That Aretha funeral sermon: AP offers quick look at the painful issues behind the furor

During the two decades that I taught journalism in Washington, D.C., the team at what became the Washington Journalism Center did everything it could to help our students -- who came from all over the country -- see a side of the city that tourists rarely see.

We urged them to visit local churches, black and white. For two years, our students lived in home-stay arrangements all over the city, with families we met through church ties. We sent them on research trips into neighborhoods, using the buses rather than the subways (ask any DC resident what that's all about). Students served as tutors in urban after-school programs and as helpers and babysitters for mothers linked to a crisis-pregnancy center.

In discussions with students I heard one question more than any other: Where are the fathers?

That's the subject looming in the background of media reports about the controversial sermon delivered the other day by the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr., during the epic Aretha Franklin funeral. We will come back to that.

In many ways, this topic has been a third rail in American journalism ever since a 1965 report -- “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" -- by Daniel Patrick Moynihan rocked American politics (click here for Washington Post backgrounder). Here is the key stat (see this stunning chart), undated to reflect what has happened since: More than 70 percent of all African-America children today are born to an unmarried mom, a stat 300 percent higher than in the mid-1960s.

Here is the overture to the Associated Press story about the Aretha funeral. The key question: Was the heart of this sermon religious or political?

A fiery, old-school pastor who is under fire for saying black America is losing "its soul" at Aretha Franklin's funeral stands firm by his words with the hope critics can understand his perspective.
Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. told The Associated Press in a phone interview ... he felt his sermon was appropriate at Franklin's funeral Friday in Detroit. He felt his timing was right, especially after other speakers spoke on the civil rights movement and President Donald Trump.
"I was trying to show that the movement now is moving and should move in a different direction," he said. "... What we need to do is create respect among ourselves. Aretha is the person with that song 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T' that is laid out for us and what we need to be as a race within ourselves. We need to show each other that. We need to show each other respect. That was the reason why I did it."

OK, we have vague references to "respect" and "soul," the obligatory Trump nod and zero facts about the topics that Williams addressed.

But here is the heart of the controversy. It's good that AP got this high in the story, although I really think this belonged in the lede:

Williams, who is the pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, said his words about black women being incapable of raising sons alone were taken out of context. He described as "abortion after birth" the idea of children being raised without a "provider" father and a mother as the "nurturer."
Many thought Williams took a shot at Franklin, who was a single mother of four boys. But the pastor said a household can become stronger with two parents rather than one.
"Here's the root of what I've been talking about: In order to change America, we must change black America's culture," he said. "We must do it through parenting. In order for the parenting to go forth, it has to be done in the home. The home."

To add to the furor, Williams said that it would be easier to say "Black Lives Matter" if the rates of black-on-black crime were lower. Thus:

Some called Williams' eulogy a "disaster" as his speech caused an uproar on social media and in the funeral crowd, including Stevie Wonder who yelled out "Black Lives Matter" after the pastor said "No, black lives do not matter" during his sermon.
"I think Stevie Wonder did not understand what I said," Williams said. "I said blacks do not matter, because black lives cannot matter, will not matter, should not matter, must not matter until black people begin to respect their own lives. Then and only then will black lives matter. That's what I said, and again, and again, and again. We need to have respect for each other. Once we start doing that, then we can begin to change."

There's more, of course. But here is the key: Williams says, over and over, that he's trying to get African-American churches to talk about subjects that are hard to talk about.

Again: Where are the fathers? It's a comment on this day and age that asking that question leads to arguments about black single mothers.

The bottom line, for me: The Associated Press team deserves kudos for following up on the funeral story with this Williams interview. However, perhaps this story needed one or two summary paragraphs about the state of black families in America? The updated statistics are easy to find.

What now? We are talking about a sprawling, painful, complex story that affects urban Americans from coast to coast. Also, it's clear -- as Moynihan predicted long ago -- that patterns seen in black neighborhoods and pews are now affecting women and children of all races in all corners of American life. For example, look at the impact of shattered family structures in the opioid crisis.

Is this a religion story? Listen to Williams, via AP:

"I'm sure much of the negativity is due to the fact that they don't understand what I'm talking about," he said. "Anybody who thinks black America is all right as we are now is crazy. We're not all right. It's a lot of change that needs to occur. This change must come from within us. Nobody can give us things to eliminate where we are. We have to change from within ourselves. It is ludicrous for the church not to be involved. The church is the only viable institution we have in the African-American community. We must step up and turn our race around."
Please respect our Commenting Policy