By Erick Johnson
The time had come for Reverend Al Sharpton to speak. It was Aretha Franklin’s funeral, and a grand, star-studded send-off was well underway. Gospel singers Shirley Caesar and Tasha Cobbs had most of the 4,000 in attendance on their feet with a rousing version of Mahalia Jackson’s Grammy-award winning hit, “How I Got Over,” right after former President Bill Clinton spoke.
A few minutes into his speech, Sharpton took out a piece of paper. It was a letter from Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president.
Sharpton read Obama’s letter. It ended this way: “Aretha truly was one-of-a-kind. And as you pay tribute, know we’ll be saying a little prayer for you. And we’ll be thinking of all of Aretha’s loved ones in the days and weeks to come.”
Applause erupted and many stood to their feet for a standing ovation. But today—two weeks after Franklin, in her gold-plated Promethean casket, was entombed above her father at Detroit’s famed Woodlawn Cemetery—questions still remain as to whether Obama and his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, gave enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Franklin with just a 203-word letter.
It was a gesture that some felt fell far short in honoring a Black icon who overcame tragedy and heart- ache to sing before royalty and presidents, including at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Most recently, in 2015, Franklin performed at the Kennedy Center, where the Obamas honored Cicely Tyson, Viola Davis and Carole King, the co-author of the Franklin’s hit, “Natural Woman.”
The Crusader wanted to know where Obama was on that Friday, August 31. Many had read in news reports that he was scheduled to speak at the funeral of Senator John McCain on Saturday, September 1, but his itinerary the day before remains a mystery.
The answer perhaps could be found on the very stage that would have placed Obama in the presence of Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Obama had a decision to make. He could rub elbows with the people who made up some of the nearly 16 million Blacks who put him in the White House or stay away and please many rich, white and Jewish donors who, according to a survey by the Chicago Crusader, have dished out some $232 million for his Obama Presidential Center and Library. From the mayor of Chicago to the wealthy members of the Pritzker family, Obama has ties to influential Jewish figures. Many are billionaires whose massive donations are critical to the success to his presidential center and library. Many are from Chicago and not only are they donors, some are on his foundation board of directors.
That made Aretha Franklin’s funeral seem like a Catch-22 situation for the Obamas. Whatever decision Obama made would threaten to alienate or upset a group that he values for their support.
However, money talks these days especially when you need $500 million to build a grand facility to cement your legacy in America. When it comes to wealth, Blacks aren’t close to having the same capital as white or Jewish Americans. In the end, Obama and his wife chose to stay away from Franklin’s funeral. Rather than explicitly saying “no” or giving a reason for missing an important event, Obama sent a letter to be read before Black America, Franklin’s family and thousands of mourners at Greater Grace Temple.
Black America will never know whether money, Obama’s donors or protecting his image actually played a role in his skipping Franklin’s funeral. It’s a sensitive and thorny situation. His aides aren’t talking and when asked about Obama’s schedule that day, they would simply say he sent a letter to be read at Franklin’s funeral. Nothing more, nothing less.
Did Obama sell out Black America or Franklin’s family in favor of corporate America?
It’s a question that has followed Obama since his days in the White House. While in office, he walked a political tightrope in a majority white country that gets nervous when its high-ranking Blacks advance the interests of people of color, let alone spend time with them.
Now, that same question of being “less Black” is following Obama in his post-presidency years where raising heavy capital is just as important as Obama’s global goals of activism and community organizing. Many of the philanthropists and wealthy people who have the cash Obama needs were not at Franklin’s funeral shaking hands with Farrakhan, but closing the latest business deal on a golf course or in the boardroom.
From the Obama Foundation’s annual report, the Crusader examined the list of donors who contributed half-a-million dollars or more towards the presidential center and library. The foundation has seen a spike in contributions from America’s one percent since Obama stepped up his public appearance and marketing campaign last year. Many are filthy rich, have Ivy League degrees and head mega investment management firms.
The biggest donors who have given $1 million or more include the philanthropy fund of the prominent and powerful Goldman Sachs investment firm in New York. In this same category is the wealthy Jewish business mogul Marc R. Benioff, who according to Forbes is worth $6.5 billion from his computing company, Salesforce.
Illinois’ richest resident, Chicago native and hedge fund mogul Kenneth C. Griffin, who Forbes says is worth nearly $10 billion, also contributed at least a $1 million to Obama’s center and library.
Another big donor is Michael J. Sacks, chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Grosvenor Capital Management, an investment firm worth at least $55 billion. Sacks is also Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s biggest campaign donor, giving nearly three million dollars to the mayor’s last two races. Sacks is also on the Obama Foundation’s Board of Directors along with Penny Pritzker.
Emanuel was the force behind the Chicago City Council approving the Obama Presidential Center and Library, ignoring calls for a community benefits agreement. Residents in Woodlawn and South Shore say such an agreement would prevent them from being displaced should the library cause gentrification in their neighborhoods.
Another Obama donor is Jonathan Lavine, chief investment officer of Bain Capital Credit and managing partner of Bain Capital, which has $85 billion in assets. Bain Capital Credit has $35 billion in assets, according to its website.Some 46 donors have contributed $1 million or more to Obama’s presidential center and library. They are the largest group whose donations make up the bulk of the $232 million in contributions. This group includes Oprah Winfrey, a close friend of Obama’s who donated $1 million to his project last July, and the family of America’s first Black billionaire, Reginald F. Lewis. Winfrey is among very few top Black philanthropists on Obama’s donor list. “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams, are also major donors of Obama. The Pritzker Traubert Foundation also donated at least $1 million towards the Obama center and library.
Contributing $250,000 to $500,000 to the center and library was the Jewish Communal Fund. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Avram Glazer also contributed between $250,000 to $500,000, according to the Obama Foundation report.
Questions remain whether many of these donors would have pulled their contributions had Obama or his wife, Michelle, attended Franklin’s funeral with Farrakhan in attendance. While he did not speak at the funeral, Farrakhan’s presence on stage sparked a whirlwind of criticism from Jewish, white and LGBTQ organizations.
In May the Obamas signed a multi-year deal to produce documentary films and television shows for Netflix, the goliath $152 billion online streaming service. Netflix did not disclose the financial terms of the deal, but Netflix’s previous deals with A-list celebrities have been in the tens of millions of dollars.
That same month, Netflix announced that it will show six new Jewish movies, including the Oscar winning film “Schindler’s List” by Hollywood’s most famous Jewish film director, Steven Spielberg. But last month, Netflix pulled the plug on “My Life’s Journey Through Music,” a documentary on Farrakhan, an accomplished violinist who once attended (he like another American, Benjamin Franklin didn’t finish) the prestigious Boston Latin School, a 383-year-old istitution that has historically been the feeder school to Harvard. The only reason Netflix gave for not airing Farrakhan’s documentary was “internal communication.”
The founders and owners of Netflix, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph are not listed as donors on the Obama Foundation’s annual report.
At Franklin’s funeral, television networks ABC and MSNBC cropped Farrakhan out of the photo, showing Clinton, Sharpton and another famous Black man from Chicago, Reverend Jesse Jackson.
The parent company of ABC is Disney, which is headed by Chairman and CEO, Bob Iger, who grew up in a Jewish family in New York. Another high-ranking Disney executive is Benjamin “Ben” Sherwood, 54, who was born in a wealthy Jewish family in California. He is co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and past president of ABC News. The Chairman of MSNBC is Andrew Lack, who grew up in a Jewish family in New York, studied at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and won 10 Emmy Awards and two Peabody awards in his illustrious television career. Lack is also president of NBC News.
Newspapers in America and London’s Daily Mail—some 3,700 miles from Detroit—scolded Clinton for sharing the same stage with Farrakhan. It’s the same anger that prompted calls for the Tribune to withdraw its endorsement of Congressman Danny Davis in the primaries in February after he admitted to having a personal relationship with Farrakhan, calling him an “outstanding human being.”
It should be noted that Entertainment Mogul Clive Davis, who along with Jerry Wexler, put Franklin on the global map, attended the Queen of Soul’s funeral. Perhaps the biggest Jewish American at the service, he made a moving speech about Franklin. In 2012, Davis also attended the funeral of another famous client,Whitney Houston. Davis remains one of few Jewish Americans who dared to be in the presence of a man who for decades has been of accused of making anti-Semitic remarks against Jews.
Clinton is still drawing heavy criticism for sharing the stage with Farrakhan. Obama would have suffered the same consequences at a time when he needs to keep his image and reputation clean among his big donors.
Last January, a 2005 photo (pictured at the top of this story) of Obama and Farrakhan together emerged on the newswire of Black journalist Hazel Trice Edney. The photo was taken at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting, but the photographer, Askia Muhammad, out of fear that the photo would damage Obama’s political career in the White House, kept the photo buried until after Obama left the Oval Office in 2017. In 2008, Farrakhan endorsed Obama, and rival Hillary Clinton, who sat on stage at Franklin’s funeral, tried to make his endorsement an issue in the race.
Sources say Farrakhan was invited to the funeral. In 1972, it is reported that Franklin visited and spoke to Farrakhan in New York at a mosque that had been attacked by police. According to last week’s Final Call, Farrakhan said when his office reached out to Earline Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s sister-in-law, “He only requested to be present at the funeral and did not ask to speak.”
Farrakhan thought he would be seated behind the family or friends at the funeral, but the family wanted him on the stage according to the Final Call.
“I just wanted to be present with the family as one of the mourners. And even though I was invited to speak at the tribute concert, I told them I really didn’t come to do that. Though I was offered the chance to speak, I never availed myself of that opportunity.”
The newspaper distributed some 90,000 copies of a special edition on Franklin to mourners in Detroit. But in its extensive coverage on the funeral, very few of the stories mentioned Obama and the letter. One story quoted Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who took a swipe at Obama when he said, “Scared to show up at a too-Black place!” he exclaimed to loud applause.
“That’s why some Black folk aren’t here today. They sendin’ letters, they don’t wanna get up in this Blackness!”
“That reference pretty much said a lot by itself,” said Richard Muhammad, editor of the Final Call. “His comments were so representative of how we felt. Aretha Franklin never traded away her Blackness. She became a global icon of wealth and fame, but she stayed with her people.”