Louis Farrakhan, from left, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and former President Bill Clinton attend the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Detroit. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Former presidents and preachers joined a parade of music stars and other speakers Friday in a singing, hip-swaying, piano-pounding farewell to Aretha Franklin, remembering the Queen of Soul as a powerful force for musical and political change and a steadfast friend and family member.
“Aretha’s singing challenged the dangling discords of hate and lies and racism and injustice,” the pastor William J. Barber II said. “Her singing was revelation and was revolution.”
In a send-off both grand and personal, a celebrity lineup of mourners filled the same Detroit church that hosted Rosa Parks’ funeral and offered prayers, songs and dozens of tributes. Guests included former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Robinson, the Motown great, remembered first hearing Franklin play piano when he was just 8 and remained close to her for the rest of her life. They talked for hours at a time.
“You’re so special,” he said, before crooning a few lines from his song “Really Gonna Miss You,” with the line “really gonna be different without you.”
Bill Clinton described himself as an Aretha Franklin “groupie,” saying he had loved her since college. He traced her life’s journey, praising her as someone who “lived with courage, not without fear, but overcoming her fears.”
He remembered attending her last public performance, at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation benefit in November in New York. She looked “desperately ill” but managed to greet him by standing and saying, “How you doing, baby?”
Her career, Clinton noted, spanned from vinyl records to cellphones. He held the microphone near his iPhone and played a snippet of Franklin’s classic “Think,” the audience clapping along.
“It’s the key to freedom!” Clinton said.
Lasting more than six hours, the service at Greater Grace Temple encompassed many elements, emotions and regal entrances that were hallmarks of Franklin’s more than six decades on sacred and secular stages. She was remembered as the pride of Detroit and a citizen of the world.
Actress Cicely Tyson reworked the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “When Malindy Sings” to “When Aretha Sings.” Music mogul Clive Davis, who helped revive Franklin’s career in the 1980s, described her as a loving friend and a dedicated and unpredictable artist, whose passions ranged from soul to ballet. He remembered her turning up at a tribute to him in a tutu.
“There was the Queen of Soul, accompanied by members of the City Center Ballet Company,” he recalled, with Franklin “doing well-rehearsed pirouettes and dancing with most impressive agility and dignity. It was wonderful.”
Jennifer Hudson, whom Franklin said she wanted to play her in a movie about her life, brought the crowd to its feet with a rousing “Amazing Grace.” Ariana Grande sang one of the Queen’s biggest hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and Faith Hill performed “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”
The Aretha Franklin Orchestra opened the funeral with a medley featuring “I Say a Little Prayer,” ”Angel” and other songs she was known for, along with such gospel numbers as “I Love the Lord” and “Walk in the Light.”
A statement from former President George W. Bush that was read to the crowd said Franklin would “continue to bring joy to millions for generations to come.” The Rev. Al Sharpton read a statement from former President Barack Obama, who wrote that Franklin’s “work reflected the very best of the American story.”
Sharpton received loud cheers when he denounced President Donald Trump for saying that the singer “worked for” him as he responded to her death. “She performed for you,” Sharpton said of Franklin, who had sung at Trump-owned venues. “She worked for us.”
“She gave us pride. She gave us a regal bar to reach. She represented the best in our community,” Sharpton said.
Many noted her longtime commitment to civil rights and lasting concern for the poor. The Rev. Jesse Jackson urged attendees to honor her memory and register to vote. Her friend Greg Mathis, the reality show host and retired Michigan judge, recalled his last conversation with her. They talked about the tainted water supply in Flint. “You go up there and sock it to ’em,” she urged Mathis, paraphrasing the “sock it to me” refrain from “Respect.”
Franklin died Aug. 16 at age 76.
Her body arrived in a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse. She wore a shimmering gold dress, with sequined heels — the fourth outfit Franklin was clothed in during a week of events leading up to her funeral.
The casket was carried to the church that also sent Franklin’s father, the renowned minister C.L. Franklin, to his and Parks’ final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the singer will join them. Pink Cadillacs filled the street outside the church, a reference to a Franklin hit from the 1980s, “Freeway of Love.”
Program covers showed a young Franklin, with a slight smile and sunglasses perched on her nose, and the caption “A Celebration Fit For The Queen.”
Detroit plans to honor one of its most famous residents. Mayor Mike Duggan announced during the service that the city would rename the riverfront amphitheater Chene Park to “Aretha Franklin Park.”
Family members, among them granddaughter Victorie Franklin and niece Cristal Franklin, spoke with awe and affection as they remembered a world-famous performer who also loved gossip and kept pictures of loved ones on her piano.
Grandson Jordan directed his remarks directly to Franklin, frequently stopping to fight back tears.
“I’m sad today, because I’m losing my friend. But I know the imprint she left on this world can never be removed. You showed the world God’s love, and there’s nothing more honorable.”
Prisoners in 17 U.S. states went on strike on Aug. 21 by refusing to eat or work to call attention to a number of troubling issues, including dilapidated facilities, harsh sentences and other aspects of mass incarceration in America.
As we approach Labor Day, the strike places a spotlight on the questionable practice of putting prisoners to work for very low or no wages. Examples of what incarcerated people do or have done include answering customer service phone calls, fighting wildfires, packaging Starbucks coffee and producing consumer goods such as lingerie.
But this practice may run afoul of several U.S. legal commitments – including the 13th Amendment ending slavery – and even violates voluntary codes of conduct of some of the companies involved.
I belong to a group of scholars of U.S. constitutional law, labor law and history from several universities, who see the 13th Amendment as about more than 19th-century slavery, even if that was its primary genesis.
Rather, we consider it a continuing obligation on governments and private companies to root out all forms of economic exploitation, even when it is done within prison walls.
Prisoners at work around the world
Prison labor is widely used in many countries throughout the world on every continent, involving an estimated 36 million people.
Proponents of forcing inmates to work justify it as a way for prisoners to repay their debt to society and to provide skills that will be useful at the end of prison sentences. They say it also partially offsets the high costs of mass incarceration, recently estimated at US$182 billion a year nationwide.
The U.S. government has often admonished other countries such as Burma and China for using forced labor to build pipelines or make goods or in times of national emergency. Yet the truth is, it’s just as prevalent in the U.S. as elsewhere, with the Department of the Navy and Minnesota among the governmental entities sued for minimum wage violations in prisons.
In fact, a 2004 economic analysis of labor in both state and federal prison estimated that in the previous year inmates produced more than $2 billion worth of commodities, both goods and services.
Unlike other countries, however, forced prison labor in the U.S. must be reconciled with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is most famous for forbidding the practice of slavery.
The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, states in full:
“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the person has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.”
The first section of the amendment makes clear that people convicted of a crime can be forced to work as punishment but says nothing about whether they have to be compensated.
And according to the second, Congress clearly has the power to regulate inmate labor in federal prisons but has not done so. Lawmakers have, however, passed other laws that may already apply to prisoners with jobs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which guarantees a minimum wage and overtime to all of those employed in the U.S.
While some U.S. courts have suggested that prisoners working for private companies be paid like other employees, there’s been no definitive decision on this issue.
Expanding its meaning
The group to which I belong, known as the Thirteenth Amendment Project, aims to find ways to use the Amendment to reduce economic injustice in the U.S. and tackle problems such as minimum labor standards and mass incarceration.
In our view, the meaning of “involuntary servitude” in the amendment has a wider reach than simply the abusive arrangements that were in place in 1865. We believe it should also include modern conditions facing immigrant workers, detainees and workers bound to abusive contractual work arrangements – the kind that the Supreme Court struck down in the 20th century.
In addition, the Reconstruction-era drafters of the Amendment sought to prevent the newly freed slaves from becoming unfair competition in the labor force. So they instituted labor protections into the infrastructure of the Freedman’s Bureau, which Congress set up in 1865 to help former black slaves as well as poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Freedmen’s Bureau offers evidence of the role that Congress envisioned under the amendment to protect freed slaves and others against exploitation and unfair competition – which, in my view, are both at issue today in the context of unpaid prison labor.
Beyond domestic law, there’s the issue of the United States’ obligations under international human rights conventions.
The U.S. is a member of the International Labor Organization, which as a core principle requires the elimination of forced and compulsory labor within its borders.
The organization also established a convention on forced labor in 1930. It makes clear that while governments in some circumstances can use forced labor, the work cannot be “hired or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.”
The U.S. is one of only nine countries that have not ratified this convention, putting it in the company of countries like Afghanistan, China and Brunei. The reason often given is that the 13th Amendment already covers forced labor. But as I’ve shown, the question of compensation is an open one.
The strike’s legacy
The prisoners currently protesting their poor treatment and conditions probably may not expect that it will lead to the end of prison labor.
And whether or not the 13th Amendment or international conventions ultimately limit or end the practice – or at least require fair compensation – will likely depend on the United States Supreme Court.
The real success of the prison strike, set to last through Sept. 9, may be whether consumers become more aware that some of the coffee, clothing and even school supplies they buy may have passed through the hands of inmates, who were paid little to nothing for the work.
Bishop Talbert Swan, the leader of the Church of God in Christ’s Nova Scotia jurisdiction, addresses a summit of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 21, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
An African-American bishop of the Church of God in Christ and frequent critic of President Trump said his personal Twitter account has been permanently suspended, apparently for using a racially sensitive term.
Bishop Talbert Swan, a Massachusetts pastor and a Nova Scotia jurisdictional leader for the predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, said he received an email from Twitter on Friday (Aug. 24) informing him of the suspension.
“Your account has been suspended and will not be restored because it was found to be violating Twitter’s Terms of Service, specifically the Twitter Rules against hateful conduct,” the company told him.
Swan, who said he had more than 70,000 followers, suspects the specific cause of the suspension is his use of the word “coon,” a term the website etymonline.com says is sometimes used as an insult about a black person. The word in this sense stems from the word “barracoon” and is based on the Portuguese word “barraca” that refers to an enclosure for slaves who were transported in West Africa, Cuba and Brazil.
But Swan says the meaning of the word depends on the context.
“I think Twitter needs to be educated culturally to understand that when black people use that term they mean it in the context of someone who’s African-American that they consider to be a traitor or a sellout or someone who is speaking or doing things that is not in the best interest of the African-American community,” he said. “And, in my instance, those who parrot alt-right, racist ideology.”
On June 2, Swan tweeted in response to a suggestion that he follow someone with whom he disagreed, “No thanks I’m on a no coon diet.”
Last week, more than half a dozen Twitter users noted that they had reported Swan and posted screenshots of responses they had received confirming that @TalbertSwan had violated Twitter’s rules of discourse.
One, @Gerald_Anzano, specifically connected Twitter’s notice of suspension with Swan’s “coon” tweet, adding, “Using God as a shield to promulgate spewing hatred? Expect to be called out.”
Swan, who is president of the NAACP’s Springfield, Mass., chapter, said he first got wind of his suspension from these posts. He calls those users “my detractors”; several describe themselves on Twitter as supporting Trump.
Swan provided Religion News Service with recent tweets from his account that were critical of Trump and the president’s Christian supporters.
“Real Christians don’t make excuses, support, dismiss, or defend pathological lying, sexual deviancy, malignant narcissism, white supremacy & bigotry,” he wrote in an Aug. 19 tweet that received more than 26,000 likes. “I don’t give a hell how many conservative judges you get, you cannot be a Christian & defend @realDonaldTrump. Plain and simple.”
Swan recently used his account to post an open letter criticizing pastors who met with Trump. Swan said he has also complained that liberal Democrats take blacks’ votes for granted. A fan of the Boston Celtics and Pittsburgh Steelers, he also posted his musings about sports.
Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the matter.
In its email message to Swan, the company wrote, “It is against our rules to promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.
“Additionally, if we determine that the primary purpose of an account is to incite harm towards others on the basis of these categories, that account may be suspended without prior warning.”
Others questioned Swan’s suspension, including @ReignOfApril, who tweeted: “He’s a COGIC bishop, for goodness sakes.”
Swan himself said he doesn’t understand why the personal Twitter account of conservative radio host Alex Jones was recently suspended for a week for violating rules about inciting violence, while his account appears to have been suspended permanently.
“When you get the president calling a black woman a dog or Roseanne (Barr) calling a black woman a gorilla and they still have their accounts on the forum,” the bishop said, “to say that me making a reference to a coon is the catalyst for a permanent suspension, then you have to question how they enforce their terms of service.”
Thousands of Catholics sing as they prepare to welcome Pope Francis to Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 24, 2015. Africa is a deeply religious continent. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya — When the doors swing open every Sunday morning, churches in Africa welcome thousands of new followers.
On this deeply religious continent, both Christianity and Islam are on the rise. But small groups of determined atheists are challenging Africa’s grip on faith while seeking recognition and more followers.
Across Africa, groups have emerged stressing science and critical thinking as a better way of understanding the natural world.
Harrison Mumia, president of Atheists in Kenya, in Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
One such group, Atheists in Kenya, has gained prominence and is now campaigning for a public holiday, Atheist Day, on February 17.
“We are asking the government to declare a public holiday as a way of raising awareness of atheism in Kenya,” said Harrison Mumia, the group’s president.
“We want to promote science and skepticism, and have an approach to morality that is rational and humanistic,” Mumia said.
Atheists in Nigeria are also becoming more vocal, pushing for public policies that are not influenced by religious belief but by critical thinking and science-based evidence.
“We have formed a legal body — the Atheist Society of Nigeria — to push for the vision of secular Nigeria,” said Calistus Igwilo, the group’s president.
Atheists have organized in most sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
The groups say their numbers are on the rise, but membership is still relatively small.
Atheists in Kenya estimates it has 650 members in 2018, up from 60 in 2014, and boasts a social media following of more than 10,000. The Atheist Society of Nigeria counts about 5,000 members.
“This is quite remarkable, considering that very few atheists are willing to come out due to the stigma associated with being an atheist,” said Mumia.
Clerics and scholars are confident atheists will face an uphill battle in attracting a wider following. The future of Christianity lies in Africa, and by 2060, more than 4 in 10 Christians will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center.
In addition, 27 percent of all Muslims will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2060, according to Pew. By contrast, atheists compose about 2 percent of the continent’s population.
Jesse Mugambi, professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, said atheism and agnosticism are shunned in traditional African thought.
“Many Kenyans consider Kenya to be a God-fearing country,” added Mumia. “Atheists are therefore considered devil worshippers.”
Some atheists have been laid off from work for refusing to participate in religious practices. Others are disowned by their families.
“They look quite strange (on) the continent where the concept of God spreads wide, even to the heart of African traditional communities,” said Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa, in Kenya. “It is a very difficult task.”
“If they build the first story, blow it up. If they sneak back at night and build three stories, burn it down. And if they get nine stories built, it’s yours. Take it over, and maybe we’ll let them in on the weekends.”
They were there to protest Columbia University’s construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park, the only land separating the Ivy League university from the historic black working-class neighborhood. The gym, along with the discovery that Columbia was affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analysis – a national consortium of flagship universities and research organizations that provided strategy and weapons research to the U.S. Department of Defense – stirred students to protest for more decision-making power at their elite university.
Everything came to a head on April 23, 1968 – just weeks after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That was when members of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society hosted a rally on campus to decry the war – and, what many considered the racist gym in Morningside Park. Members of the Students’ Afro-American Society, or SAS, and Columbia varsity athletes – known as jocks – were in attendance as well. SAS followers showed up to resume an earlier fight they had with the jocks who supported the construction of the gymnasium.
Some students had been working with Harlem community groups. They saw the gym as a symbol of the university’s “power” over a defenseless and poverty-stricken black neighborhood. They joined local politicians who opposed the gym for a myriad of reasons, including its concrete footprint in a green park and the inability of the community to have access to the entire structure once built.
The situation was, of course, complex. Columbia had long been a contentious neighbor to Harlem and Morningside Heights. The campus gym was decrepit and prevented the university from competing with its Ivy peers effectively in terms of facilities and space. Regarding the park, Columbia had constructed softball fields that initially community members could use. By 1968, however, only campus affiliates could access the fields. Then, white faculty members had been mugged in the park.
The university, seeking to expand in the postwar period, purchased US$280 million of land, mortgages and residential buildings in Harlem and Morningside Heights. That resulted in the eviction of nearly 10,000 residents in a decade, 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican.
Columbia acted in coordination with Morningside Heights, Inc., a confederacy of educational and religious institutions in the neighborhood that also sought to “renew” the area to serve their mostly white patrons. David Rockefeller, grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, acted as MHI’s first president. Columbia was the lead institution.
Despite being close to a black neighborhood, the university admitted few black students and employed a handful of black instructors. For instance, as I report in my book, in the 1964-1965 school year, there were only 35 black students out of 2,500 students enrolled in Columbia’s College of Arts and Sciences, and just one tenured black professor. By spring 1968, there were more than 150 black students enrolled.
On April 23, protesting students attempted to take over the administration building but were repelled by campus security. Then, they walked to the gym construction site where they tore down fencing and physically confronted police. From the park, they returned to campus where they finally succeeded in taking over a classroom building, Hamilton Hall. In doing so, they surrounded the dean of the college, Henry Coleman, who chose to stay in his office with his staff. To “protect” Coleman, several jocks stood guard outside his door.
Clashes with police
What started as a racially integrated demonstration of students took a turn in the late night when H. Rap Brown and several community activists showed up at the invitation of the Students’ Afro-American Society. The student group, Brown and the community activists agreed that black people solely should occupy Hamilton Hall and that white activists should commandeer other buildings. The white demonstrators accommodated, leaving Hamilton and taking over four other buildings. That forced Columbia officials to contend with not just a student protest but a black action on campus at that height of Black Power Movement. Incidentally, the community activists removed and replaced the jocks as sentries of the dean’s office.
To the ire of many white university administrators of the period, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and the Black Panthers fame showed up to explain – through the press – that the university deal either with the student activists on campus or militants coming from Harlem. This insinuated the tone of the demonstrations would change drastically. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated less than three weeks before. From offices in Morningside Heights, Columbia administrators had watched Harlem burn as residents mourned and reacted to the black leader’s death. The only thing that separated the elite white institution from angry black rebels was the park in which the university was building a gymnasium against the will of many community members.
In consultation with New York Mayor John Lindsay, Columbia administrators chose to end the demonstrations by calling 1,000 New York police officers to clear the five occupied campus buildings on April 30. Chaos and brutality prevailed. As the NAACP and other Harlem community organizations stood watch, black students vacated Hamilton, which SAS had renamed Malcolm X Hall, and were arrested peacefully. In the building that national Students for a Democratic Society leader and Port Huron Statement author Tom Hayden occupied, police and demonstrators collided physically. One of the most iconic documents of the postwar period, the 1962 Port Huron Statement outlined the need for young people to be in the vanguard of the movement to eradicate racism and grind the military-industrial complex to a halt; it centered the notion of participatory democracy, which called for greater inclusion of the citizenry in decision-making. In other buildings, students found themselves on the hurt end of police batons when they resisted arrest.
In opening the door to violence, the university turned what was a local matter into an international story and radicalized moderate students and neighborhood residents. Young radicals abroad learned of “Gym Crow” and university-sponsored defense research. In solidarity, they supported the Columbia student activists’ causes and chanted “two, three, many Columbias” – a refrain that gained popularity among American student protesters.
In my view, elements of the 1968 Columbia rebellion are inspiring and instructional for today’s students, protesters and community residents. As gentrification threatens the homes of poor black people in urban areas today, activists should recall that 50 years earlier young people believed they could cut their university’s ties to war research and prevent a prestigious white American institution from expanding into black spaces at the same time. They succeeded.
Our new podcast “Heat and Light” features Prof. Bradley and Columbia University’s Michael Kazin discussing this issue in depth.