Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul,” died at her home in Detroit on Thursday. She was 76 years old. While her singular voice will be celebrated around the world, the way she popularized the message she grew up hearing her daddy, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, preach at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church may in fact be her most important legacy.
An interpretation of the Bible that condensed the collective wisdom of black people’s faith-rooted resistance to white supremacy, the gospel Aretha Franklin sang did more to transform society in the 20th century than many Americans realize. In the midst of our nation’s current moral crisis, that good news is a balm our bruised and battered democracy sorely needs.
Cornell University historian Nick Salvatore, who wrote the definitive biography of Aretha Franklin’s father, shows how the Rev. Franklin’s public ministry in the mid-20th century, which extended far beyond New Bethel through recorded sermons and a rigorous travel schedule, was “part of a multi-generational struggle by African Americans to reinterpret the meaning of American democracy.”
That struggle had given rise to Reconstruction following America’s Civil War, when scores of black preachers served in state legislatures and the US Congress, enacting a faith passed down on plantations through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution.
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As the black preacher Frederick Douglass said, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” The gospel Douglass preached took on flesh in the shared political power of the Reconstruction era that brought good news to poor people through Freedmen’s Bureau hospitals, public education, and some modest protections for black workers.
But the white Redemption movement of the 1870s highlighted a very different faith in American public life — a resurrection of slaveholder religion that sanctified white supremacy and made it law under Jim Crow.
By the time the Supreme Court had codified “separate but equal” in its 1896 Plessey decision, Douglass was dead and one of the most famous preachers in America was a white son of the South, Thomas Dixon, who had started a mega-church in New York City and would go on to write the best-selling novel that the Ku Klux Klan used as a recruiting tool in the 1920s, after D.W. Griffith made it into a major motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation.”
Black Social Gospel
Still, the black Social Gospel that had celebrated the Jubilee of Emancipation while offering prophetic vision to the black preacher/politicians of the Reconstruction era did not go away. It was sustained and passed on in churches like the ones in which the Rev. C.L. Franklin learned to preach, sing, and shout the good news.
Whether in the rural South or in inner city Detroit, those churches instilled in the faithful a confidence that they mattered to God, even when the world called them the n-word, and a courage to fight for justice, even when the courts and legislatures denied them equal protection under the law. This two-fold message of the black Social Gospel was both indivisible and for all.
Earlier this year, after the Rev. Billy Graham died, commentators speculated that, because of his international television ministry, Graham preached the gospel to more people than any other single person in human history. But the good news Billy Graham preached was not the gospel that Aretha Franklin sang.
A white son of the Southern Baptist church who made efforts to leave his tradition’s racism behind, Graham always focused his preaching almost exclusively on the individual’s personal relationship with Christ. At New Bethel, such a gospel was unimaginable.
For Aretha Franklin, to have a relationship with Jesus was always to necessarily engage in a quarrel with the systems that oppress poor and black people.
“I’ve been locked up, and I know you’ve got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace,” Franklin said when explaining why she would post bail for jailed Black Panther activist Angela Davis.
We cannot remember Aretha Franklin’s musical career without recalling that it was rooted in the gospel she learned at New Bethel, an organizing center for Detroit’s civil rights movement and the place where she befriended that movement’s most famous preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. When she sang, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at King’s funeral, Franklin led the nation in mourning the most well-known voice of the black Social Gospel since Frederick Douglass.
Just as surely as the Queen of Soul kept singing, the long struggle to reconstruct American democracy that she inherited continued after King’s death, even if under the radar.
In 2016, the Rev. William J. Barber II, who had worked with heirs of the black-led freedom movement across America for years to resurrect Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, put the black Social Gospel before the nation again when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention about the need for “moral defibrillators” to revive the heart of America’s democracy. Barber was preaching a gospel that Aretha Franklin recognized.
“I will never forget receiving a call from Aretha after I had spoken at the DNC,” Barber said following news of Franklin’s death this week. She asked Barber to come and share at her father’s church the gospel that he and others in the Poor People’s Campaign continue to proclaim — the vision of a Third Reconstruction that is still possible if Americans come together and resist the divisive powers of racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism.
If we have ears to hear, the longing for a fusion politics that sees through the lies that have divided us is there in every song Aretha Franklin recorded, from “Amazing Grace” to “Respect.” In a moment when political forces are working to pit Americans against one another, often in God’s name, the gospel Aretha Franklin sang is the good news America needs.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a Baptist minister in Durham, North Carolina, and author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.”