Aretha Franklin’s biggest legacy wasn’t singing; it was social justice
Isiah Thomas, Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton, Cicely Tyson and more pay tribute to the Queen of Soul in Detroit
DETROIT — Respectfully, the work that Aretha Franklin has done — those foundations that her friends, contemporaries, family members and heads of states marveled about during her nearly 11-hour viewing and funeral service — isn’t enough.
Not now. And not moving forward.
On Friday, in her hometown of Detroit, thousands of parishioners, many of them as famous as the woman they were there to celebrate nodded their heads in agreement as luminaries regaled them — and the world, considering it was broadcast live on news networks and streamed online — with familiar stories and unknown tidbits about her lifelong fight for equality. Her homegoing service was something we quite possibly will never see again. In the pulpit, below a church choir that sang the entire roof off at one of Detroit’s most prestigious megachurches, sat a diverse cross section of people. Former President Bill Clinton sat up there with Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Shirley Caesar, Michael Eric Dyson, Bishop T.D. Jakes, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas and others.
Many of them shared similar sentiments while standing at the podium in the pulpit, at times gazing down in the sanctuary, leaning over and looking down upon Franklin’s gold coffin, which was flanked by sprays of blush pink roses.
Aretha Franklin, in case you haven’t heard by now, didn’t just shut up and sing.
Singing — and being considered one of the best singers of all time, with an impressive vocal range that has inspired and set afire the musical careers of some of the world’s greatest voices to come behind her — was what gave Franklin the platform. And what she did with her visibility was help to stamp out social injustices.
And she wanted others to share her passion. And those who, too, had recognizable platforms? She wanted them to get in the game.
Perhaps that point was best driven home by Thomas, the retired Hall of Famer who helped shepherd the Detroit Pistons into their Bad Boy era and bring this city two NBA championships. Initially, it felt like the duration of his 11-minute speech would primarily focus on the glitzier moments of his friendship with Franklin (like looking over off the court and seeing his beloved mother sitting between Franklin and Stevie Wonder courtside at the Palace of Auburn Hills), which began when he was 20 years old and newly drafted from Indiana University in 1981.
And if he dared to teeter into the social justice spaces that largely helped define Franklin — and, quite frankly, were so much focused on during a daylong funeral service that was ruled by political overtones — it seemed like that part of her story from him would be nuanced.
Instead, he provided one of the most sobering insights of Franklin.
Fighting back tears, Thomas told a story about when the legendary singer sat him down with Coleman A. Young, the late former Detroit mayor, and gathered him, set on talking with the young athlete about what he would do with his own burgeoning celebrity.
“What do you want to do?” Thomas said Franklin asked of him.
It was the way he said it. The entire church at Greater Grace Temple on Detroit’s west side instantly understood Thomas’ interpretation of the Queen of Soul’s question.
He got it when she asked him. We got it when he relayed the story.
“They taught me about Detroit,” he said, “and they gave me the courage to speak on race, class and gender while I was a champion.”
And there it is. At her best, Franklin was a gifted teacher — and that’s her real legacy.
As much of a celebration of Franklin’s life as her daylong Friday services were, the funeral itself was a launching pad. It was a chance to remind the world, and teach the world in some cases, about how she used her voice — not just the one that collected 18 Grammys, the one that made politicians listen and take action — to help change the world.
The world got to learn about the Aretha Franklin who teamed up with Harry Belafonte to do an 11-city tour, not take any money from it and instead give it to Martin Luther King Jr. so that he could afford to pay his staff and, coincidentally, change America for black folks as we know it.
As Thomas shared: “Her voice … helped this nation … deal with its troubled past.”
This is more than the death of a legend, a woman who fought back against social injustices tirelessly for the entirety of her life and soundtracked much of that fight during the thick of the civil rights movement. This is the start of a new movement.
And Friday was a call to arms.
The political overtones started long before Thomas took the stand — he was actually one of the last to speak about Franklin. MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton got that particular party started when he framed Franklin as a pillar of the civil rights movement and laughed at his own faux pas when he spoke of Franklin on his show shortly after her passing and misspelled the familiar spelling-out of the title of her signature track, “Respect.”
“When word went out that Ms. Franklin passed, [President Donald] Trump said, ‘She used to work for me.’ No, she used to perform for you. She worked for us,” Sharpton said, immediately eliciting loud cheers and a standing ovation from mourners. “Aretha never took orders from nobody but God. She stood for something, she never shamed us, she never disgraced us … she represented the best in our community, and she fought for our community until the end.”
He also said: “You know, the other Sunday on my show, I misspelled ‘Respect,’ and a lot of y’all corrected me,” he said. “Now, I want y’all to help me correct President Trump to help teach him what it means.”
That carried through the entirety of her services — even Stevie Wonder, who just about closed out the funeral, mocked Trump’s campaign slogan, saying, “Make love great again.”
There were many knowing nods and even more outright proclamations that Franklin’s death would in fact be in vain if the legacy that she built, perhaps the legacy she was most proud of, died on the day the world learned it lost an icon.
And on Friday, there was a lot of signifying from the Queen’s court.
Jackson, who talked about being in that same church years ago to pay homage to another civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, noted the long, impressive lines of fans to view the bodies of both impactful women — for Franklin, who was at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum for two days before moving to her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist Church, for viewing, people waited in lines that stretched out at least half a mile and wrapped around major streets. The former politician noted that the lines, however, were short in Detroit during the 2016 presidential election.
He said anyone who leaves the funeral and is not a registered voter “dishonors Aretha.”
Taking his sentiments further? Anyone who understands the true Aretha Franklin legacy and doesn’t pick up the pieces and continue the work that she quite literally was doing until almost her dying breath? You, too, are disgracing her majesty.
And before you do that, you better think: What are you gonna do?