George Livingston looked dapper as usual as he lay in repose for a public viewing Monday night. Having devoted much of his 78 years on Earth to public service, it was only fitting that a City of Richmond pin was fastened to the left lapel of his brown suit.
“George introduced me to politics” said Councilman Nat Bates, as he offered a few impromptu remarks at a service that allowed friends, family and the public to share their thoughts on Livingston’s life. Bates glanced between the packed room and Livingston’s open casket. “We were best of friends.”
Livingston, Richmond’s second African American city council member and its first elected African American mayor, died Jan. 7 after a long bout with diabetes and kidney disease.
For four hours on Monday, mourners filed in and out of Wilson & Kratzer Mortuaries’ Civic Center Chapel to share some final moments with on of the most influential public figures Richmond has ever known. It seemed appropriate that the viewing was on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., some speakers noted, because Livingston was a direct descendant of King’s legacy of public service and spirited activism. Livingston ran for office shortly after a pivotal meeting he had with King when the civil rights leader visited Contra Costa College in the early 1960s. King inspired Livingston to run for public office.
From the mid-1960s to the 1990s Livingston was among Richmond’s foremost elected leaders, and the first-ever African American elected to be mayor in the city. Among his accomplishments were new housing developments throughout the city and annexing some land previously owned by Chevron Corp. to pave the way for Hilltop Mall.
For the first two hours Monday, people took turns visiting Livingston, who lay in a rich brown casket, many communicating with his body in hushed tones. After a moment of silence, the next two hours were spent in prayer as friends and family members made individual remarks about the impact Livingston had on their lives.
Livingston’s doctors spoke of the former mayor’s unflappable faith and grace despite pain and grim diagnoses in recent years. Local clergy members remarked about how Livingston never “got too big” to connect with ordinary people in the community.
Several people mentioned how Livingston had helped them or their children achieve gainful employment. One of Livingston’s nieces told the audience that “Uncle George never missed a phone call to me on my birthday.”
But perhaps the most touching ode came from Bates, Livingston’s one-time protégé and the man who worked alongside Livingston in politics longer than any other.
Often pausing to look at his friend, rolling a newspaper in his hands, Bates mused about the early days and the influence Livingston had on him. But he kept coming back to his friend’s legacy, which he said was a legacy of development that will last far beyond his life.
“Everywhere you look, George has his stamp is on this city,” Bates said.
Livingston’s funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 662 South 52nd Street.