COLUMBIA -- At least seven times, the S.C. House of Representatives speaker pounded a gavel and told the roiling place of humming voices to come to order. The murmurs continued, the business of making laws unabated, until the name "Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence" was uttered aloud.
The place was silent.
The top lioness was going on the hunt one last time.
Up from her seat came the Democrat from York County's District 49, with difficulty getting out of her chair, but without help. When you are the second black woman elected to the General Assembly 16 years ago, and still one of three black women out of the body, you are a person who does things yourself. Even if you missed most of the last two years beating breast cancer and the recovery continues. Her fellow members of the York County legislative delegation waited at the podium. Nobody dared say hurry.
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She grabbed her walker and moved to the front. The legislators rose and gave her a standing ovation.
Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, introduced Moody-Lawrence and a resolution honoring her. Kirsh didn't have time to talk about all Moody-Lawrence did in 16 years. But he did say "We will miss her."
He told me later that he meant "we" as in all of us, not just politicians.
Moody-Lawrence tried to help the little guy. The poor, the kids, black and poor white people, Hispanic and others. She shunned the spotlight. She wasn't among the most powerful on committees and power brokering. She gave no loud press conferences. She just wanted to help people.
But enough was enough. Moody-Lawrence, 67, will not run again.
She started teaching kids in first grade, and she taught all levels, through Winthrop University students who would become teachers themselves.
Two fine young men, John King and Montrio Belton, are seeking the Democratic nomination for that District 49 seat. They face a Republican in November. Any of them better be good if they want to be part of what Moody-Lawrence was and is.
"The Velvet Hammer."
She earned the nickname from the Black Caucus and the Democratic Caucus. Years ago, she told another House speaker -- in a tone that caused the House to halt like a tornado had struck --"I will not be disrespected!"
On Tuesday, Moody-Lawrence thanked her peers, and in the next breath, she threw down a gauntlet of challenges. She may have had cancer, but her voice sounded like thunderclaps.
Moody-Lawrence spoke for just a few minutes, yet the place was spellbound. She did not talk of laws she created or defeated. All she talked about is what is right and what is wrong.
"People have put you here because they have confidence in you," she said. "They thought you had good sense."
So, she demanded action.
"Improve the human condition," she told the legislators, using her longtime catch-phrase. "Do it for ordinary people. Every nationality. Rich and poor. Young and old. Black and white. Make life better for that little boy or girl, barefooted today, so they can be contributors to society. Not fodder for prisons."
She tackled race like she always does.
"This thing of race is silly," she said. "We need to get out of the business of looking at skin color to see if it is a good law or not. We need to ask, 'Is it a good law for a human being?'"
She spoke about broken health care, that all children can learn. "That has nothing to do with the color of their skin," she said, "but it does have something to do with if the child has a toothache, or a headache, or is hungry, or has clean clothes or decent clothes."
She mentioned again little boys and girls, old people. "I'm an old woman now," she cracked.
Moody-Lawrence wound down and stopped talking. Another ovation, and then she went back to her seat. Using her walker, slowly. The House broke for lunch. No way to follow that right away. No laws could be made right then.
So many legislators, black and white, rushed to embrace this woman who gave what might have been the last speech of her public life.
Not a single person was left a few minutes later, except Moody-Lawrence, her cousin who drives her to Columbia and Moody-Lawrence's granddaughter. The lioness walked out of the room, left her pride. Slowly, she walked.
"I've done what I was supposed to do here," she said. "I need no reward. If I had to do it again, I'd just do it a little better."
She looked up at the huge ceiling, the great hall where laws are made and dreams created or crushed. She was smiling.