by Ralph Brauer | 1/22/2009 10:28:00 PM

I doubt anyone will ever again sing "My Country Tis of Thee" the way Aretha Franklin sang it at the Obama Inauguration, because not even she will sing it that way again. That's because in gospel you sing what you feel. You testify. And if anyone testified on that singular day it was Aretha Franklin along with the man many term the father of the Civil Rights Movement, the Reverend Joseph Lowery.

As most people, know Franklin's roots are in gospel, in part because she is the daughter of one of the most revered figures in the African American Church, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who also was a close friend of another African American minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Her first album, recorded when she was 14, was a gospel album which was produced for the same label whose recordings of her father's sermons had made him a national figure.

One of my favorite Franklin albums is an all-gospel production that was recorded at her father's church many years ago. At one point in the recording, C. L. Franklin remarks, "she never left the church." Like Ray Charles, Franklin brought the rhythms and sounds of gospel to popular music, earning her the title the "Queen of Soul."

Those skills were showcased at the Obama inauguration where, like Charles, she took a patriotic song and endowed it with the soul of gospel. You knew this was going to be a performance for the ages when she gave the words "sweet" and "liberty" a particular cadence that reverberated with meaning.

Think for a minute of the task she faced as an African American celebrating the inauguration of America's first African American President. Her "testimony" had to both acknowledge the struggles of the past and yet also the triumph of the present. By drawing out those two words the way she did, she made you pause and acknowledge those meanings.

This took on even more meaning when she reached the words "land where my fathers died." Shortly after that she did an extraordinary thing I have not seen anyone acknowledge--she changed the words to the song, so that it directly referenced Dr. King's immortal words. The original lyrics read "every mountain side" which Franklin changed to "mountain top" the words King used. In addition, to highlight the change she repeats the word "every" several times so it sinks in.

Franklin then went on to sing the song's lesser-known final verse. By the time she reached the last two stanzas, I had lost it. The second-to-last stanza begins with the words "protect us by thy might." Franklin repeats "protect" over and over, so it becomes a kind of prayer and, given circumstances which provoked an extraordinary amount of security, also a wish for both the new President and the country.

Listen to her sing that one line again and again, for she endows it with all the hopes Americans had that day and have for the incoming administration. When she ends the song Franklin and her backup choir repeat again the desire to let freedom ring, in a way that she knew she was testifying. Had she sung it that way in her father's church there is little doubt in my mind that the audience would have been spontaneously shouting their own reactions.

Unfortunately, Franklin's singing became lost in the uproar over her hat. It was Ellen de Generes who put her foot in her mouth by wearing a reproduction of Franklin's hat, turning it into a joke. Actually had de Generes known what she was poking fun at, she might have thought differently, for the wearing of special hats--especially unique ones with a bit of flash--is an old custom for African American church women.

Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry celebrate this tradition in their book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Deirdre Guion calls it:
hattitude...there's a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat. There's something special about you.

The man who sold Franklin the hat, Luke Son, said the clientele for Mr. Song Millinery is 90% African American church-going women. So far from being a joke, Franklin's hat was the perfect accessory to her gospel-tinged version of "My Country Tis of Thee" and brought a historic piece of African American culture to the Inauguration.

The other person who brought a historic piece was the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Dr. King. It would take a space longer than this essay to detail Lowery's achievements, so suffice it to say if anyone in America deserved to deliver the Benediction at Barack Obama's Inauguration it was Lowery.

Lowery's beard--or more properly it should be termed a goatee--reminded me of W.E.B. DuBois, whose book The Souls of Black Folk used verses from what he termed the "sorrow songs" to introduce each chapter and in a chapter titled "Faith of Our Fathers" wrote of the African American church. He wrote:
The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. (p. 190)

The eighty-seven year old Lowery brought his own singular eloquence, proving a better poet than the official poet who preceded him. The rhyme and rhythm of his first phrases brought a hush to the audience.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.

Now that is poetry whose rhythm directly echoes "My Country Tis of Thee." Think of the phrase "land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride." Lowery knew exactly what he was doing. To bring together weary years and silent tears, to hear those words from a man who knew exactly what he was talking about made he and Franklin the perfect bookends for the Inaugural. Ever the activist Lowery did not shy away from telling it like it is.
He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate.

For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

Lord knows what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney must have been thinking when they heard those words.

Having painted a picture of contemporary America, Lowery went on to preach of the hope that Obama's Presidency has brought to the nation.
And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

Near the end, Lowery takes a cue from Franklin evoking the same word she used.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Finally Lowery concludes with paragraphs that cannot help but complete the tie to his old friend Dr. King, even evoking the spirit and rhythm of that long ago day in Washington when King gazed toward where Lowery was speaking even as four score years later Lowery looked out to the place King had spoken from.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

In the midst of Black History Month, a day after Martin Luther King Day, both Franklin and Lowery reminded us of the pivotal role the African American church has played in American history. In a way, the African American church elected Barack Obama.

When I say the African American church I mean the African American church, for it is not so much about ministers as about congregations, not so much about Biblical fundamentalism and thou-shalt-nots as about principles. The Lowerys and Kings have justifiably earned their place in American history, but we forget the fact that as transformational leaders, they would have accomplished little without their congregations.

Much has been written about the Obama campaign, but no one has thought to link it back to the traditions of the African American church. Civil Rights veterans like Lowery would recognize the Obama campaign's tactics, as would anyone who has been a member of an African American congregation.

So when I say the African American Church elected Barack Obama I mean that in three ways. First, church leaders and congregations backed the candidate as they have backed no candidate in history. The huge African American turnout proved pivotal in this election. Without it Barack Obama would not have been standing behind Joseph Lowery waiting to take the oath of office.

The second way the church played a role in the campaign was to endow it with a sense of principle. The Civil Rights movement grew from the African American church's insistence on principle. The Obama campaign came to symbolize a renewal of principles for many Americans who voted for him.

The third way the African American church elected Barack Obama lay in lending its tactics to the campaign. The image of the Civil Rights Movement many Southerners tried hard to reinforce was that it was a top-down movement, that if leaders like King and Lowery could be stopped then the Movement would whither away. But in the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission--a secret police force formed after the Brown decision--lies another story, one of thousands of people who put their lives on the line for freedom.

One moment in the Movement could have served as a blueprint for the Obama campaign. Deprived of the right to vote for African American candidates by the State of Mississippi, the Freedom Democratic Party organized a shadow vote they called the Freedom Ballot. All across the state African Americans voted on Freedom ballots to show the segregationists that they would not be denied the right to express the franchise.

This grassroots effort, conducted with a major boost from African American churches, knit together people across the state. Nothing like it had ever been seen in Mississippi or in America. To minimize the violent segregationists that would be attracted like moths to a flame, organizers mailed the Freedom Ballot over a four-day period. The courage behind the effort remains difficult to imagine, for everyone involved in printing, distributing, filling out and counting the ballots literally put their lives on the line, testifying to a communal strength and resolve determined to rid the state of oppression. When the counting ended, over 50,000 African Americans had sent in ballots, a collective shout for freedom that reverberated across Mississippi to the very halls of Congress.

Nothing like the Obama campaign's grassroots effort had been seen until this November. Even on election night commentators could not quite believe it, but like those who participated in the Freedom Ballot, the campaign organizers knew the strength of their grassroots work.

As we now move forward into the Obama Administration, we would be wise not to forget the African American church, for just as it lay behind the election of Barack Obama, its people, principles and tactics will be there for him to call on when the going gets tough. Aretha Franklin all but said so as she sang, Joseph Lowery all but said so as he preached.

This is going to be a administration the likes of which America has never seen before.

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Blogger eOz on 1/23/2009 1:10 AM:

Beautifully written, as usual. Well argued. These words are those in all our hearts. The African American church has distilled the wisdom in the crucible of terror and developed traditions of dress, music, preaching and myriad other arts drawn into the ritual of confession, repentance, and reformation with a new resolve to live a just and worthy life.

So I take your point about how the African American church was a powerful force and a crucial backdrop (and vastly historical backstory) to the Inauguration of Barak Obama. They put the seal of sacred righteousness to the seal of sacred oath taken before us all. An oath we have longed to see taken for so long.

But here in Iowa, we saw other aspects of this community organizer cum politician. When Wright finally crossed the line with Obama was not only his refusal to hold back from glorifying his own views at a crucial time in the campaign, he attempted to justify his behavior with "I do what preachers do. He does what politicians do."

The media immediately jumped on this meme, infecting the airways and netways for weeks. To Barak -- a veteran of community organizing in Chicago, on the South Side, and speaking to small groups of desperate people in tough times -- that was the last straw. Obama had mastered his craft, rhetorically and tactically. His campaign was by then run by neighborhood captains who had been politically transformed by the skills and tactics he taught them, starting here in Iowa. Far from the asphalt battlefields of Chicago, his tactics echoed the power of The Art Of War. But he rejected the cynicism of Machivelli.

He went on to become a law professor and taught Constitutional Law, just like my sister. In his words and manner I saw a lot of my sister. He wants, and she wanted while she was alive, to see the Constitution followed in spirit as well as word by political parties and politicians. They knew a higher calling in the law.

And Reverend Wright showed he believed that higher calling was a sham. A dodge. A power grab. He dissed the profession of politician, and relegated Barak to an also-ran position in the ranking of the moral universe. But Barak knows, as my sister knew, that politicians -- master politicians -- wrote that document. They have attained an understanding of it, played out in the lives of real citizens. They respect its power.

Obama came to Iowa and we saw that respect, and that passion. We saw one who wanted to lead righteously -- not the righteousness of the pious, but the righteousness of a patriot, embued with liberty as an absolute right without regard to the existance of a diety. He taught us to believe in that vision of a politician again.

I will never forget the speech he gave at the airport flying out of Iowa after we had put him in the race. He told us, and he meant it, that "this is the moment. This is the moment you will tell your children about. This is the moment your children's children will remember. That you believed in me and set me on this path." I'm paraphrasing, but that is what I will tell my children's children, and it is close enough.

He looked us, each of us and all of us, in the eye and we knew his heart was behind his words. He went everywhere. He won the caucuses because his volunteers learned to master the operation themselves and they saw the tactics he had learned -- how to organize a community of citizens to govern themselves and thus gain power to challenge those who would govern them -- in the church basements of South Chicago.

That force. That trueness. That relentless pursuit of political power now that the secrets have been revealed, propelled Obama and sustained him. The African American community writ large had to wait for him to demonstrate real potential. They have been disappointed so many times. It is hard to believe in the power of these simple rules of politics as written in the Constitution (a document which originally excluded them from power).

Once Obama crossed that threshold, the African American church stepped forward and their community presence combined with volunteers from colleges and strange places like Iowa pouring in to help. Passionate fellow citizens, energized and touched by a politician who believes our common secular religion. Only laws reasoned among equals can rule a nation of free citizens. Only the law is supreme. When the law is used in ways to favor one faction over another, misery descends upon us all.

Barak Obama knows this truth. He taught this truth. He wrote about this truth. He came to Iowa and most other states and spoke this truth. His training teams knew when to step back, then leave to let the community teams do their work. That practice of secular religion where Providence is as close to a diety the Framers and most of the Founders cared to invoke. The oath of office is a bond among people, blessed only by the body of laws that people truly share. It is sacred because it is spoken looking right into the eyes of every citzen. It cannot be declared void by invoking some other diety.

Obama won by applying these principles to his campaign. The African American community, and the church, found a kindred wonder when they joined in. Their traditions and those of others merged together because what they set out to do was wise and just and -- dare we believe it -- possible.

Reverend Wright did not understand this truth. He did not believe Barak Obama's way was as true and just as his own. In that moment, Obama had to turn away. In the depths of a tough campaign, he had to respond. He did so by speaking "code" to several cultural groups in one speech. Each found truths resonating with their own most sacred knowings.

He rose on this secular religion. He will govern by it. He will attempt to revive the spirit of that religion from the Framers at their best. He will attempt to lead us in demonstrating the Constitution can be trusted, without "help" from laws twisted to serve the powerful over the individual citizen. He knows he can't do that alone. He knows only the body politic itself can do that, by design.

Obama wants to see that day. He wants to finally know it can work in a dangerous world. He believes it can because he has seen it work at the community level. He convinced us to believe, too. Many are still tentative about whether it will really work. But they are coming to it at their own pace. It is a lot to absorb.

Obama is attempting what my sister and other constitutional scholars believed was possible, even inevitable. The Law would evolve. The Law would adapt. The perfecting of It would make us better people and the world a better place. I believed it when my sister convinced me. Now millions believe it. Billions want to believe it.

Obama tapped into the power of the Constitution itself. He intends to govern with that power. He expects us to learn to rule ourselves and not allow or expect anyone to rule over them. Not in the ballot box. Not in the courtroom. Not in Congress. Not by any President.

He made us believe all over again. That social force elected him, and now rules him. He feels it. He expects it. He is ready to lead it forward. He wants to see just how far he can go because that depends on how far we can go. The Law must change to a better, more perfect form. The African American church has longed for this deliverance for its members and their communities. Their artistry and language is amplified by this confluence of their struggle with those of every other citizen whose power has been deflected or denied. I understand how you see their primacy in his rise and achievement. But the most fundamental power which propels him is the Law as-a-whole and our common secular religion, as written into the Constitution and as it must be practiced as our individual civic duty.

We have lifted him up as first among equals because we see in his eyes the resolve and the understanding such a leader must have. He made us believe. He taught us how powerful hope is. He intends to set us free from oppression by empowering us to wrest our rights and liberties from those who have taken them and hoarded them and claimed them as their own. He intends to unleash the pure force of citizens if he can in the time given to him.

Will he stay true? Will he have us at his back if he does? Will we really see a change, really feel free again? He simply told us we wanted to feel that way again, and showed us he already feels free because he is a citizen of this nation. He offers that feeling to us all. There is nothing in the human spirit more precious than that feeling.

This civic religion has been dissed over the years. It's "what politicans do". Its sacred character has been hidden away in the cloth of fear and bound by the cords of despair. The deliverance from suffering it promises has been diluted into thin gruel. No one really believes that stuff any more.

Except my sister did. And Obama does. I am convinced. I have hope. I feel like I will be free again, and that my children will inherit that gift from our generation. I believe. When I voted for him, I did it because I believed deliverance is possible, and We The People can find a more perfect union which will hold for a time, until circumstances future generations encounter require them to transform yet again.

Enough of us believed in the moment the ballot was before us that he won the election. That force propeled him. The various cultural forms it took furthered the force of that power, to be sure. But they were not the source of it. People have struggled for centuries to rule themselves. The Framers knew that full well. They codified a way to balance the various necessary powers into a Government We could control and who would secure for us our liberties.

But voting for Obama, I felt a little more free. Seeing him take the sacred oath, a little more. I feel that freedom coming closer. He unleashed that hope in the small towns of Iowa and now proclaims it from the seat of power. He lives it each day he serves. We are joining him along with our communities large and small. Each confluence charges the channels long dormant with the water of liberty. This water is what sustains the Tree Of Liberty. The blood of patriots is only one form that water takes.

Obama came here and unleashed the river, and then he went elsewhere and did the same there. He did it in enough places that the channels joined into creeks, and creeks into rivers. That water is rising still, and we need more to breach the dam holding us back, attempting to "harness" us.

But I now have faith the water will come. Now I know my sister was not alone. Millions more believe now as she did, as she taught me to. We The People saw that faith played out in our neighborhoods gathered in caucuses and on the Net and the media on Tuesday. The whole world saw.

We won't turn back now with our very liberty coming closer. We can reach out for it now. We expect to grasp it and hold it close, and soon. We know we can rise to the challenge of being united in it and secure in its blessings.

Barak Obama made Us believe in the Constitution again -- its hope and its essential righteousness. We can be cleansed of the stains of our sins against one another. Nonsecular religions cannot do that. We can become a more perfect union. No diety can do that by force nor church by decree. Obama stayed true to that path. And now the Reverend Wrights will see the power of politics and be able to feel the righteousness of liberty better than they, or their forebears, could. Nonsecular religions cannot secure that blessing for any or us. That's what politicians do, Reverend. After Obama, politicians who don't honor the Constitution are now pretenders to that title.

Obama showed us how it's done. That's all he really did. It was enough. It's more than we could believe possible, but it's also what we believed was true when we were children. Now that we are not children, we have to make it true. We were ready, and a fellow citizen came before us, said it was time to grow up and showed us how politics is done.

The rest is now history. We have seen it in each other, all at once. No one can take the truth of that away from Us ever again.

Thank Providence.


Blogger Ralph Brauer on 1/24/2009 10:02 AM:


A powerful comment that has made me think about a lot. It is testifying in the best tradition. The Iowa analysis is fascinating and helps to enlarge my own perceptions of a state I know well.

And to Bill Austin thanks on behalf of Progressive Historians for the nomination.