Standing on the stage where nearly 35 years ago he stood to help eulogize her father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Sunday lionized Aretha Franklin not for her music, but for her service to the civil rights cause.
In a voice so soft at the beginning that people in the packed auditorium at New Bethel Baptist Church were shouting for his microphone to be turned up, Jackson painted a picture of the world Franklin was born into — one where being black meant a life of struggle.
“Aretha was born in a shack in Memphis,” Jackson told the crowd Sunday morning, adding there were 225 blacks lynched that year in Tennessee. “She was born in the midst of oppression. No one was saying Black Lives Matter then.”
He told of how when Franklin toured as she was starting out as a singer, she often stayed in private homes, because there weren’t hotels that let blacks stay.
But Franklin was committed to overturning that, Jackson said. He noted her father, C.L. Franklin, the superstar pastor of New Bethel, was a leader in the civil rights movement, something Aretha Franklin did as well, even working behind the scenes.
Jackson recalled once when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was facing bankruptcy.
“She went on a 11-city tour with Harry Belafonte and gave all the money to Dr. King,” Jackson told the church.
“She has a crown of jewels (now in heaven). Jewels for singing. Jewels for serving.”
The crowd filled New Bethel, located at Linwood and W. Philadelphia, to honor Franklin at her home church just days after her death from cancer. The cornerstone on the outside of the church building notes that when the congregation moved to that site in 1963, Rev. C.L. Franklin was the pastor. Aretha is listed as a patron on the large stone.
A memorial covered the walls and sidewalks on either side of the main entrance. Balloons stirred in the breeze as parishioners walked by and flowers, some still in their plastic bouquet wrappings were propped against the wall. All morning, people driving —
or in one case riding their bike — stopped to take pictures or add their own tribute to the walls.
Inside, New Bethel pastor Robert Smith Jr. opened the service.
“It’s a sad day … Aretha is gone from our eyesight and the reach of our hand” but it’s a happy day because she is in heaven.
Carissa Wells, 45, of Detroit, came to New Bethel Sunday morning, even though she didn’t know Franklin personally, or attend church there.
“My mom played (Franklin’s) music all the time when I was growing up,” she said. “Anytime I hear something of hers, I feel like I’m 8 years old again. My mom died a few years ago, but I know she would have wanted me to come today. It’s way to honor them both.
Franklin’s drive for civil rights didn’t fade away with the passage of time, a point Ralph Godbee, the former Detroit police chief and current police chief for Detroit Public Schools Community District, made. Godbee had been scheduled to speak Sunday in honor of New Bethel’s Homecoming day and picnic and was asked to keep that schedule. He spoke before Jackson did.
“I remember one time when I was police chief, my assistant coming in and giving me a note that said Aretha Franklin was on the phone. I went into my office and straightened my uniform, like she could see me. There wasn’t any Facetime then. There’s something about when a Queen calls.
“I picked up the phone and she cursed me out. I’ve never been more honored to be cursed out.”
Turns out a Detroit officer had done something to one of Franklin’s family members that Franklin felt was over the line. Once the officer learned the person was connected to Franklin, the officer stopped and apologized.
Franklin told Godbee that was wrong — what if the person hadn’t been connected to Franklin? Why weren’t his officers treating Detroiters better?
That was an example of Franklin’s commitment to standing up to people and her love for Detroit, Godbee said.
“There’s a revival in this city and it will be on the back of the spirit of the Queen,” he said.
Franklin’s funeral will be on Aug. 31 at Greater Grace Temple. It’s by invitation only.
The funeral will follow a public viewing Aug. 28-29 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown Detroit, where Franklin will lie in state. The viewing will run 9 a.m.-9 p.m. each day.
Greater Grace, which seats about 4,000, has been the site of funerals for many notable Detroit figures, including Rosa Parks, Marcus Belgrave and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs.