Detroit’s poor lose champion in Aretha Franklin


By Bankole Thompson

Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer did not just dine with world leaders and superstars. She did not only mingle with the rich and famous. She was not only concerned about singing at presidential inaugurations and offering musical tributes for political and cultural icons like Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis and others.

One of the remarkable attributes of the Queen of Soul was her unbelievable humility and staunch support for social causes to lift up the underprivileged in her city. Fannie Tyler, who served as Franklin’s longtime executive assistant shared with me several weeks ago about how Franklin had given to a lot of groups devoted to social justice as well as churches over the years without going public about it.

That is why her death will be a tremendous loss for Detroit’s majority poor including those who live on the margins of society because she is being remembered in a city that today ranks the largest poverty area for any major metropolis in the nation.

Franklin was also a superstar for the poor. She supported them by helping provide resources for organizations that were working to address their issues including nonprofits like the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and others.

Her love for the city was evident Thursday afternoon when I visited New Bethel Baptist Church, where she grew up under the tutelage of her father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, who was a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Neighbors from the surrounding area of Linwood, where the church is located as well as well-wishers were already converging to remember her many contributions.

“She was an icon who made a great impact on our society and she touched common folks,” said Silvester Porter, 78, who was sitting quietly inside the church mourning.

“She was very consummate in what she did as a great singer. Despite her greatness as an individual she was humble and stayed grounded,” Porter told me. “I thought I would come and pay my respect for what she did for us. It’s amazing how one person can touch so many lives.”

Porter is correct.

 Franklin touched countless souls and ministered to them through her music.

 But her enduring legacy is that she did not waver in the fight for social equality. She was a champion for those who are without power including oppressed and marginalized communities.

Bankole Thompson is the chair of the Academy of Fellows and Editor-in-Chief of The PuLSE Institute, an independent non-partisan anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit.

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