects to Darnell, who was dressed in black and clutched her glasses in her hand.
Janice Tate Gresham, who knew Darnell from church, said she wanted honor her by singing in the choir at her funeral because she was thankful for her work as a champion of the people.
“I was so awed by her,” she said. “I had to be here.”
And Bevelyn Parham, a retired nurse, said she owed her active life to the senior centers that Darnell championed. Parham said she came to the funeral, at Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in Atlanta, to honor Darnell, whom she called a politician of integrity and character.
Darnell mentored Parham’s daughter, Sondra, when she started to become a community advocate. Sondra Parham said she wanted to pay homage to Darnell, who she called “one of my true heroines in life.” Bevelyn Parham said Darnell had an uncanny ability to make you feel like you were the only person who mattered when she was talking to you.
“It’s going to be hard for seniors and indigent people, it’s going to be very hard,” the elder Parham said. “She’s just a jewel of a saint and a true angel.”
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