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The death and funeral of Aretha Franklin was observed not so much as musical occasion or an American occasion, but as a black American occasion. Partly that was because Aretha came out of, and always remained part of, the black Church. Partly it was also due to politics, because politics leaves nothing alone in America today – not sports, not music, not funerals, not anything.
To celebrate Aretha’s life and music is to celebrate the black Church which, from slavery to the civil rights movement, was the essential vehicle for the preservation and flourishing of black culture. I had a little experience of that the day before she died at a prayer vigil at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church Aretha’s father pastored for decades.
Politics was also at play. The funeral was eight hours long; a unique genius of the black Church is the capacity to hold epic-length funerals for its most prominent figures. At one point on the main dais behind the casket was Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. All four preachers, one might say, as Clinton is a better preacher than most when he takes a fancy to it. And all four politicians too, three of them having run for president. And all four rogues too, more or less.
In the event, it was not that motley collection of dubious characters that garnered controversy, but the principal eulogy, given by the Reverend Jasper Williams, an Atlanta pastor and long-time friend of the Franklin family. Thirty-four years ago, Williams was the eulogist at the funeral of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin.
I listened to the entire eulogy – some 50 minutes long – on the radio in my car. At several points I almost drove off the highway. The Reverend Williams preached with vigor and neither self-doubt nor self-restraint. He only lightly touched upon Aretha’s life or her music or her faith.
Even lighter were his touches on the central Christian mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. What he did, at length, was to survey the state of black America, and he found it wanting. His refrain was both a lament and an indictment: “Black man, have you lost your soul?”
He chronicled, again at length, two of the phenomena wreaking havoc on the lower third of black America – black on black violence and fatherlessness. About the latter, he said that a fatherless home is “abortion after birth.” Some thought that an off-key note at the funeral of a single mother of four.
The whole thing was off-key, or at least out of sync with the general celebration of Aretha as a civil rights heroine. Reverend Williams went so far as to argue that during segregation black Americans lacked civil rights, but had better communities, a better economy, and better character. It was, to put it mildly, provocative, and off-putting, at least to the Franklin family.
Fifty years ago, Aretha sang Precious Lord at the funeral of Martin Luther King. Her funeral in turn was something of an argument about Reverend King and the subsequent course of the civil rights movement. Williams took the minority view, what one might call the “Abernathy view” – that of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King’s chief lieutenant and successor, who died in 1990.
Earlier this year I was re-reading what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote on the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. Father Neuhaus was part of the civil rights movement, and had occasional collaboration with King. He also takes the Abernathy view:
I am in a distinct minority in believing that the best single book for getting an honest feel for Dr. King and the movement he led is Ralph Abernathy’s When the Walls Came Tumbling Down.
Nobody was closer to Dr. King than Ralph Abernathy, who had recruited the young preacher to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. His book, published in 1989, was much criticized at the time and has long been out of print. The ostensible reason for the criticism is that he gave a candid account of King’s inveterate womanizing. That was not news. J. Edgar Hoover’s use of tapes of King’s multiple trysts had been given prominent attention in the national media. In 1970, John Williams had published The King God Didn’t Save, with sordid depictions of King’s sexual indulgences. …
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I believe that the real reason for the savaging of Ralph Abernathy’s book was that his account of King and the movement he led was an embarrassment to those who were using that legacy for their own ideological purposes…
As Abernathy tells it—and I believe he is right—he and King were first of all Christians, then Southerners, and then blacks living under an oppressive segregationist regime. King of course came from the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta in which his father, “Daddy King,” had succeeded in establishing himself as a king. Abernathy came from much more modest circumstances, but he was proud of his heritage and, as he writes, wanted nothing more than that whites would address his father as Mr. Abernathy. He and Martin loved the South, and envisioned its coming into its own once the sin of segregation had been expunged.
The Abernathy view is that American black culture was strong under slavery and segregation; it had to be in order to survive. The goal was to keep the culture and get rid of the segregation. But when the injustice of racism was ameliorated, much of black America went backward for moral-cultural, not legal, reasons. Liberation did not cause that, but it is what happened. The Abernathy view is that black America needs not legal or political solutions today, but moral and cultural ones.
An alternative view – the dominant view – has been taken by, for example, Jesse Jackson, who has preferred the route of politics, and racial-grievance politics at that. Most of the speakers at Aretha’s funeral were on the Jackson side.
In that indelible photograph of the Lorraine Motel balcony just before Martin Luther King was killed, Abernathy was closest to King. But Jackson is more prominent, seeking the foreground, while Abernathy remains behind. After King was killed, Jackson wore his bloody shirt for several days, all the better for media interviews. Abernathy became the successor, but Jackson seized the movement.
Fifty years on, black America’s path has been charted more by Jackson than Abernathy. At Aretha’s funeral the Jackson party was dominant – save for one lone voice, crying out not in the wilderness, but in the principal speaking slot. But to the wilderness now Reverend Williams will go. And Aretha can rest in peace – after a funeral that had too little of it.
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