In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday (Aug. 16), longtime friend the Rev. Al Sharpton, the president and founder of the National Action Network (NAN), writes in an exclusive essay for Billboard about Franklin’s history of activism, her commitment to social justice causes and her relationship to the black church.
When most people hear the name Aretha Franklin, they automatically think of her remarkable career in music and entertainment: the 44 Grammy nominations and 18 wins; performances at the inaugurations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; and countless hits like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that cut across all racial, economic and social barriers to resonate with audiences globally. But what most do not realize is that the Queen of Soul dedicated much of her time and money to advancing civil rights and human rights. There are superstars, and then there are humanitarians — Aretha somehow encapsulated both.
In the 1960s, when the revered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was facing significant hurdles and some financial challenges, Aretha teamed up with another musical and philanthropic icon, Harry Belafonte, and toured cities doing fundraising concerts for Dr. King. Such selfless actions wouldn’t appear unusual if you knew that her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the most prolific black minister of a generation, a close friend and co-activist with Dr. King and the one who spearheaded the massive Detroit March for Justice (which led to the historic March on Washington in August of 1963).
After Dr. King was assassinated, Aretha was a big supporter of Mrs. King, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the generation that followed — all the way to my generation of the “no justice, no peace” movement. Constantly sending checks, calling my radio show, coming to events and supporting in ways that many did not, this superstar remained dedicated to uplifting her community and fighting for equality throughout the years. She spent personal time talking to me and giving me her wisdom and guidance. She was, in essence, like a big sis. She never hesitated volunteering to help with many causes — and backed up her assistance with her dollars. And she never once sought any publicity for it.
There are very few that are able to leave their imprint here on earth in such significant ways. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown (whom I also shared a personal relationship with), brought blackness mainstream, and Aretha brought the music of the black church mainstream. She took the music she emulated — the likes of Mahalia Jackson and others — and broadened their reach without abandoning the basic rhythms and intensity of the music. I saw her perform at the White House, and I saw her perform at the Apollo; she never failed to put in that real gospel underpinning to her singing and sound. And of course, she had no problem giving testimony in the middle of a concert!
I got to know Aretha very well. I was invited to her birthday parties and Christmas parties, and she came to my birthday parties and gatherings. She remained authentically a church person: a person committed to social justice and civil rights, well-read and of course well-rounded. You felt as if you were in the presence of royalty around her, without all of the pretension — and you were. Some are blessed with talent, but most do not know how to harness such gifts, and even fewer choose to remember to give back and uplift others as they share those blessings with the world. Aretha Franklin was a rare gem whom I was fortunate enough to know through the years, and I can say unequivocally that we must remember to emulate her tremendous spirit as it serves as an example for us all.
We’ve had many megastars and many great female artists, but we’ve only had one queen, and that queen’s crown can never be passed on, for it was never given to her — it was her own.