Aretha’s Eulogist, Jasper Williams Feels Overwhelmed By Assignment
On a sultry dog day in August thirty-four years ago, Rev. Jasper Williams received a telephone call from Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul and his friend, at that time of 41 years. The two had met when Williams was 16 and Franklin was 17 years of age.
Franklin called to inform Williams that her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, a renowned preacher and civil rights leader, had passed. Her father had lingered in a coma for five years after he had been shot by a thief who had broken into his home in Detroit.
Williams was saddened by the news. He had grown up in the shadow of Rev. Franklin, learning what it took to lead a flock on Sunday and to agitate for civil rights throughout the week. A child preacher at age seven, Williams had followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Rev. A. R. Williams who had lived near Rev. Franklin, the two daily engaging in a game of checkers.
When Williams’ uncle visited the Franklin home sometimes he took young Jasper with him. Jasper became acquainted with Aretha and enamored with the preaching style, dignity and integrity of Rev. Franklin.
In 1984 when Aretha called with the news that Williams’ mentor had passed to the other side, she told him that the family had discussed two great preachers in the African American church to preach Rev. Franklin’s eulogy. They were Rev. Jesse Jackson, who at that time was a Democratic candidate for president and the legendary Rev. C. A. W. Clark, but Aretha asked Williams to do her father’s eulogy.
Williams thought he had come of age as a preacher when he received the request to preach the eulogy of this great leader in the Black community. He likens being selected to preach Rev. Franklin’s eulogy to Elisha receiving the mantle from Elijah.
“Dr. C. L. Franklin was the prophet, the icon, he was the guru, he was the greatest preacher of the 20th century,” Williams said.
In this spirit Williams has run his race for the past 34 years, then again this August, he received a call from Aretha Franklin’s family informing him that Aretha was in hospice care and had requested he preach her eulogy.
Williams replied, “Tell Aretha I will do whatever it is she wants me to do, if I should be the longest liver. If she wants me to sing a song, to preside or give remarks that would be fine with me.”
“Stop right there,” the family representative replied, then added, “She wants you to do the eulogy. ”
“Well then. You tell her to rest assured that if I am the longest liver, I will do that and carry out her wishes as she desired,” Williams said.
Before the month was out, word reached Williams that he was indeed the longest liver between him and the soul of music.
“I feel so insignificant to do this,” he said when asked about the role providence had handed him.
A week from Aretha’s celebration of life services, Williams says he does not know what he is going to say. He asked an enterprising reporter to pray for him that God will give him the right words for the solemnity this auspicious occasion requires.
“ I am still trying to get there. You are never to be so certain of yourself when it comes to doing anything for God. It doesn’t just come to you, you have to study, you have to know what you are about. I am struggling with the fact that we have an icon who means so much to people. I think if we all pray, God will lead us there,” he said.
Williams intends to approach the eulogy from three prongs: “the life of Aretha Franklin, the word of God and society as it is presently constituted.”
“I will be struggling until I finish preaching this eulogy,” Williams said.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at email@example.com