In 1959, Lenny and I ran away to Detroit to get married. My father drove us. He thought we were going to be interviewed for jobs in a summer stock company.
While we were there, Lenny and I went to a nightclub. I don’t know why but, they sat us at a VIP table. Maybe it was because Lenny was white. He looked like Dr. Livingston in a pith helmet,in Black Bottom, Detroit.. Nobody introduced us. So since I had been to Europe and since these were obviously working-class people, I took it upon myself to show them East Coast etiquette. I stood up, stuck out my hand and shook each and every person’s hand while giving them mine. I thought that was a gentle way of getting their names. “Hello, I’m Abigail Hubbell, How do you do?” Only one person gave his name back, “How do you do?, I’m Emmel, Emmel King.”
Soon a young lady came on to sing. The child was pitifully plain. That was before she opened her mouth.
Once she started to sing, it was like love and pain and goodness and authenticity and butterflies came out of her mouth. It was a voice pointing to God and not trying to be God. I got so excited that I stood on my chair and started to whistle (I am from Brooklyn, after all). There was no applause, just screaming, stomping, and whistling. By the time she finished singing, she was the most beautiful person in the world.
After it was over, the men started to talk:
“… talking about black power only separates us more,” said a man they called Dr. Franklin.
“I heard Malcolm talk in New York City, and was standing as close to him as you and I are right now,” said Lenny.
“I knew Malcolm; he was a good man,” said Emmel.
Lenny, whose parents were commies, continued, “Well, what he said was, you’ll get your freedom, but you gotta let your enemy know that you will do anything to get it, anything.”
“That’s a little seditious, don’t you think? There are other ways,” said Emmel.
“Not according to Brother Malcolm,” said Lenny. “If you’re effective they will call you an extremist or a subversive or a red or a radical. It is only when you stay radical long enough or get enough people to join you that you will get your freedom.”
“I don’t want to be no damn radical,” said Dr. Franklin. “I just want to be able to support my family, and this recession hits the negro far deeper than the white man. The negro has to have two or three jobs just to try to stay even, plus his wife has to work. I don’t want to be a sellout, but if I had some out, I would sell it. Ha, ha, ha.”
“That is exactly how I feel about the singer tonight,” I said, trying to butt in on the “man talk” and let everyone see how smart I was.
“Yes, she was a wonderful singer, but at what cost? Basically, she was singing gospel. Tricked-out gospel, and that is how tragic the Negro’s position has become. We have to sell out our sacred music in order to survive.”
“Young lady, that is exactly how I feel,” said Dr. Franklin.
Lenny kept pinching me under the table, but I thought he was flirting so I put my hand on top of his.
“She should be ashamed of herself, shaking her behind like that.”
At that moment, the young singer was at the table: “Hi, Daddy.”
Dr. Franklin said, “Allow me to introduce my daughter, Aretha.”
This is my kinda, sorta recollection of our meeting. A few years later in June of 1963, Dr. Franklin and Dr. M.L. King lead a freedom march down Woodward Ave in Detroit. This march preceded the March On Washington which was held that August. Franklin was shot in 1979 in what police said was a robbery gone bad.
…I forgot to say that Emmel turned out to be Dr. M. L. King (who knew?).
Abigail McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers of poetry and social issues (which is currently looking for a new home on the Island). She created Renaissance House in memory of her mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, the novelist, both “Island” girls.