By Sandra Long Weaver
Tribune Editorial Director
Nashville TN (TN Tribune)–Mr. Leo Kwame Lillard would have wanted us to understand the importance and value of liberation, Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. told the family and friends who gathered Monday, Dec. 28 at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill to celebrate his life of activism.
Mr. Lillard, 81, died on Sunday, Dec. 20. He was one of the few 1960 sit-in protestors who was still living in Nashville. He also was one of the founders of the African American Cultural Alliance, the annual African street festival, the annual Kwanzaa celebration and led the fight to preserve Fort Negley. He also served on the Metro
“Leo was like John the Baptist, trying to be that way maker, trying to clear the path for others to get there,” said Rev. Smith who wore a daishiki during the eulogy in honor of Mr. Lillard’s life. Those in attendance also wore masks and were socially distanced throughout the church. “I’ve known Leo most of my life,” Rev. Smith said. “I
realized the importance of liberation from him. He worked tirelessly for liberation and it is important for us to understand the value of liberation. It also teaches us about salvation.”
He didn’t have a lot of pretense about who he was, Rev. Smith said. First, “he would have said to us to keep it simple. John the Baptist did what was necessary” and Mr. Lillard did also. Simplicity has its merits, its value.
“Secondly, make sure we pursue our calling. Go and preach in the wilderness. Leo understood that’s what God had called him to do,” Rev. Smith said.
Any jobs he had were tangential to that calling, Rev. Smith said. “He understood that he needed to be focused on what he had to do. He was a freedom rider, he fought for Fort Negley, the naming of Martin Luther King Jr. street.”
Mr. Lillard “could never be accused that he wasn’t doing what he was called to do” he said. “We need everybody to do what they are called to do,” he said during the passionate eulogy that was interrupted by applause several times.
Finally, you have to be wilderness voices. John was a wilderness voice. He was not caught up in the day to day, Rev. Smith said. “We who are people of color been in the wilderness a long time,”Rev. Smith said.
“Leo did his job. He worked long and hard and is deserving of his rest. Those of us who are still here, still have to work. We have to speak truth to power and speak in such a way trying to make a difference. Take it from Leo Lillard.”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said Mr. Lillard understood how great it is to be at the corner of I-65 and I-40 and look up and see what was built and to understand that struggle for freedom.
“Fort Negley was built by African Americans and UNESCO has recognized it as an important site,” Cooper said. “That’s how I want to honor Kwame’s legacy. I want to restore Fort Negley to what it should be.” He added the he would be calling on Metro council members to help.
The service was also posted on the church’s Facebook page shortly after it ended. It could not be live streamed because of the damage to the internet service in the explosion on Christmas morning.