Aretha Franklin’s musical talents were legion. Incomparable singer that she was, it is hardly surprising that multiple critics have identified her as the greatest voice in popular music of the 20th century. Labeled the “Queen of Soul,” she was in actuality a renaissance woman of many genres, from jazz to opera. Although sometimes underrated, she was also acknowledged to be a superb pianist and musical arranger. And let’s not forget how songs like “Respect” became de facto anthems of the civil rights and feminist movements of the day.
What is too often overlooked is the behind-the-scenes role that Ms. Franklin played in directly supporting the civil rights movement. Her father was Clarence L. Franklin, a famous Detroit-based preacher, civil rights activist and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. One of his most notable ventures into the activist arena was to organize the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom.
Surrounded by such activism as she was growing up, Ms. Franklin often stepped forward to help the movement as an adult. Several times she subsidized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with large contributions that guaranteed they could make payroll. She and Harry Belafonte undertook an 11-city tour and contributed all their earnings to the “cause.” She also participated in fundraising house concerts. And, perhaps most interestingly, she offered to post bond for Angela Davis when Ms. Davis was arrested on charges of assisting in a courtroom takeover that ended in four deaths.
We’ve lost a profound musical talent with Ms. Franklin’s death; we’ve also lost a social justice fighter who never forgot the struggles, hopes and dreams of the community out of which she emerged.