Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s funeral last Friday, August 31, was the homegoing to end all homegoings. The five hour service was full of famous people in the pulpit, on the stage, and in the congregation, from religious and secular communities. The music was a reflection of Franklin’s gospel origins. It was a celebration of the artist’s life and creativity, as well as the last chance for all the fans and friends who loved her to say one last goodbye.
But the eulogy was something else. Reverend Jasper Williams, who heads the Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, Georgia, used the occasion of Franklin’s funeral to attack Black people as responsible for their own racial and economic oppression.
Reverend Williams, who delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Franklin’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin in 1984, began by alluding to Aretha Franklin’s Queen of Soul title as bestowed upon her by her fans. Using it as a starting point, he went on to say that the Black man has lost his soul, in the religious sense of the term.
To illustrate this loss, Reverend Williams reached for the stereotype of Black fathers missing in action when it comes to supporting their families. “As I look into your house, there are no fathers in the home no more,” he said. He defined women in marriages as nurturers, and men as the breadwinners and the heads of their homes.
“Seventy percent of our households are led by our fine black women. But as proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do. A black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man. She can’t do that.” Perhaps he forgot about all of the Black single mothers who raised boys to men, conscientious, responsible men devoted to their families, such as President Barack Obama and basketball star LeBron James. Aretha Franklin raised four sons successfully when she was single between her divorce and her second marriage.
Reverend Williams depicted Black communities as riddled with crime, gun violence and drugs. “Everybody is cracked on crack,” he said. He blasted the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and murders of Black men, women and children by racist white police officers. He said Black people should focusinstead on “Black on Black crime.” “Black lives must not matter. Until black people start respecting black lives and stop killing ourselves, black lives can never matter,” he asserted.
Legally mandated racial integration, for which Black people marched and demonstrated during the 1960s, ruined Black-owned businesses and contributed to Black communities’ economic downfall, said Reverend Williams. Once the life blood of Black communities, Black businesses were forced to close, as they were unable to compete with their white counterparts.
Seeming to dismiss the issue of the national shortage of affordable housing due to urban gentrification, under which low cost rental apartments have been destroyed and replaced with costly condominiums, Reverend Williams roared, “We (Black people) don’t need housing, we need HOMES!”
Reverend Williams’ eulogy was roundly criticized in traditional and social media for blaming the victims of racism, for sexism regarding Black single mothers who raise families without a husband or male significant other, and for highlighting the myth of the absent, irresponsible Black fathers.
“Reverend Jasper Williams plantation style speech at #ArethaFranklinFuneral is a prime example why there is a total disconnect between young Black people and the older Black church crowd,” wrote Tariq Nasheed in a tweet. “All that cowardly ‘you’s got to do better’ talk ain’t fooling these kids.”
“. . .what he said wasn’t the truth but the same consistently disproven rhetoric used by racists to excuse 500 years of racial violence,” tweeted McGyver19. “Black women have held down the church and family despite garbage like Williams diminishing there (sic) efforts and we’ll no longer put up with it.”
In his defense, Reverend Williams told a news conference held in his church on Sunday, September 2, that his words were taken out of context. He remained insistent that Black families must be headed by two parents.
Several Black tweeters wrote that it is ministers like Reverend Williams and his positions which prompted them to flee “traditional” Black churches and look for spirituality elsewhere. Some have embraced other religions. Some have joined the various African religions of our ancestors. Others have left organized religions completely, determined to live their lives as good people who help others. But churches and religions based on the fire and brimstone teachings of old, which demean women, LGBTQ communities, and blame victims of oppression for being oppressed, is not and never was inspiring, liberating or motivating.
If views like Reverend Williams are the best “traditional” Black religion can offer, I think I’ll pass. And so will others Black folks who have given up on finding a “church home.”