On August 12, 2018, the world mourned the loss of highly respected and adored Aretha Franklin. Known as “The Queen of Soul,” her legacy will live on in history books and through her music. While she is identified for her music, her activism and work with the civil rights movement in the United States is one that continues to go generally unnoticed. In Lee B. Cooper’s “Popular Music: An Untapped Resource for Teaching Contemporary Black History,” it is mentioned that she is amongst one of the historical figures that “provides significant insights into the past, present, and future of Black America.” In a state where conflicts among race and ethnicities still exist, the need for keeping her legacy alive is prevalent, as it teaches others how to grow and advocate for what is just.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, to a Baptist minister and a professional piano player and vocalist, it could be argued that it was in Franklin’s destiny to become a musician. Her father was a well-recognized minister who was visited by several iconic African American figures, one being Martin Luther King Jr. When she was just 9 years old, her mother passed away from a heart attack. It was within some time after this that Franklin began to pursue her musical talent. She would sing at different churches throughout the US and was managed by her father, eventually, signing her first record deal with J.V.B. Records.
As time passed, she signed a new contract with Columbia Records in 1960 and then with Atlantic Records in 1966. It was with Atlantic Records where she recorded her well-renowned song “Respect.” This song is one that many still treasure and commemorate as it served and continues to serve many great movements such as the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement.
Because Franklin grew up during a time where the racial climate in the South was very divided, she was able to see and experience the progression of a more united America firsthand. Her role in this movement was aided through the help of financial donations, performing and speaking out. One of her most significant moments within the civil rights movement was when activist Angela Davis was “accused of purchasing firearms in a deadly attempt to help prisoners escape a courtroom in Marin County, California.” She was acknowledged “as a Communist, and President Nixon had labelled her as a ‘dangerous terrorist.’” In efforts to continue helping the movement Davis was instrumental in, Franklin was willing to pay Davis’ bail regardless of the amount posted. While someone else bailed Davis out, Franklin still advocated for her when she said as noted in the Rolling Stone, “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.” While it is also noted that she did not consider herself to be any significant influence like that of Davis’, she worked closely with the Black Panthers and also toured with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her collaboration and impact within this movement may not have been of any major significance to her at the time, but today her actions and lyrics continue to inspire activists to fight for what is just in regards to civil rights.
“Respect,” is her most powerful anthem, and it is used to explain concepts much more complex than that of its lyrics. While it was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding, the meaning of the song and its message shifted as Franklin took on the song and recorded it in a different style than that of Redding’s. With new added passion and soul, the song shifted into an anthem that demanded quite literally R-E-S-P-E-C-T. When this song was released in 1967, it became relevant to several different movement and situations regarding the political climate in the United States. It aided and provided a voice for the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement as previously mentioned. With no intention to have had this happened, her lyrics and power continue to inspire thousands in the US and abroad.
Ms. Aretha Franklin lost her battle to pancreatic cancer at the age of 76 and is survived by her four sons. While the fight for justice in these movements has definitely still not ended, Franklin’s anthem will continue to live on and inspire generations of activists to come. It can only be hoped that generations to come will continue to feel inspired through her to keep demanding that Respect each human being is entitled to.