‘Hannah Atkins has crossed the last threshold’

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 25-Jun-2010

Oklahoma City’s farewell to former state Rep. Hannah Atkins combined elements of public memorial, family and neighborhood reunion, intensely personal reflections and deep spirituality. 

Dubbed “A Celebration of the Life of Hannah Diggs Atkins,” the ceremonies at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Friday (June 25) were certainly a memorial. Gov. Brad Henry sketched Mrs. Atkins’ storied career of public service as the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma Legislature, where she endured racial prejudice and personal triumph, modeling “service, civic virtue and dignity.” Ultimately she was named secretary of state in the cabinet of Gov. Henry Bellmon.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren recounted her journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma with her husband Charles, a medical doctor who came to the Sooner State because the first racially integrated medical facility in the South, Edwards Hospital, had been established. Judge Miles-LaGrange addressed her “dear mentor and friend” and thanked her because, “You believed that everybody should get the opportunity to play by the same set of rules.”

Miles-LaGrange, Oklahoma’s first black woman federal judge, said the funeral and surrounding events for Mrs. Atkins had become the equivalent of a neighborhood reunion, pulling within the walls of St. Paul’s a community of people who once were neighbors but now live throughout the city area and across the nation. Every speaker spoke of the love and loyalty Mrs. Atkins evoked from diverse quarters.

Powerful were the personal reflections that poured forth from eulogists. Boren remembered the stately and graceful woman who served as his “backbench” seatmate and who “made every single one of us – every person she ever met – better.” He recounted how legislative committee meetings or deliberations could turn unruly, “then Hannah would enter the room, and nobody wanted to misbehave.” She led with “respect, and continuing kindness.”

Gov. Henry remembered his father Charles bringing him to the Capitol, and to Hannah’s desk on the House floor, as a boy. He told the lad, “Do whatever Hannah tells you.” Many years later, Mrs. Atkins served as his 2002 campaign chairman.

In the spiritual realm, Judge Miles-LaGrange spoke directly to her departed friend, promising, “I’ll see you on the other side.”  The Rev. Canon N. Luke Back, homilist for St. Paul’s, meditated on words that characterized Mrs. Atkins’ public life: “freedom, fairness, opportunity, justice.” He added another word: “Oklahoma.”

Atkins modeled belief in Jesus Christ, Back said, by living out the meaning of other words: “prayer, faith, hope, love, forgiveness, redemption.” He drew inspiration from the Gospel of John, and the heartbreak of Martha over the death of her brother Lazarus. In dialogue with Jesus, she issued one of the first declarations he was “the Son of God” (John 11:27) and the source of  resurrection.

Welcoming members of Hannah’s home congregation, Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Back noted the mystery of St. Paul’s itself, heavily damaged in the Murrah Bombing of 1995, yet with a sanctuary spared from serious harm. He encouraged attendees at the service to receive Communion and to “cross the threshold into sacred space.” He shared confidence that “Hannah has crossed the last threshold.”

Assisting Revs. Back and Susan Colley Joplin and the rites at St. Paul’s were Revs. Carol M. Hampton, Morgan Ibe (who read the Gospel), and Marilyn Robertson. Acclaimed soloist Hank Bowen, a longtime friend of the Atkins family, sang the Lord’s Prayer as part of the service. Lay readers were Rachel Pringle and Damien Atkins (Hannah’s grandson).

Pallbearers included former state Rep. Kevin Cox (who took Atkins’ legislative seat when she left the House), Judge Robert Henry (incoming president of Oklahoma City University), James R. Johnson, Colin M. Williams, Robert H. Alexander, Jr., Bruce T. Fisher, George Humphreys and Wallace B. McLeod, III.

On Thursday, Mrs. Atkins’ mortal remains lay in the second floor rotunda of the State Capitol, guarded by members of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. A steady stream of visitors came to pay their respects to her and to greet members of her family, including the three children from her marriage to the late Dr. Charles Atkins:  Edmund E. Atkins of Washington, D.C., Charles N. Atkins, Jr. of new York Cty and Valerie Atkins Alexander of Wilmington Delaware.

One visitor during Thursday’s day at the Capitol was Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who told CapitolBeatOK, “I served in the Legislature with Hannah Atkins in the 1970s. She commanded the respect of everybody in the room. Her public service after her time in the Legislature was every bit as significant as her service was when I knew her. My thoughts are with her family.”

At precisely 3 p.m., a honor guard of six state Highway Patrolmen, removed the Oklahoma state flag from Hannah Atkins’ casket, then folded it into an all-blue triangle. The six members of the honor guard then formed up, three apiece on each side, to carry the casket out of the Capitol to the awaiting hearse.

Many top state leaders attended the last rites for Mrs. Atkins at St. Paul’s on Friday. In addition to Gov. Henry, Judge Henry, President Boren and Judge Miles-LaGrange, participants in the celebration of this Oklahoman’s eventful life included state Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City and state Reps. T.W. Shannon of Lawton and Al McAffrey of Oklahoma City.

Also present were Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson, former city public school board member Thelma Parks, and Supreme Court Justice Marion Opala. State president Anthony Douglas represented the NAACP. Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church in Oklahoma City and a veteran of the civil rights movement, was also present.

At Friday’s farewell, many contemplated Mrs. Atkins’ life in the context of “Life Every Voice and Sing,” a poem written to honor Abraham Lincoln in 1900 which became the faith anthem for the American civil rights movement. Its closing words spoke of enduring belief in the face of hardship: “Shadowed beneath Thy hand may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.”