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.
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“I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.” – Dr. James H. Cone
With the passing of the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the “father of black liberation theology,” we have lost “a beloved friend and north star to our board members and to so many clergy in the SDPC family,” said SDPC General Secretary Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers.
Dr. Cone, a 2007 recipient of the SDPC’s “Beautiful Are Their Feet” award, transitioned to take his place among the elders on Saturday, April 28, 2018.
Dr. Cone was one of the presenters at the inaugural convening of the annual SDPC conference and provided ongoing support for the work and mission of the SDPC spiritually, financially, and programmatically.
“His contribution and participation in the Black Theology Project in many ways also served as the womb for the SDPC,” said Dr. Carruthers.
Born in Arkansas, Dr. Cone earned his undergraduate degree from Philander Smith College in that state in 1958. At the time of his death, he was the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and was also named the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at the seminary in 2017. Tenured at Union since 1973, he began his work there after receiving his BD at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961, eventually earning his M.A. and PhD in theology at Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965, respectively.
Thoroughly steeped in the words and scholarship of white theologians, Dr. Cone found himself at odds with his own education as the racial unrest of the 60s erupted. The son of sharecroppers, he had known and experienced racial hatred and heard racist rhetoric – too often justified by religious rhetoric – his whole life. The conflict he felt between his understanding of the Gospel and what he saw practiced and taught by white theologians resulted in his rejection of any theology or religion which did not recognize the worth of African Americans.
“How can any person pledge allegiance to a country which has not pledged allegiance to you?” he asked. “How can one trust any religion which defines and discriminates against people on the basis of the color of their skin?” he asked.
He concluded that he and all who had studied white theology had been getting a skewed message. He began to write; he was so moved and inspired by his emerging revelation of the theological landscape concerning black people that he sat and wrote nonstop until his first book, Black Theology and Black Power was completed. He believed that the message of the Gospel had been compromised and said that until he came to that conclusion he had lived and taught with “white theological cataracts.”
“We all have them,” he said.
Dr. Cone shared and taught that black theology is biblical theology, a message which resonated with the preachers, pastors and scholars who flocked to the SDPC, and denounced traditional Eurocentric Christianity which was too invested in protecting white supremacy using God as the author of that belief system.
Dr. Cone rejected that worldview and taught that if one wanted to be a Christian, one had to “identify with the powerless.” Along with good friend and colleague Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, he systematically deconstructed the white theological foundation which had informed black preachers, scholars and church-goers for too long. An ordained AME minister, he drew from the words of both Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X to shape his theological construct. “Dr. King provided my Christian identity and Malcolm provided my black identity,” he said.
His most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree earned him the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion in April of this year. His earlier books include God of the Oppressed, A Black Theology of Liberation, and For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church, all of which have been translated into nine languages and are studied all over the world.
The SDPC has been flooded with comments from those who experienced Dr. Cone’s presence, preaching and scholarship over the years, said Dr. Carruthers. “He was a friend and a mentor to many who have been deeply affected by his work. We were honored that he was a part of our formation and of our continued existence,” she said. “Those in our immediate and expanded network have expressed a deep and profound sense of loss,” she said.
Dr. Carruthers, whose mother “Mama Lois” (Johnson) died just last year, said that she is sure her mother is greeting another “son” in the ministry whom she and other church mothers met and fed while he was yet a student at Garrett. “My mother respected him and his work,” she said, recalling that “the two of them would banter back and forth about his hand of imagination in the Bible and on his hip when he preached and taught.”
That “hand of imagination,” coupled with Dr. Cone’s passion, prophetic voice and outstanding scholarship, has set people free to do the work of God on earth, confronting a religious belief system shaped by white supremacy.
2007 Beautiful Are The Feet Honoree
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference Family
Rev. Dr.James Hal Cone, the “father of black liberation theology” went from labor to reward on Saturday April 28, 2018, New York, NY
We have received many requests to submit written tributes to Dr. Cone for sharing. Please submit your tribute in a Word document or PDF format to Media@sdpconference.info that we may create and distribute an e-album of tributes honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Cone.