The world lost a legend Thursday with the death of Aretha Franklin, whose spell-binding talent captivated millions for decades and earned her the title of the Queen of Soul. As fans look back on Franklin’s life journey, her voice, songs, church roots and her activism touch their hearts.
While many folks know all Aretha’s Grammy award-winning prowess, others may not be as well-acquainted with the chanteuse’s history of being a civil rights champion. Of course, her greatest hits were recorded in the studio, but many of them were recorded with the Black history narratives of her family, friends and followers in mind. There were moments when she stood with and for powerful fighters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis.
It’s those moments that perhaps provide some of the best memories for those who have been ushered into the “Aretha Academy,” studying the ebbs and flows of Franklin’s life.
The singer had many stories of King’s visits to her Detroit childhood home in the 1950s and 60s. King was a comrade of Franklin’s minister father, C.L., whose Black pride preaching was a balm for the broken. Franklin’s father had orchestrated the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom — known as the largest civil-rights demonstration in U.S. history until the March on Washington. King had delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Detroit march after Franklin had toured with the leader as a teenager during the civil rights movement in 1958.
A few years later, Franklin offered to pay bail money for Davis, who was arrested at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City in 1970. The soulful singer was ready to help as Davis was held behind bars for 16 months for what was later determined to be wrongful kidnapping and murder charges, Jet Magazine reported in December of 1970. Davis was later released on bail and cleared of her charges in 1972.
Franklin’s songs were also, of course, inextricably linked to the Black freedom movement throughout her career. Most famously, “Respect,” the singer’s 1967 hit, became an anthem for African-American liberation.
“When she sang, she embodied what we were fighting for, and her music strengthened us. It revived us,” Rep. John Lewis, another pioneer of the civil rights movement, said about Franklin. “When we would be released from jail after a non-violent protest, we might go to a late night club and let the music of Aretha Franklin fill our hearts.”