By Dr. Susan K. Smith,
As the nation and world mourn the passing of Aretha Franklin, the General Secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. (SDPC), an organization which represents over 1,000 African American churches across the country, said today that the singer’s presence and work for social justice need to be remembered and taught to young people who know little about her other than her role as a singer.
“An important part of the work the SDPC does centers around emphasizing the importance of sacred memory,” said Dr. Iva Carruthers. “SDPC has been engaged in following the Biblical directive to tell our history to our children, to “write it as frontlets between their eyes” as written in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible.”
As the elders of Israel were commanded by God to “tell their story,” “SDPC believes in the power of remembering the work and sacrifices of African Americans who have gone on,” Carruthers said. “Knowing who we are and what we have overcome strengthens the young people who too often get lost in the Euro-centric definition of culture and history. Our history is too rich to allow it to be ignored.”
As some have noted, Aretha Franklin, who grew up in the church, never left the church, but she also never forgot the work her father and others did to secure the civil and human rights for African Americans. As a young girl, she watched her father, the late Rev. C. L. Franklin, a prominent Baptist minister in Detroit, work tirelessly in the movement.
Tapped by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help raise money for the movement, Rev. Franklin organized the 1963 Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was the largest civil rights campaign until the March on Washington some months later. In the organizing work that her father did, Aretha was there, often being asked by Dr. King to sing at mass meetings. Although she said in a recent interview that she was “not on the front lines” of the movement, she was immersed in and committed to the work of the movement.
Her involvement pricked her sense of righteous indignation. Part of the impetus behind her singing Otis Redding’s song “RESPECT” was her belief that all human beings deserved respect. While that song became almost an anthem of the civil rights movement, Aretha’s belief in the rights of all extended to anyone who was being oppressed, including women.
When Angela Davis was arrested and jailed on false charges of kidnapping and murder in 1970, Aretha stepped forward and offered to pay her bond “whatever the cost.” And, as her star rose, and she was offered lucrative record deals, she made sure that her contracts indicated that she would not sing before segregated audiences.
She sang at the funerals of Dr. King and of Rosa Parks, and also at the inauguration of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama. Republican President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
“We need to tell the stories of our ancestors,” said Carruthers. “Knowing Aretha merely as a singer – as great as she was – is not enough. Our children need to know that our ancestors did not ignore their commitment to bringing justice into a world where there is so much injustice. Her work as a civil rights worker was just as exciting and important as was her voice. We tell the stories of the ancestors so that the young people behind us know that it takes all of us with our various gifts to right the wrongs of this world.”
The telling of the stories, Carruthers continued, also lets the young people coming along know that the work of justice is ongoing. “It doesn’t stop,” she said. “Oppression never stops just because we want it to. All of us have to fight and be committed, as Dr. King said, ‘to stay in the struggle until the end.”
The story of Aretha’s work for civil rights will be included in the resources being created for SDPC’s work in lifting sacred memory. “Her story is too broad and too important for it not to be more widely known,” she said.