Aretha Franklin Rose With the Civil Rights Movement

Aretha Franklin
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin performs onstage circa 1969.

?Aretha Franklin’s greatness centered on her miraculous artistic genius as well as perfect timing. She’d spend the better part of the ’60s as a decently performing artist on Columbia, who obfuscated the gospel-bred qualities that would make her a star. The Queen of Soul was truly born when she signed with Atlantic in 1967: Her debut single for the label, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” became her first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 entry. Franklin’s follow-up single was “Respect,” the civil rights anthem at the center of her legacy.

Originally a 1965 cut from soul innovator Otis Redding, Franklin’s “Respect” was a lightning-strike display of how much the personal is entangled with the political -- the “I” she sings of when she demands dignity was sung with the ferocity of a “we.” In the months after 1967’s “Respect” became the country’s No. 1 song, the Detroit Riots would leave 43 people dead, the most calamitous of a summer marked by race riots, and protests would continue against the Vietnam War, which was killing a disproportionate number of black men. “Respect” made clear Franklin was the woman for the era, and fellow activists were emboldened by her music’s spirit. "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," said civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis after she died in her hometown of Detroit on Thursday.

Franklin became one of the most ubiquitous figures tied to civil rights activism, and “Respect” topping the Hot 100 showed that the movement’s themes had touched a white audience. Comedian and fellow activist Dick Gregory once neatly described Franklin’s impact: “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour. You’d only hear King on the news.”

The prodigy was born into a lineage of protest. Her father, famed minister C. L. Franklin, was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, the largest civil-rights demonstration in American history until the March to Washington two months later. Aretha herself would tour with King as a teenager and sing a stirring rendition of gospel standard "Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” his personal favorite, at his 1968 memorial service.

But Aretha’s significance as a civil rights figure is the result of her own volition, not just fate. The Queen loudly embraced black pride symbolically and creatively. She’d don African clothing on magazine and album covers and sport her natural afro, an easily identifiable Afrofeminism statement. “Think,” 1968’s spiritual successor to “Respect,” is a feminist anthem that rides off the backing choirs cries for “freedom,” recalling King’s wishes from his “I Have a Dream” speech. Four years later, Young, Gifted and Black’s Elton John Arethamix “Border Song (Holy Moses)” finds her harrowingly singing from the perspective of someone struggling in a foreign land: “There's a man standing over there/ What's his color, do you care/Holy Moses, can we live in peace.” This all happened during what’s considered her creative prime (1967-72), gems from an artist in the midst of a symbiotic relationship with a liberation movement.

“I suppose the revolution influenced me a great deal,” Aretha told Ebony in 1971. “But I must say that mine was a very personal evolution -- an evolution of the me in myself. But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the revolution is very much tied tied up with that sort of thing, so it certainly must have helped what I was trying to do for myself. I know I’ve improved my overall look and sound.”

Her love of black people was as intimate as it was rebellious. President Richard Nixon called Angela Davis a “dangerous terrorist” after she was falsely accused of buying firearms used in a 1970 prison escape attempt. C. L. Franklin advised Aretha not to step into this case, but she publicly offered up to $250,000 in bail: Davis, after all, was a fellow black sister. “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,” she told Jet. “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.”

Aretha’s overt statements also paralleled the inner desire for freedom that’s embedded in gospel music. Part of the black church’s significance is how it gave its constituency the space to express their hearts without the corrosion of white oppression. Gospel icon Mahalia Jackson emboldened the civil rights movement with her mastery of that yearning, and Aretha would do so as well as she inflected her greatest songs with the genre’s hallmarks. Aretha transformed that space into a feeling, through her voice and into the subconscious of those still striving for a free land.