Aretha Franklin will forever be remembered as the legendary Queen of Soul, but her six decade career (during which she won 18 Grammy awards and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) isn’t the only legacy she’ll be leaving behind. The musical icon, who passed away at the age of 76 in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, was also an integral part of the Civil Rights movement, using both her platform and her voice to advocate for racial equality.
Born to preacher and civil rights activist Clarence L. Franklin (who organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom ahead of his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington) and his wife Barbara Siggers, Franklin grew up singing gospel music in the church. In her youth, she was mentored by Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” and a noted civil rights activist who was also good friends with King.
In 1967, Franklin released “Respect,” arguably her most famous song, which became an anthem for the racial and gendered political movements of the time, something that wasn’t lost on Franklin who said of her signature track in her memoir Aretha: From These Roots: “It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect,” Franklin wrote. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
The following year, in 1968, Franklin sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song made famous by Jackson, at King’s funeral. That same year, she also performed the National Anthem at the Democratic National Convention.
The activism that Franklin was surrounded by in her youth quickly became something she was personally and actively engaged in; according to a Detroit Free Press interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson, Franklin often used her talents to help further the civil rights movement, even going so far as to tour with King and fellow singer/activist, Harry Belafonte.
“When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll,” Jackson said. “On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte…and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer. She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency.”
One of the most prescient examples of Franklin’s commitment to civil rights was when she offered to post bail for revolutionary activist and scholar Angela Davis in 1970, after Davis, a member of the Communist Party, was accused of assisting in a courtroom takeover that ended in four deaths. In an interview with Jet, Franklin advocates for not only Davis, but for black liberation.
“Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin said. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Franklin’s investment in her community and her dedication to social justice is perhaps best summed up by Barack Obama, a huge fan of the singer and who immediately requested that the soul singer be the performer for his first presidential inauguration in 2009.
In an interview with The New Yorker following a performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (a performance that memorably brought him to tears,) the former president had this to say: “American history wells up when Aretha sings. Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll ― the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Following the news of her death, Franklin was mourned by not only fans of her music, but those who recognized her role in the Civil Rights Movement, many of whom worked alongside her in fighting for equality.
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