Aretha Franklin: Her legacy in music and social justice lives on
Aretha Franklin at a news conference on March 26, 1973. | AP

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, has died at the age of 76. Franklin was a trailblazer and history maker. Born in the birthplace of Rock and Roll, Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in the capital of Motown music, Detroit, Michigan, Franklin is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. She broke ground as the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of her many hit songs, Respect, has been known as an anthem not just for women, but for all human beings looking to be respected and given their due. Her visibility as a strong Black woman performer in charge of her career and image was important and necessary in a field where white men at recording studios and performance venues called most of the shots. Franklin used her music and her platform not only to showcase her powerhouse singing skills, but to contribute to struggles of civil rights and social justice.

From an early age, Franklin was rooted in the Civil Rights Movement. Franklin’s father was Rev. C.L. Franklin, an American Baptist minister and civil rights activist. Known as the man with the “million-dollar voice,” Rev. C.L. Franklin was the lead organizer of the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom. This march was the largest civil-rights demonstration in U.S. history, occurring shortly before the historic March on Washington occurred two months later. In a 2013 interview, Aretha spoke about her admiration of her father and his work, and how he combated resistance to organizing against racism.

Aretha Franklin with Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1972. | Jim Wells / AP

“Many pastors whom he invited to our home to discuss it [the 1963 Detroit Walk] were not on board,” Aretha noted. “They didn’t think it was such a good idea… He had his vision, and yes it was under his control. It was his vision of what he wanted to be, and of course it set the stage for the March on Washington,” she explained. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was a friend of C.L. Franklin, delivered an early version of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Detroit march.

“It was absolutely a world statement that certainly went out to all nations that we [Black people] could not only organize, but we were healthy and wealthy in numbers that translated commercially into retail and other things,” Franklin stated. In another interview with writer David Ritz in preparation for her biography, she would state, “Daddy had been preaching Black pride for decades and we as a people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’”

When discussing one of her greatest hits, Respect, Franklin often spoke about the empowering message for those that heard it. During the 1960s, as her star was gaining momentum with the hit song, Franklin made it a point to put it into her contract that she would not perform before racially segregated audiences. Franklin’s activism went beyond the lyrics of her songs, as she applied her wealth and platform to help fund many social justice campaigns.

Speaking to Detroit Free Press recently, friend and activist Rev. Jesse Jackson explained, “On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her 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.”

In a 1970 Jet Magazine article, Franklin spoke on how she would be willing to post bail for scholar and activist Angela Davis who, at the time, was being held in prison on charges of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping. The singer seemingly risked her career and reputation in speaking out in support of Davis, who was publicly known then as a member of the Communist Party USA and called a “dangerous terrorist” by President Richard Nixon.

The 1970 “Jet” magazine article where Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for jailed scholar and activist Angela Davis. Franklin refused to bow to anti-communism and pledged her support for Davis. | Jet

Franklin is quoted as saying, “…Angela Davis must go free. 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.”

When speaking on women’s rights in connection to her music, Franklin said in a 2016 ELLE magazine interview, “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.”

Through trials and tribulations, Aretha Franklin’s career spanned six decades, with numerous chart-topping albums, honors, awards, and iconic performances. Respect has been a rallying cry for marginalized groups, spanning from women to workers on the picket lines demanding fair pay. She was outspoken on the stage and put in the work behind the scenes for progressive movements.

As Franklin’s friend, Rev. Jim Holley of Little Rock Baptist Church expressed to Detroit Free Press, “She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking, but they don’t do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person.” Aretha Franklin leaves behind a legacy that has touched the lives of many, and will continue to inspire many more to come. May she rest in power.

Compiled and written by Chauncey K. Robinson


CONTRIBUTOR

Special to PeoplesWorld.org
Special to PeoplesWorld.org

Peoplesworld.org is a daily news website of, for and by the 99% and the direct descendant of the Daily Worker. Published by Long View Publishing Co., People’s World reports on the movements for jobs, peace, equality, democracy, civil rights and liberties, labor, immigrant, LGBT and women’s rights, protection of the environment, and more.

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