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The Poetry of Democracy: Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and Aretha Franklin

“When American leadership boasts of exporting democracy,” a regal and majestic Jesse Jackson, wearing a three piece suit behind an ornate pulpit declared, “They do not talk of Jeffersonian democracy.” Any system that includes the enslavement of citizens with a certain skin pigmentation, the subjugation of women, and the disenfranchisement of the poor, has “no export value.” Instead, Jackson reminded America, “They talk of Parks-King democracy”

The painful and poisonous irony of the American people’s failure to demonstrate universal appreciation and deference toward the Civil Rights Movement is that it alone injected American democracy with credibility, authenticity, and legitimacy. The heroes and foot soldiers of the black freedom struggle not only won their own emancipation, but in the process, aspired to cure the country of its own cancer.

Walt Whitman, America’s quintessential poet, warned his readers in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War that democratic laws and procedures of governance would prove insufficient in the tough, dreamlike task of cultivating a deeply and thoroughly democratic society. The people must maintain “genuine belief” in its principles, and act with appropriate dedication to their enactment, in their own lives and in the exertion of accountability on leaders who enjoy the power of election.

Human nature does not tilt toward democracy. From our first moments out of the womb, we learn to rely on benevolent authority for survival, support, and sympathy. As we grow and mature, we still must surrender to the direction and instruction of parents, relatives, teachers, doctors, and police. Self-determination is both an aspirational ideal and an alien promise – a dream with details lost in the fog of morning.

The beauty and brutality of American history emanate out the success and failure of democracy. Because democracy is a promise and a poem, Americans of conscience possess the ability to intellectually define it, but cannot always feel its resonance and application, especially in the fraught ebb and flow of politics. Art, especially in its religious and musical dimensions, is most capable of transmitting the emotion of democracy. The truly gifted practitioner and leader of the democratic ethic has an ability to take the ideal from pathos to the pavement.

The funeral for Rosa Parks, one of democracy’s most authentic executors, took place on November 2nd, 2005. A seven hour service, its soaring conclusion culminated with a duet of the divine: Two of America’s most gifted artists joined voices in a sweet and steely serenade of freedom. Jesse Jackson, behind the pulpit, delivered the eulogy, while Aretha Franklin stood behind his shoulder providing the accompaniment and ornamentation of song.

Thunderous in his articulation of Parks’ life and legacy – her gift to her people and her country – and the contemporary responsibility of Americans to honor her courage with their own commitment to her cause – Jackson’s oratory reached ecclesial and political heights of transcendence. He had already demonstrated mastery of rhetorical fusion between political theory and Christian theology, and the memorial for Rosa Parks, bequeathed and burdened him with an opportunity to once again take America to church, but in his role of spiritual usher, ensure that when they leave they extend their journey to include the protest march and the ballot box.

“Is this a sentimental service or a freedom rally?” Jackson asked the gathering of mourners. Their reaction affirmed Jackson’s implication that the sentiment of homage is cheap without the action of justice. “Fifty thousand people,” Jackson said, “waited in line last night to see Rosa Parks’ body. If you don’t vote on Tuesday, you’ve wasted her time.”

A significant section of Jackson’s eulogy was performance in the blues – a hero gone blues, the hypocrisy of white America blues, the failure of democracy blues, the threat of apathy blues. But Jackson began with a prayer of faith, hope and love: “When it’s dark, just a little light will do you.”

One of Jackson’s many oratorical gifts is his capacity for coalescence of style, building a linguistic bridge between graduate seminar analysis and simple but memorable aphorism.

His high moments, when he rides an emotional elevator to a transcendent plane and opens the doors for all in the audience to join him on the lift, most often transpire when he reaches for gospel notes. To honor Rosa Parks, he had the aid of the Queen of Soul – a songstress whose instrument, constructed out the fiber and fabric of diaphragm, heart, lungs, and throat, could roar like the sonic boom of an aeroplane, and console with the tenderness of a mother’s lullaby.

There is no question that one of Aretha Franklin’s most powerful and impactful influences was her father, C.L. Franklin. A Baptist minister who became known as the “man with the million dollar voice,” Franklin bequeathed to his daughter a voice equally worthy of the same appraisal, but also lived in daily exhibition of the poetry of democracy. He was a civil rights activist who befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was instrumental in ending the exclusion of black workers from the United Auto Workers union of his home city of Detroit, Michigan.

His most famous sermon, “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” is in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

C.L Franklin presided over the ordination ceremony of Jesse Jackson.

“Sister Rosa,” Jackson said while moving toward his dramatic and triumphant conclusion of the eulogy, “You are our eagle bird of hope. Like the eagle, you are our bird of strength, and power and resolve. You looked at the sun at noonday, and you did not flinch. You looked at us little ones whose wings are not as long or strong, and you inspired us out of our fears. You stirred your nest. You gave us comfort and hope. You showed us how to fly. Fly fearlessly no matter the weather. The writer promised, ‘Some glad morning, I will fly away.’ The writer promised, ‘You may cry for a long time. You may weep. Weeping may endure for the night – hold on, hold out, sit down, stand up, fight back, dry your tears, because joy come in the morning.”

With his refrain, Jackson moved his voice into the soul stirring key of the shout – a chorus before quieting for one last verse.

“Now, mother eagle you’ve gone back to stir the big nest in the sky. You’re going up a little higher now.”

The organ from Jackson’s stage left begins to swell, offering a steady stream as beautiful contrast to Jackson’s tempestuous enunciation.

“But when you get there,” Jackson shouted, a spiritual smile overtaking his face, “Don’t just sit down. Stand up now, Rosa. I want you to stop by and tell Dr. King, ‘howdy, howdy.’ I know you’re gonna get there because you have a prepaid ticket. Go see Medgar, pull that bullet out of his back.”

“Stop by,” Jackson said lifting his voice even higher, shaking his hands and shoulders with a dance to celebrate spiritual reward, “Tell Schwerner, Goodman, Cheney, ‘well done, young brothers.’”

“Stop by,” Jackson continued, “Tell Emmet Till, ‘you’re dying inspired me, and we made American better.’”

“Stop by,” Jackson said, moving his broad shoulders up and down, resting his enclosed fist on his hip, eyes opening wider, “Tell Dr. King, ‘We’re still marching up the King’s Highway.’”

Pausing from his heavenly suggestion, Jackson slipped into his choral solo, “It’s dark, but the morning comes. The Lord is our light and our salvation. Whom shall we fear?” he asked with swagger that emanates only out of the source of knowledge that justice, goodness, nobility, charity, and beauty are gusts of wind at your back.

“They are still threatening us,” Jackson announced in a momentary return to the blues, “They are still killing us, and locking us up.” His eyes squinted as if he could see a secret shrouded in clouds over a horizon of glory, “But ye though I walk through the valley and the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

Aretha Franklin begins bopping back and forth, visible behind Jackson’s wide frame. With the microphone at her waist, she shouts, “Come on,” before raising the device of amplification to her lips. “No, no!” she joins Jackson, making this magnificent music of democratic redemption a collaboration.

“Can I get a witness?” Jackson asked to meet a roar from the mourners. The Queen of Soul sings, “Well, well! Oh yeah,” offering the most revelatory rendition of the democratic tradition of call and response.

Jackson and Franklin have suddenly morphed into conversation – deep, prayerful, and powerful dialogue.

“Tell Mahalia,” Jackson shouts, “We’re gonna move on up…”

Franklin sings, “Yeah, yeah!”

“Just a little bit higher.” Jackson raises his hands in the air, shakes his shoulders again. It is almost as if his body is no longer under his physical command, but immediately responsive to his words.

Twisting his body, “Some glad morning,” Jackson issues a promise.

“Some glad morning,” Ms. Franklin repeats in her angelic tone.

“Some glad morning.”

“Some glad, some glad…”

“When this life is over,” Jackson offers, hand in the air. “I’ll fly away.”

Franklin, as if she had rehearsed for this moment her entire life, and in some sense, she did, knows exactly when to enter the conversation: “I’ll fly, I’ll fly…”

The last notes of “fly” stretch to kiss Jackson’s thunderous voice as he declares, “I’ll screw the silver sockets of glory.”

Not yet satisfied, Jackson creates another coda, perfectly synchronizing the faith of paradise with the reality of plight and peril.

“One glad morning, you can sit down where you wanna sit down. Sit down anywhere in heaven.”

Aretha Franklin sings only ooohs and aaahs – guttural cries that manage to broadcast bigger ideas that any polysyllabic words.

“There’ll be no handcuffs up there,” Jackson shouts as if the words have the power to make it so on Earth, “There’ll be no mean police up there. You get tired of sitting down, just walk.”

“Just walk around heaven all day,” Jackson’s arms folded, head shaking, “All day.” Aretha Franklin still sliding into the spaces around Jackson’s sentences – a magic carpet for his message.

“It won’t be long now,” Jackson offers. Franklin sings in higher notes, through some intuitive power, sensing where Jackson is going before he gets there.

“Rise!”

“Rise!”

“Higher!”

“Higher!”

Jackson’s arms are outstretched, his body tightening in a cathartic release of all the arrests, marches, and eulogies that have brought him to this podium.

“Fly, fly, fly!”

Jackson suddenly lets his voice drop, and almost whispers the final word of his tribute, “Away.””

“Oh, Lord,” Aretha Franklin sings as Jackson stands staring into a great unknown. “Oh, Lord…I’ll fly, I’ll fly,” her voice operatic, Shakespearean, epic in its scale and sanctity: “I’ll fly away!”

Aretha Franklin, like her father and like Martin Luther King, was a civil rights activist. She employed the miraculous might and magic of her talent not for her own enrichment, but for the improvement of the conditions of her country.

To honor Rosa Parks – the Eagle Bird of Hope – she and one of the country’s great civil rights leaders, Jesse Jackson, blended voices so big and bold that in concert, they could almost remap the universe.

The physical geography might remain the same after Jackson and Franklin’s duet, but the amazing grace of the late Franklin’s career, and of Jackson’s calling still in practice, is that they can cause our spiritual landscape to undergo beautification. In doing so, they make the world more hospitable for the promise and poetry of democracy.

David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).