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Aretha Franklin's fans say goodbye
TWO decades ago, after Rhonda Jefferson had suffered another broken rib at the hands of an abusive boyfriend, her friends told her that she needed to leave him. But she could not quite find the strength, she said on Tuesday, until Aretha Franklin gave it to her.
Ms Jefferson remembers lying in bed, listening to music, when her CD began to skip and repeat one particularly famous Franklin refrain: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me." Ms Jefferson said she took that as "a sign from a goddess" and left her abuser for good that day, which explains why she and her daughter drove all night from Philadelphia to join the thousands who came to view Franklin as she lay in state at the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History here.
"I never got to meet her, I never got to tell her that I love her," Ms Jefferson said. "But I'll be damned if I ain't going to say goodbye to her. She saved my life."
The adoring public came from far and wide to glimpse Franklin, resplendent in a red gown and red pumps and with cherry red lipstick on a placid smile, lying in a gold coffin surrounded by flowers. The dress was a tribute to the Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority of African-American women of which Franklin was an honorary member.
At one point in the morning, the line of visitors waiting to enter the first of two 12-hour viewing periods on Tuesday and Wednesday stretched for five blocks. Franklin was only the third person to lay in state at the Wright Museum, the other two being the civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and Detroit's first African-American mayor, Coleman Young Jr, said George Hamilton, the museum's interim executive director.
"Aretha's music is going to be played long after we're gone and for generations to come, so it's only appropriate that she join these people who have lain in state to allow the public to say their goodbyes here," Hamilton said.
On Friday, there will be an invitation-only funeral at Detroit's Greater Grace Temple for Franklin, who died on Aug 16 at 76. It will be a star-studded event featuring Stevie Wonder, Faith Hill, Jennifer Hudson, former President Bill Clinton and many others.
But the viewings on Tuesday and Wednesday were for her fans who started lining up late Monday. Camille Howard, a 46-year-old human resources executive from Austin, Texas, flew up and was in line by 10 pm, spending the night bonding and praying with other Franklin devotees.
"I knew that it would be crowded, I knew that the world was going to want to come and see her for the last time," Ms Howard said. "It's a celebration of her life. We had a great night." The Franklin family was not expected to appear publicly for the Wright Museum viewing, but Ms Howard said Franklin's niece came by at 4 am with hamburgers, water and T-shirts for those camped out on line.
Outside the museum, a bittersweet scene featured both somber remembrance and celebratory carnival. While Franklin's gospel music played inside, a local radio station broadcast other Franklin songs from a tent in front of the museum. Many who walked by could not help but dance.
Hawkers touted posters and drinks, many fans wore US$15 commemorative T-shirts and a vintage pink Cadillac, a tribute to Franklin's hit Freeway of Love, was on display in the front parking lot. Nearby sat the ornate 1940 La Salle hearse that ferried Franklin from the funeral home and also once carried her father, a noted preacher, and Parks to their funerals.
Franklin remains special in Detroit where she stayed rooted despite her success and where she first discovered her voice in her church choir.
"She meant everything to Detroit, I'm telling you," said Gail Ford, 53. "When a lot of people got rich and famous, they left Detroit. Aretha Franklin might've moved to the outskirts once or twice, but she stayed here till her dying day. Who would do that? Our iconic queen, that's who do that. Stick with us to the end."
There are plans, still in the early stages, to possibly turn her house into a museum or perhaps raise a statue of her. The Wright Museum will stage an exhibition honoring her next month.
Glenda G Jones of Toledo, Ohio, said she had rearranged plans to be present for the viewing.
"I told my doctor last week, I say, 'I'm going to a funeral, you got to reschedule me,' and the doctor says, 'I'm sorry to hear that, Glenda, who passed?' and I say, 'Aretha!' " said Ms Jones, 60. She wore all pink as a tribute to Franklin, who died of cancer.
The doctor asked, she said, "Oh, you knew her?" "I say, 'No, but I grew up with her!'" Ms Jones said.
Some of the fanfare outside went too far for some. Brenda Wallice of Atlanta said she could have done without the dancer dressed in an Aretha bouffant and a sparkly purple dress who twirled and lipsynched to Franklin's music as the line passed, handing out cards advertising her services.
"The Queen of Soul is gone and she ain't never coming back," said Ms Wallice, a dental hygienist who took the week off to be in Detroit for the viewing and, she hopes, to attend the funeral. "No knockoff is going to make that any better. If there's one thing Aretha taught us, it was to be original. I pity the fool who tries to be her." Even the most boisterous mourners were muted after passing through for their viewings.
Felicia Phillips, 57, who queued up at 5 am for what she described as about 20 seconds of viewing time, was drying her tears as she left the museum. Those who lingered, she said, were sternly told to keep going. Cameras and other electronic devices were prohibited, and visitors were not permitted to bring in handbags.
"It's hard to describe the feeling, it's like she's really left us," Ms Phillips said.
She recalled first becoming aware of the music icon as a little girl when Franklin sang Precious Lord at the 1968 funeral of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.
"It just felt so final," she said of her experience at the viewing. "She had a smile on her face. She looked at peace." NYTIMES