Hundreds of mourners had already walked by the rose-covered casket in the center of Bill Harris Arena at the Birmingham CrossPlex by the time the visitation for Larry Langford was scheduled to begin.
The doors opened about 40 minutes before the scheduled start time of 2 p.m. because so many people had arrived early to pay their respects to the man whose resume included terms as mayor of Fairfield and Birmingham, and as president of the Jefferson County Commission.
People easily topping 1,000 lined up at three guestbooks. Each signed his name as validation of what Langford’s wife, Melva, and other relatives certainly already knew. The man whose life ended Wednesday in a Princeton Baptist Medical Center bed was more than a politician; he was a fixture in the community.
There were politicians, from state Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, to state Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham. But the masses were regular people. Many had known Langford from his days growing up in Titusville’s Loveman Village public housing community and later as he graced the airwaves as a TV journalist.
Two former Birmingham mayors spoke during a ceremony after visitors had finished strolling by the guarded casket. One of them, Bernard Kincaid, recalled the three-word slogan – Let’s Do Something – that allowed Langford to emerge from a field of 10 to be elected mayor of Birmingham without a runoff in 2007.
Kincaid recounted having heard the song “Safe in His Arms” as he dressed for church this morning.
“He’ll make some changes in Heaven,” Kincaid said of the man who unseated him. “I know that’s exactly where he is. As a former mayor of Birmingham, I am proud of what he has done.”
Another former mayor, William Bell, spoke not about politics but instead of a friendship that dated back to when he was 12 and Langford 14.
“Larry was always a go-getter,” Bell said later. “Even from the age of about 13 or 14, he had his part-time jobs in the community. Everyone old and young knew who Larry Langford was. And that energy and enthusiasm he had for life remained with him ‘til the very end.”
Langford spent most of the last decade of his life in federal prison after being convicted in 2009 on charges of corruption and bribery for actions that occurred during his time as Jefferson County Commission president. During his nearly nine years in prison, Langford maintained his innocence — and much of his popularity at home — while repeatedly campaigning for an early release due to his declining health.
Bolstered by pleas from community leaders such as U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and members of the Birmingham City Council, Langford won a compassionate release from prison and returned to Princeton Baptist just 10 days before his death.
Langford had suffered from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, emphysema, pulmonary hypertension and right heart failure, among other ailments.
The words “A Man of Vision” were on display at Sunday’s visitation. The epitaph was framed by photos of Railroad Park on one side and Birmingham CrossPlex on the other.
Bell said that oft-used depiction of Langford was drawn from perhaps his most favored Scripture: A people without vision will perish. (Proverbs 29:18)
“Larry always wanted to make sure that he could see beyond the horizon,” Bell said. “He was a very creative thinker. I think that has been shown throughout his political career in this community. We should be grateful that we had an opportunity to see such a man as Larry Langford.”
Fairfield Mayor Ed May remembered first seeing Langford as a fifth-grader at C.J. Donald Elementary School. He remembered being thoroughly impressed when Langford flung away his prepared speech and spoke to the students of the Fairfield school.
Chef Clayton Sherod recalled inviting Larry Langford to appear at the annual reunion of former Negro League baseball players. During the event, he mentioned his desire to have a museum where artifacts from the playing days of those men could be displayed.
“Just out of nowhere, he said, ‘We’re going to build a museum in Birmingham, Alabama,’” Sherod recalled. “I don’t know where the money’s coming from but we’re going to build a museum in Birmingham, Alabama.’
“There was no doubt,” the chef said. “If Larry wanted something, he was going to get it.”
Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales noted the “good seeds” that Langford planted, including the renaming of the airport to honor the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the creation of Railroad Park, CrossPlex, a downtown entertainment district and an intermodal facility.
“For him to do in 2½ years what many hadn’t done in decades, you have to applaud this man,” she said.
Brookside Mayor Craig Bailey said Langford’s place as his favorite Jefferson County commissioner was cemented when a May 7, 2003, flood nearly wiped the small town off the map.
“The very first person to show up when the water went down was president of the commission, Larry Langford,” Bailey said. “He made it possible for the City of Brookside to have 30 acres of land to move the city on. And within the next year, he gave the City of Brookside $1 million. I tell you what: … Larry was a great person, y’all.”
Langford’s funeral is set for today at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fairfield.