On Saturday morning in America, the nation's attention was once again turned to a black church in mourning.
Sandra Bland was laid to rest today in front of friends, family, supporters and the media who have been trying to unearth every detail of her death and life—some say fairly, others say with a bias that is only reserved for African-Americans who die in police custody.
The Rev. James Miller called Bland a hero before Saturday's ceremony began at his church in a western Chicago suburb.
"Everyone please file by quickly, we just don't have the time anymore," Miller said as hundreds walked past Bland’s casket. "I have to abide by a tradition that has been going on in this country from the beginning. And that is that weddings are always late and funerals are always on time."
In a pamphlet handed out by ushers, which some gripped as a sacred souvenir, there were pictures of young Sandy—in a Chicago Bears jersey outside Soldier Field, in an elementary school picture with bangs and a goofy grin—the girl and the woman none of us knew but who many have tried to understand over the past two weeks.
As the ceremony began, Miller insisted that the Sandy Bland who should be remembered today isn't the one who has been talked about in the media recently, or the one seen on dashcam footage after being pulled over in Texas, but the one who was happy on holidays and smiling at family reunions.
The real Sandy Bland. Not the one flashing across TV screens and appearing in thousands of stories.
Everyone likes to say that funerals aren't somber events, but celebrations. That sentiment may be no more true than in the black church, and there may have been no celebration of life in the entire country on Saturday greater than the one at the DuPage AME Church in Lisle, Illinois.
While it was an overwhelmingly joyous ceremony, there were words of frustration and anger as well.
"We're not here to sell commercials for you," Miller said, noting the news cameras camped outside. And the crowd wasn't there to show photos of cuts on Bland's arms, revealed after her autopsy and which some have pointed to as evidence she was distraught—a possible reason for her alleged suicide.
"To be showing these pictures during her funeral—they want me to sit down before I get in trouble," Miller said to raucous applause. "But I was born black in America. I was born in trouble!"
That was the sentiment among many in the crowd, nodding their heads in agreement with the pastor and proclaiming, “Amen!”
Altering opinions and theories about Bland did not matter on Saturday. This is her place, Miller insisted. Her memory will be protected here, and her legacy will be one of honor, advocacy and progress.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and Rep. Bill Foster were the biggest political names who spoke at the funeral. Both noted they had signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a federal investigation into Bland's death.
The statement garnered some of the loudest applause of the day.
On his way to the church, Durbin noted, there were plenty of cars changing lanes he said, pausing for an ovation.
“And I didn’t see any of them getting pulled over.”
There were others who spoke of the Sandy they knew.
Her sorority sisters remembered Bland with wavering voices. "She was always there to give you advice—even if you didn't ask for if," one quipped. Bland’s success in education—she was on the dean’s list at Prairie View A&M University—prompted Miller’s church to create a college scholarship in her honor. It’s called “Sandy Speaks,” named after the online videos in which the 28-year-old spoke about issues of race and social justice.
Over and over again, speakers put their faith in God to bring answers—and, some said, justice—to the Bland family. A spiritual truth that is higher than worldly laws like the one that got Bland pulled over on July 13 was set forth as the redeeming value of Christianity, a faith Bland spoke often of.
But of all those who took to the pulpit, none were more forceful than Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who has stayed largely out of the news since her daughter’s death. She was the last speaker of the day, and for anyone wishing to hear her thoughts on her daughter, contemporary black life and the way in which African-Americans who die in police custody are treated by the media, she did not disappoint.
“If the media went back and looked at all our stuff,” Reed-Veal said, referencing reporting on Bland’s legal history, “then I don’t think Pastor Miller would be sitting here today.”
The line was meant to point out what some critics claim is a distortion of Bland. To family and friends she was an accomplished, intelligent, outspoken advocate for the downtrodden—a description that is sometimes followed in the media by her minor criminal history.
Reed-Veal recounted a trip she took with Bland three weeks ago to see family in Memphis, a trip in which they both discussed some of the mistakes they’d made, both in life and with each other.
“We had had a strained relationship over the years,” Reed-Veal said, “but we were getting back together.
“She shared with me her joys and her pains.”
Bland also shared with her mother a newfound cause.
“She said, ‘Mom, I’m ready to go back to Texas,’” Reed-Veal remembered. “And her purpose was to stop all injustice against blacks.”