Bang Long Jr. died February 22, 2008. He was a friend of 20+ years and diligent advocate for people with disabilities.
I was attending my first Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois Conference. The Conference featured a dance for people to meet and socialize. The small contingent of people I knew from Decatur wandered off, leaving me to sit alone. I was feeling a bit like a wall flower.
Then this robust man walked up and asked me to dance. Whew... I felt saved. You never know what you're going to get when you agree to dance with a stranger. Sometimes the guy is all elbows and jerkiness. But, this guy could dance! Double whew!
We made small talk while we boogied-woogied on the dance floor. I asked him his name.
"Bang", he shouted over the music.
"Huh?", I shouted back.
"Bang", he repeated.
"What?" I asked again.
"Bang", he said the third time.
"Funny", I said, "I thought you said Bang."
He made me feel welcomed... comfortable. He was tender, warm and had a friendly smile and manner. Observing him all these years, I watched him do the same sort of thing to countless other new members of the Coalition. His brand of organizing was very personal. He took you by the hand, walked with you a while, introduced you around. He made you want to be a part of what he was doing.
I learned that the man with the odd name had a stroke when he was 35 while working as a nurse's aid at one of the baddest prisons in the nation, Statesville Correctional Center in Joliet Illinois. I never could reconcile how this gentle man survived in such a violent place. But, he loved the work and had tons of stories about his adventures there. When he bumped into someone he worked with, he introduced them, then said, "We met in prison."
After his stroke he became involved with disability issues. He "got it". Not surprising, considering he was a strong union guy and an Asian-African-American.
He was working at a Memphis hospital when Martin Luther King and the striking sanitation workers were tear gassed and beaten by police in 1968. He was on hand to care for them. He knew racism, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination; and he knew that organized action was the only way to move toward justice.
Mike and I attended his memorial service in Joliet at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on March 2nd. It felt a little strange; we met a new group of people who knew and loved Bang. We sort of thought he belonged to us, the disability rights movement; but here was his church family feeling the tremendous loss too.
Mike noted that if you had to design a church around Bang's values, it would be Sacred Heart. They are open, friendly, diverse, socially aware and as committed to justice as any religious community we have seen.
One of the church members mentioned that every time she went to the train station to pick up or drop off someone, she saw Bang on the platform, going to to or coming from some disability rights event.
He was every where. If you were involved in disability civil rights in Illinois you probably saw Bang at an event; rallies at the capitol, fundraising, mentoring youth, attending meetings, sitting on boards, and the list goes on. He was also at the signing of the American Disabilities Act in Washington D.C. He seemed tireless.
Despite failing health the last 5-6 years, he was still showed up. His speech was a little slower, he started using a scooter instead of walking, he missed parts of conversations and it took him a little longer to form a response; but still Bang showed up. Even after kidney failure, he arranged to have dialysis in Springfield, 150 miles from his home, so he wouldn't miss an event.
I will miss my friend. He was vigorous in his support for the disenfranchised, especially people with disabilities. The world is a little less friendly, a little more selfish, and a little less complete without him in it.