The Farrakhan elephant in the room at Aretha Franklin’s funeral


What was far-right religious leader Louis Farrakhan doing at Aretha Franklin’s funeral? The Forward asked this question, but most major media has sought to not discuss the elephant in the room. “I was honored to be among the many who attended the beautiful funeral services in Detroit for our dear sister Aretha Franklin. She could never know how many lives her songs, her soul, have actually saved,” Farrakhan tweeted on Saturday.

The Nation of Islam gave away 50,000 copies of The Final Call to commemorate Franklin, with an image of her on the cover.

However photos and video of Farrakhan in attendance, and in a place of honor with Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton seated next to him has received criticism online. Charlie Kirk of the “American conservative” TPUSA tweeted that it was a “disgrace to the beautiful Aretha Franklin to have the con artists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton sit front row at her funeral alongside anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.”

It seems mostly conservative and more right-leaning media in the US were outraged enough to write about Farrakhan’s presence.  MSNBC was accused of removing Farrakhn from their image and purposely ignoring his presence. The Washington Examiner, The Blaze and FoxNews took an interest. 

Jay Nordlinger of The National Review noted “funeral choreography can be awkward. And often you have to hold your nose or suck it up at a funeral, those so-often-awkward events. But should Bill Clinton have shared a dais with Louis Farrakhan? Should he have absented himself from Aretha Franklin’s funeral? Said “him or me”?”

So what’s going on? Earlier in the year Farrakhan was in the spotlight because Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory attended a Farrakhan event. Jake Tapper at CNN condemned her. The ADL also “blasted on Sunday Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, for lacking the ‘courage’ to condemn anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan” in March.

So why isn’t there a rejection of Farrakhan this time? It seems that the sheer number of mainstream idols in attendance, including Stevie Wonder and Bill Clinton and Ariana Grande (who appeared to be groped by a bishop at the funeral, overshadowing Farrakhan’s presence).

But the question is why is Farrakhan so mainstream, despite his offensive far-right views? Why was he given a place of honor. It’s true that funeral arrangements can be difficult, but its also clear he was honored with an invite and a prime place the front. This is because he is mainstream. US media wants to pretend he isn’t. That’s why he wasn’t mentioned. That’s why outrage is reserved for a small group. It’s easier just to crop him out of the picture.

Part of the problem in the US is that far-right racism is acceptable so long as it is somehow clothed in the gown of being on the “left” or “intersecting” with “social justice.” Thus the views of Farrakhan are palatable because he says them, if the same views were said by someone else, say John Hagee or a Republican, they were be considered, rightfully, offensive, homophobic, racist and all the other terrible things.

It is interesting to contrast the work that went into keeping unpalatable figures away from John McCain’s funeral, while opening the door wide at Franklin’s. This represents a double standard. It’s part of the politics of race and social justice in America that gives a blank check to certain offensive views depending on who says them. For instance, the Washington DC legislator who claimed that “Rothschilds” control the weather was invited for a tour of the Holocaust museum and Jewish community leaders went to “engage” him, as if he was just a bit naive. This is a huge difference between how other antisemites and racists are treated.

But the Farrakhan story is bigger than just the funeral. Quietly people do realize that there is an elephant in the room. A photo of Barack Obama with Farrakhan in 2005 was quietly hidden away for more than a decade, lest it “derail” him. it’s quite strange that this was the way a politics of omertà seems to surround these kinds of meetings. Sort of like MSNBC seeming to crop him out, the idea is that if you just don’t show the public what is happening, then it didn’t happen and it is ok. It would be like finding out that a US politician was hanging out with the KKK or Bin Laden or something and photos were just quietly hidden away. Instead of asking questions, critical thinking, speaking truth to power, the politics of omertà set in.

Then the story becoming more about the story of hiding the photo than about why the meeting happened in the first place. Indeed, why did the Obama meeting take place. Why was he smiling. Why did all those in attendance at Franklin’s funeral not seem to mind. Not one protest. Even hugs and hand-shaking. There was no shame. It wasn’t like they grit their teeth and were disgusted and then spoke out. No. Because they didn’t think it was a problem. Because actually, so long as there aren’t photos, the elephant in the room is not a problem.

NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind was outraged. “Louis Farrakhan, front and center, treated like royalty? In spite of his crude, vicious comments about Jews, whites, gays, he is placed up front with President Clinton? Shocking!” Indeed. It’s a good question. Because there was no attempt by Clinton’s team to distance the former president. Sharpton and Jackson didn’t asked to be placed somewhere else. No one protested. Everyone went along.

We talk about “intersectionality” in the US. But the problem is that there is an intersection between the far-right and the mainstream, oddly. As long as that far right comes from one place and not another it is considered the “good” far right, the one people pose with and presidents such as Obama and Clinton, don’t see an issue meeting with. Perhaps the meeting should be in private they might say, though. And actually in private is worse. At least in public we know what both sides say. In private we don’t.


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