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5 Times Aretha Franklin Sent Ripples Through U.S. History

Although most famous for being the Queen of Soul, the other side of Franklin’s career saw her support activism, feminism and the civil rights movement

Utsav Kotrial Aug 17, 2018

“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,”-Aretha Franklin. Photo: Gertrude Fehr/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

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Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away in her Detroit home on Thursday morning at the age of 76. Her six decade career won her 18 Grammy awards, and made her the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Rolling Stone ranked her Number One of the ”˜100 Greatest Singers of All Time,’ calling her a “gift from God.”  She influenced innumerable pop, soul and R&B artists and you can hear strains of her music in contemporary artists like Adele and Beyoncé.

The other side of her career was one where she helped people, especially her own. It is often overlooked because she did not directly agitate at Civil Disobedience movements, once mentioning that her arena was music, not politics. However, Franklin’s commitment to civil rights and social welfare was well-known to those around her, and her emotional ballads impacted the movement too.

Here are five times her work sent ripples through U.S. history.

Her connection to Martin Luther King Jr.

Franklin’s mother died when she was just 10 years old. She was raised by her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin. He was the organizer of the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom – which was the largest-ever civil rights demonstration in the U.S. at the time, pulling crowds of an estimated 125,000 or more. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America,” although it faded into obscurity because of the March To Washington later that year, which featured King’s legendary “I Have A Dream” speech. 

King was a close friend of Franklin’s father and as a result she began touring with him during his demonstrations, providing a potent soundtrack for them. Five years later, after his shocking assassination, she sang at his funeral. His daughter Dr. Bernice King called Franklin a “shining example” of how the arts can be used to support social change.

 Her inspiring anthems

Franklin’s first mega hit “Respect”, was originally released by Otis Redding two years before her cover. However, her 1967 version found instant popularity, and is now considered by many to be the anthem of the feminist and civil rights campaigns. In her memoir Aretha: From These Roots, she wrote, “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. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

The line ”˜You know I’ve got it,’ has a feminist meaning. In a 2016 Elle piece about “Respect,” Franklin told Sheila Weller “As women, we do have it. We have the power. We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.”

Her song “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” imagined a world where women can break free from their constraints: “Now this is a song to celebrate/The conscious liberation of the female state!/Mothers, daughters, and their daughters, too./Woman to woman/We’re singin’ with you./The inferior sex got a new exterior/We got doctors, lawyers, politicians, too.”

Her Support for Angela Davis

In 1970 philosophy teacher, social activist, and communist Angela Davis was accused of supplying weapons used in a courtroom escape. She was arrested in New York following an FBI manhunt and then-president Nixon called her “a dangerous terrorist”. However, she was acquitted in 1972 and continued her career as an academic and activist.

During a widespread campaign for her release, Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for her, “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” This was met with some resistance, especially from her father, but she stood her ground. “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,” she stated. “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.”

Her Support for activists

Social consciousness was in her blood. In the Sixties, it was written into her contract that she would never perform for a segregated audience. Her work won her praise from several prominent figures who dedicated their lives to fighting injustice. Reverend Jesse Jackson–a civil rights activist who was her friend for over 60 years–revealed that she quietly helped pay for campaigns while King was alive. She also housed activists, helped them fundraise, and held several free concerts. According to Jackson she was “an inspiration, not just an entertainer.”

 Prolific activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis expressed the indirect ways in which she inspired people in his statement, “When she sang, she embodied what we were fighting for, and her music strengthened us. It revived us. 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.” 

Her Obama inauguration performance

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 In 2009, Barrack Obama’s inauguration as the 43rd president of the United States but the first of color was a turning point in U.S. history””it was clear Obama felt Franklin’s presence was absolutely essential. The Queen of Soul had performed at presidential inaugurations before but this one held special meaning for people of color across America; her rousing rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee’” is still an unforgettable tear-jerker. 

Even in 2018, the new generation of crusaders fighting the upsurge of racial violence in America consider her a musical behemoth still capable of touching the hearts of millions, and encouraging them to persevere.

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