No matter whether one came of age in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, or even the nineties, Aretha Franklin is a familiar name. The Queen of Soul knew how to perfectly blend gospel with blues and belted out notes with such authority that listeners of all ages often felt taller, prouder, and more powerful after hearing just a few lyrics from the international sensation.
There is no question that her 1967 hit, “Respect,” became an anthem for social justice movements and an untraditional mode of resistance. More than simply rearranging Otis Reddings’s ballad by spelling out the word “respect” in the chorus and by adding the line “sock it to me,” Franklin galvanized listeners of every hue, gender, and class to demand recognition and acknowledgement. The song hit the billboards three years after the Civil Rights Act, two years after the Voting Rights Act, and in the same year that the United States Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. She recorded her version during an era where activists made dignity for all people a part of the national conversation.
For Franklin, the song was more than just a hit record or an opportunity to expand her fan base. The song alluded to her personal commitment to social change and equality for African Americans, which predated “Respect.” In 1961, she, along with Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter, refused to perform before a segregated audience at a municipally-owned venue in Memphis, Tennessee. Her decision to take a stand was a risky one as her career was just beginning to blossom, yet she placed the dignity and worth of African Americans before concert revenues. Thankfully, the stance she took in Memphis did not hinder her career and she secured a national reputation by the middle of the decade. She produced an impressive seven albums between 1961 and 1965.
The fame and successive hits, however, did not separate Franklin from her people. Months after releasing “Respect,” Franklin participated in a benefit concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black ministers founded the organization in 1957 with the expressed purpose of “redeeming the soul of America” through nonviolent resistance to racial discrimination.
Perhaps one of the most powerful, yet forgotten, ways in which Aretha Franklin demonstrated her commitment to African American advancement and full citizenship was her very public support of political prisoner Angela Davis in 1970. Davis, a member of the Communist Party, faced conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder charges for her alleged role in a prison escape attempt. Franklin told media outlets, “Angela Davis must go free.” She went on to say that she was prepared to pay Davis’s bail “whether its $100,000 or $250,000.” The soulful singer explained, “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.”
Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Franklin learned to “help our people” under the watchful eye of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who pastored New Bethel Baptist Church in the Motor City. The Franklin family patriarch opened his pulpit up to some of the most prominent Black thinkers and activists of the twentieth century, including C.L.R. James and Martin Luther King, Jr. He organized benefit concerts to raise money for the SCLC and spoke out against racial discrimination within the United Auto Workers Union. Aretha Franklin’s father taught her to use her platform for good and she implemented the lesson even when he did not support her actions. Such was the case with her decision to support Angela Davis.
At the height of her success, Aretha Franklin dared to love and RESPECT African Americans. She used her visibility and her purse strings to confront racial injustice and her efforts should not be forgotten. May we model her example and honor her legacy.