On Thursday, the world was struck by the devastating news that the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away at age 76. While Franklin’s contributions to music are undisputed and well-known, her lesser-known actions during the civil rights movement deserve equal recognition.
Activist and friend Jesse Jackson told the Detroit Free Press how instrumental Aretha Franklin was to his work with Dr. Martin Luther King.
“When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Detroit Free Press Wednesday. “On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.”
“She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency,” he added.
Franklin’s pull towards activism stems from her father, C.L. Franklin, who was the Baptist minister and a civil rights activist who organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom. During the Detroit March, MLK delivered an early version of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Obviously, her father was very much with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and her generation was with the Rev. Jesse Jackson,” Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of Little Rock Baptist Church, told the Detroit Free Press. “I think that’s how she helped Jesse. He was more relevant to her generation in terms of what he was doing economically and with entertainment, making sure entertainers were represented in what we call this justice movement.”
Given her work for Black equality and representation, it came as no surprise that Franklin performed at the 2009 inauguration for then-President Barack Obama.
“I was delighted and thrilled to be there,” Franklin told Larry King in an interview. “That was the most important thing, not so much the performance, but just to be there and to see this great man go into office—the promise of tomorrow coming to pass.”
Her relationship with the Obamas continued, and she was clearly a respected artist and activist in their eyes. During the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin performed Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” as part of Carole King’s tribute. The performance was so raw and emotional, it brought a tears to the Obamas (as it surely did with others).
Obama was not the first sitting president to recognize Franklin for the gift she was. In 2005, former President George W. Bush honored Franklin with the highly esteemed Presidential Medal of Freedom. During her introduction, the late singer was moved to tears.
(Photo: YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)