DETROIT, Mich.--The ground floor of the New Bethel Baptist Church has a place that will take you to a higher ground.
A small history room traces the career of C.L. Franklin, the riveting pastor of New Bethel between 1946 and 1984. He is the late father of soul queen Aretha Franklin.
The rich space on the poor west side of Detroit has black and white photos of Rev. Franklin with baseball great Jackie Robinson, Motown's Berry Gordy and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Conderidge Smith is the dignified pastor and son of present day pastor Robert Smith, Jr. Conderidge proudly looked at the photo of Dr. King before a recent Sunday morning service. "He and pastor Franklin were very good friends," said Conderidge, 34. "His first 'I Had a Dream' speech was in Detroit and we're proud of that. This was a major fund raising source for him.........."
.......Nearly 150,000 black and white people marched down Detroit's Woodward Avenue on June 23, 1963.
Just a month earlier Rev. Franklin and Dr. King had joined forces in Chicago for a fund raiser with headliners Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin, who sang Thomas Dorsey's classic "Precious Lord." The event was hosted by Studs Terkel and raised more than $50,000 for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, according to Nick Salvatore's fine 2006 book "Singing in a Strange Land (C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America)."
DETROIT JUNE 23, 1963
The New Bethel history room is maintained by Michigan State University. Visitors also see Rev. Franklin's chair he used from his pulpit, robes and a plexiglass cross from the sign of the original New Bethel where Aretha made her singing debut in 1956 at the age of 14. That church was razed to make way for I-94; the way in and out of Detroit.
New Bethel Baptist Church moved to its current location in 1963. The 1,800-seat church is in the former Oriole Theater (circa 1927) at 8430 C.L. Franklin Blvd. It is worth a visit.
In a separate interview Smith Jr. said, "There's a picture in the history room of Rev. Franklin with some shades on. That was the last public picture of Rev. Franklin. It was at Florence Ballard's funeral."
Ballard was the most tragic story from the Supremes. She died in 1976 of heart failure at the age of 32. Ballard, who coined the name the "Supremes" had a fierce rivalry with Diana Ross. More than 5,000 people lined the street in front of New Bethel for her Feb. 27, 1976 services. Members of the Four Tops were pallbearers and Stevie Wonder was an honorary pallbearer. Ross was reportedly booed.
Five years later Rev. Franklin would be dead.
He remained in a coma for the next five years. Rev. Franklin died in 1984. The murder remains unsolved, which leads to juicy conspiracy theories in the Linwood community in which he and Aretha lived. I was told one way to stop a conversation with Aretha was to bring up the death of her father.
"In 1958 Pastor Franklin was one of the first African-Americans to move over here," said Smith, Jr. who followed in C.L. Franklin's footsteps. "After the '67 riots most of the families that left were Jewish that were working in the automobile industry. The families that moved in were African-American. Since that time the city has had such blight and decay even the blacks are moving to the suburbs in large numbers.
"The city has 44,000 homes in ownership with people just abandoning them. Three years ago our church purchased four vehicles so we could at least get out with some of those people. But with gas prices now we have to reconsider all that now."
Between 1968 and 1972 New Bethel had a congregation of more than 10,000 people.
Today it is around 300, according to Rev. Smith, Jr.
BERRY GORDY, L and REV. FRANKLIN; photo in CHURCH HISTORY ROOM
During a church tour I noticed a sign on a dressing room door. It said "Spencer Taylor and the Highway QC's." Conderidge explained, "Aretha threw a big charity concert this past Christmas. They had a truck or two of food. We've always been in food distribution. What was unique about her experience, which is her respect for people who are impoverished, is that it was a sit down dinner. We didn't even understand that.
"The food came and then all of a sudden there's this plate ware and fine china. It was steamed and shrink wrapped. She said, 'We're not going to throw boxes at them.' The main floor of our church was fully packed with about 880 people and people standing along the walls."
Rev. Smith, Jr. is from the coal mining town of Pratt City, Ala. that was recently ravaged by tornadoes. He is 60 years old. He began pastoring in Pratt City at the age of 17.
"Detroit's pastor William Holly just died last Saturday at 97," he said on my May 1 visit. Holly was the president of the Council of Baptist Pastors. Smith, Jr. said, "He had been bringing me here since I was 15 to preach. He was in charge during the transition from when Rev. Franklin got shot to Rev. Moore being here." Blind preacher Clinton Moore was Rev. Franklin's assistant and was named minister-in-charge while Rev. Franklin was in a coma. "When Moore walked out (in a power struggle) they had to find a pastor. Rev. Holly was president of the pastor's council. Everything broke down in negotiation."
And Rev. Smith, Jr. was summoned.
"God was preparing me at 17 for what I was going to face at 30," he said. "When Rev. Franklin died we didn't vote, declare or nothing. I was the sole pastor."
How daunting was the assignment?
"I told someone whoever followed Pastor Franklin would be foolish because they would have to live in his shadow for the next 50 years," he answered. "Right now I got about 20 years ago. I realized his name would be called all the time, his daughter's name would be called all the time. I never came fighting the name. I also followed my father, who was a pastor in Pratt City, to his church. He pushed me to go to Southern Baptist Seminary. I felt well prepared and ready for the task. I did not know it would last 30 years."
He did admit the transition was "challenging" at first for the Franklin family.
"It took awhile for me to even get to meet Aretha," he said. "When I met her she was surprised at my age and looks. I used to have a big super-do and all. I kept his name before the people all the time. I worked to get Linwood Avenue named C.L. Franklin Boulevard. I've named choirs after him and kept up the C.L. Franklin Scholarship Fund. Some people have accused me of exploiting the name. I pushed it so much."
The balcony of the church was empty during my visit, the main floor was about half full. Rev. Smith preached about how "the harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few." Smith, Jr. believes in ministry through music and guest vocalists sang high powered gospel backed by a pre-teen drummer and dual keyboards.
Rev. Smith Jr. welcomed "church folk, pimps and whores" and exclaimed "New Bethel is still alive!!!"
In his office before his sermon, Smith Jr. reflected, "We'll have to give up this building in the near future. A leaky roof is just one of many ongoing problems. Three years ago we redid the facade. But the community needs us. We will have 700 people here Tuesday getting 10 and 20 pound boxes of groceries. Our drug rehab and prison ministries are second to none. We have people coming directly out of the penitentiary to the church. We show them how to outlive their parole and probation. A lot of churches are leaving the borders. We decided we're not going anywhere."
There are no borders to the soul.