In a CNN interview three years before her death, Aretha Franklin corrected anchor Don Lemon when he suggested she was on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. She stated, “I was behind Dr. King, and I was a very young girl.” Beyond the humility, the precision in her statement shows the scientific mind that gave Franklin unparalleled influence in the struggle for human rights for over 50 years. She knew that her work built on over a century of struggle because she saw it as an extension of her father’s ministry. As Reverend Jesse Jackson said at her father’s funeral, “C.L. Franklin was born in 1915, 50 years after slavery, and 50 years before we had the right to vote.”
Because of her father’s fight for liberation, Aretha grew up surrounded by many of the greatest political and cultural leaders of the 20thCentury. She famously defied her father when she offered to post bail for Angela Davis in 1970, but the decision sprang from her integrity as a thinker—“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.”
She contractually arranged to never perform for a segregated audience, and at the height of the controversy over King’s stance against Vietnam, Jackson recalls, “she helped us make payroll.” Her money bought gas for the movement at that time, and at the height of her own career, she played a series of movement fundraisers. She long supported Detroit food banks and women’s shelters and public schools. She also donated hotel rooms, food and water to folks being poisoned by the water in Flint, Michigan.
Still, it was really Franklin’s music that put her on the frontlines. She sang the yearnings of the human heart, and we sang along with her. From “Bridge over Troubled Water” to “Natural Woman” to “Say A Little Prayer” to “Chain of Fools,” she could be soothing and joyful and playful and threatening. Most of all she demanded respect, and she came to know just what her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” meant to the world. In her memoir, she wrote, “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement.” And she recognized it as an agreement with her fans: “Three decades later I am unable to give a concert without my fans demanding that same ‘Respect’ from me.”
Though this is the kind of lover’s confrontation Franklin would inspire throughout the world of women making music, it’s important to see why it resonates so strongly in so many different directions. The word “respect” literally means to take another look at others in need. Her self-penned sequel a year later, “Think,” pushes that observation to the level of science. Fifty years later, the lyrical truth never rung clearer—“People walking around every day/Playing games, taking scores/Trying to make other people lose their minds/Ah, be careful you don’t lose yours.” And her prescription for change—“Think….let your mind go, let yourself be free”—never spoke a truth more necessary to our very survival.