GARY | The hundreds gathered for the funeral of former Mayor Rudy Clay burst into a standing ovation Wednesday for the man whose life they were celebrating.
"Rudy Clay was a freedom fighter," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, of Chicago's Operation Push, told the crowd at the Genesis Convention Center.
Jackson said he first met Clay when they marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, participated in boycotts and picketed for racial equality.
"Mayor Clay fought corporate abandonment of the city. He was on the right side of history," Jackson said.
But Clay also was remembered as generous, not strident. Son Rudy Clay Jr. said his father wrote, "Smile, laugh. Be good looking to God," only weeks before his June 4 death on the back of a political bookmarks printed up for the mayor's many campaigns.
The Rev. Stephanie Welsh started the four-hour service with the promise that "a cloud of preachers and witnesses" would relate the highlights of the 77-year-old Clay, the model of a self-made man who refused to be overcome by the tragedies that marked his early life.
Clay was born in a small community of Hillsboro, Ala. His mother died when he was 18 months. Two aunts took over his care and they moved to Gary, where he became a lifelong member of the Israel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
He graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1953 and attended Indiana University in Bloomington, was a successful insurance salesman and became the first black state senator in 1971. He went on to become a county councilman, the first black county recorder and was a county commissioner for 20 years.
Former Gary Mayor Scott King left office in 2007 and Clay narrowly won a caucus of Democratic precinct committeemen in a three-way race to become the next mayor. The caucus was held in the very room the service took place.
Judge Greg Mathis, who stars on his show "Judge Mathis," said Clay was a leader and a friend whose generation's sacrifices made it possible for an African-American to be featured on a television program like his.
"He never took his eye off of Gary. He seemed to know everybody in Gary," Mathis said.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who ran against and eventually succeeded Clay at City Hall, extolled his ability to win elections, "He knew how to work a room. He had a PhD in political strategy."
Lake County Councilwoman Elsie Franklin, D-Gary, said, "Rudy campaigned when everyone else was asleep."