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Rev. Cecil Williams' life celebrated in song at Glide Memorial in San Francisco

Rev. Cecil Williams' life celebrated in music at Glide Memorial service
Rev. Cecil Williams' life celebrated in music at Glide Memorial service 03:53

SAN FRANCISCO -- Rev. Cecil Williams, the charismatic leader of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco died in April but, on Sunday, family, friends and admirers gathered to offer a final tribute to the civil rights leader who brought music to social activism.

Cecil Williams often compared his life to a jazz song so it was fitting that his memorial tribute began with a Dixieland band leading the famous Glide Ensemble singers up the aisle.

"Sixty years ago, he knew that to transform people's lives you gotta have some music!" said Glide board chairman Reggie Johnson. "Everyone who walked through that door found love."

San Fransisco first witnessed that love in 1963 when Cecil took over a struggling Glide Methodist Church.  He brought powerful music to the Tenderloin, attracting young people with a hip style and his love for the phrase, "Right On!"

As he told his congregation in an old film clip from 1970, "'Right On' really, really means that you are in the world and you understand what's happening in that world and you're relating to it, baby!"

He was seen at first as a radical and later as a respected civil rights leader, taking up causes that ended up on the right side of history.  Gay rights, AIDS compassion, apartheid, war -- whatever the issue, he and his longtime wife and partner, the late Janice Mirikitani, were not afraid to take to the streets for their beliefs.

At Sunday's tribute, Dr. Angela Davis, another fiery 1960s activist leader, spoke of the true power of the couple, who became her close friends.

"In doing this work, Cecil and Jan always stood on the front lines against racism, against homophobia, against occupation, against war," she said.  "They always stood for love."

Later, when homelessness and poverty took over the Tenderloin, Cecil showed his love again by becoming a leading voice and source of comfort for the down-and-out.  On the street outside the memorial service, Marvin Cox enjoyed yet another meal provided by Glide.

"Everybody's focused on themselves, yes?  But when you come up out of that, that means you must be a heck of a guy," Cox said. "That's what it is, just helping each other, so we can all  prosper."

Back inside, the politically powerful -- Mayor London Breed, former mayor Willie Brown, Rep. Barbara Lee and others -- sat in attendance and listened to Cecil's daughter, Kimberly, sum up her father's legacy.  

"His life was and still is a profound and powerful demonstration of living one's purpose. And truth, with conviction and commitment. Cecil is still reverberating and echoing like a musical note that lives and vibrates inside of me and in all of us," she said.

Cecil Williams knew the power of music to capture people's attention and imagination and to make them believe that a better world was possible and that's what he talked about in his final interview with KPIX reporter John Ramos at his 90th birthday celebration in 2019.

"I've always talked about changing the world," he said.  "And I really believe that we have touched many people from all over the world."

So, with music as the symbol of a life spent helping others, San Francisco pastor Rev. Amos Brown told the crowd that Cecil will indeed take that jazz tune with him on his next journey.

"When the saints go marchin' in," Rev. Brown exclaimed, "Cecil will be in that number!"

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