Former President Bill Clinton was among the many politicians who paid their final respects to gospel legend and “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.
“We started out not as the president and first lady, the senator, secretary of state,” Clinton said in remarks he delivered Friday at Franklin’s funeral at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. “We started out as Aretha groupies.”
The legendary singer and 18-time Grammy Award winner died on Aug. 16 at the age of 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Attended by 4,000 people, including dignitaries and politicians, her five-hour funeral was held at the same venue where, years ago, Franklin sang at Rosa Parks’s funeral.
Clinton, who was accompanied by his wife, Hillary, went on to recall his time with Franklin, first as a fan and then as a friend of the “woman who sung for America when Dr. King was killed.”
“She cared about broken people, people who were disappointed, people who didn’t succeed as much as she did,” said Clinton.
He also kept his speech light with jokes. “I hope God will forgive me,” said Clinton. “But I was so glad when I got here … when the casket was still open because I said, ‘I wonder what my friend has got on today. I want to see what the girl was carrying out.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, like many who spoke before Clinton, reminded the audience of the singer’s political life. “She was a feminist before feminism was popular,” said Sharpton. “She was a civil rights activist when it wasn’t popular … she was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.”
Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama could not attend as Obama was scheduled to deliver a eulogy for Sen. John McCain at memorial service in Washington on Saturday. Sharpton read aloud a letter the couple sent to commemorate Franklin’s life.
“Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story,” Sharpton read. “In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation … and through her own voice, Aretha lifted those of millions, empowering and inspiring the vulnerable, the downtrodden, and everyone who may have just needed a little love.”
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised Franklin for her legacy.
“She made this country both more sensitive and more just,” Holder said. “In many ways not known to many, she was a part of the movement that set this nation free. And she made one song [‘Respect’] in particular her own, and it became one of the anthems for another movement that made women more equal.”
Though not included as a speaker, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., attended the service and was acknowledged by the master of ceremony, Bishop Charles Ellis, as a “congresswoman who has been attacked like never before” — likely in reference to regular insults directed at the congresswoman by President Trump.
Waters stood and acknowledged the crowd, and many people called out, “We got your back!”
Sharpton also took a moment to call out Trump — who, while expressing his condolences to Franklin’s family, said Franklin “worked for me on numerous occasions.”
“No, she used to perform for you,” said Sharpton. “She worked for us.”
Many of the politicians who gathered in Detroit also acknowledged McCain’s passing.
“This week our nation is laying to rest two iconic figures,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “Two iconic figures, though different, represent who we are as America — our true American spirit, in music, in culture, in love of the country.”
After the funeral service, Franklin was to be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit alongside her father, civil rights activist the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, and her brother and sisters.
To commemorate Franklin’s life, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan proposed a city park be renamed in her honor, and a city councilwoman JoAnn Watson suggested the federal government memorialize her with a postage stamp.
Last week, a group of bipartisan lawmakers put forward legislation to award Franklin a Congressional Gold Medal. The medal, Stabenow said, would honor Franklin’s “remarkable voice, a voice that stood up for justice, that stood up for equality, that stood up for civil rights, for doing the right thing for people, when you see and when you don’t see it, quietly and loudly, doing the right thing while touching the hearts of the world.”
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