In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be highlighting the stories of women in the United States who paved the way and inspired girls everywhere to follow their dreams.
Music and civil rights activism were big influences in Aretha Franklin’s life since a young age: her father, C.L. Franklin, a minister known as “the Man with the Million Dollar Voice,” toured the nation giving sermons and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Aretha herself started singing in her Detroit church’s choir and recorded her first album when she was only 14 before signing to RCA Records and Columbia Records. When she was 16, Aretha was touring with Dr. King.
The height of her career was when she released “Respect” in 1967. This song became an anthem for Black liberation. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance,” Franklin wrote in her memoir. She became a symbol of strength and pride for Black women during the Civil Rights Movement. She didn’t ask for respect, she demanded it. She was unapologetically herself in the face of a white majority that actively opposed her freedom.
Franklin didn’t take her support for granted. She acknowledged that her success came from Black women’s support and wanted to use her money to give back to the community. When Angela Davis was locked up for wrongful kidnapping and murder charges, Franklin offered to post bail (Roger McAffee, a dairy farmer, ended up posting bail for Davis instead). “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,” she told Jet magazine in 1972. “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.”
In her contract, Franklin pledged that she would never perform for segregated audiences. In an interview that her longtime friend Reverend Jesse Jackson gave to USA today, he described how Franklin financed civil rights tours and housed activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jackson toured with activist Harry Belafonte, Franklin joined and put on free shows to draw more people to the events. She even paid for activists’ gas when they drove from city to city.
In 1987, Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, cementing her legacy as the Queen of Soul.
Franklin wrote the soundtrack for an era. She was a voice for black women fighting for equality and liberation. After hear death, civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis released a statement describing how he and his friends would listen to Franklin after they were released from jail following a non-violent protest. “She had a lifelong, unwavering commitment to civil rights and was one of the strongest supporters of the movement. She was our sister and our friend,” Lewis wrote. “Her music gave us a greater sense of determination to never give up or give in, and to keep the faith.”
Media Resources: CNN 8/30/2018; Vanity Fair 8/16/2018; The Cut 8/16/2018; USA Today 8/16/2018; Atlanta Tribune 8/16/2018