Alcee Hastings had one request for his memorial service on Capitol Hill — a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — his favorite song and an apt metaphor for his long, distinguished career as a civil rights activist and Florida’s longest-serving member of Congress.
Hastings, who died on April 6, was honored by House leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus during a ceremony on Wednesday in Statuary Hall, the old House of Representatives chamber where Abraham Lincoln once served.
In the middle of the ceremony, a U.S. Air Force singing sergeant, belted the Sinatra lyric: “I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve traveled each and every highway. And more, much more, I did it, I did it my way.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person and first woman to serve in the role, sat front and center as speakers honored Florida’s first Black federal judge and one of the state’s first three Black members of Congress since Reconstruction. Across the center aisle from Harris, on the other side of a portrait with Hastings’ trademark colorful tie and a flag that flew over the Capitol on the day of his death, sat his family.
“We lost a fearless, giant advocate for the place he so dearly loved,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who swore Hastings into Congress in January when he was unable to travel to Washington and cast votes for him by proxy during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our folks back home will miss his on-his-mind, on-his-tongue firebrand voice in the halls of power.”
Each of the 10 speakers during the tribute ceremony, which included Wasserman Schultz, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Joyce Beatty and Republican Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, brought up Hastings’ trademark wit, which at times captured national attention.
“You never had to guess what Alcee thought or believed, he made it clear. He did it by telling the nation how he felt, even how he felt about the state of Texas,” said Beatty, referencing a 2015 House Rules Committee hearing where he referred to Texas as a “crazy state” and refused to apologize for his remark. “Rest now, dear brother, we will take it from here.”
And Hastings’ membership in Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity, was referenced by multiple speakers. Hastings was one of seven Kappa Alpha Psi brothers currently serving in Congress, and two of them, Reps. Donald McEachin of Virginia and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, wore their white fraternity jackets to the ceremony.
“I always said when I grow up I want to be like Alcee Hastings, the quintessential Kappa man,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Kappa member himself who leads the House Democratic caucus. “We say goodbye on behalf of the Capitol Hill chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi. I’m confident that when he got to the gates of heaven he had on his white jacket with a big smile.”
While most of the speakers talked about Hastings’ life in Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was the only one who referenced Hastings’ impeachment and ouster from the federal bench by the U.S. Senate in a bribery and perjury case that Hastings had earlier beaten in criminal court.
“He could have been very angry about what happened to him, it could have defeated him, it could have made him feel very sorry for himself,” Hoyer said. “But his greatness is that he did not let a defeat, defeat him. Service was the touchstone of his life and career.”
The ceremony was limited to about 75 members of Congress and Hastings’ family. Attendees were seated six feet apart from each other, something Miami Rep. Frederica Wilson said was especially hard for her. She said Hastings was “the best public speaker” she’s ever seen, better than any president in recent years.
Pelosi noted that Hastings always sat in the same spot in the House chamber, near a door where members come and go and within eyesight of reporters, who could summon him for an interview. The seat since his death has been occupied by a bouquet of white flowers.
“It is fitting that we honor Alcee in Statuary Hall because Alcee was a historic force in our democracy, a son of domestic workers who became one of the most influential members of Congress,” Pelosi said. “As an attorney, civil rights activist and judge, 28 years in the Congress, he never gave up or backed down because he believed America must live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. His crusade for justice knew no bounds.”