By Rose Gaudiani
The “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin passed away this summer on August 18th. Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and she held the record for the most number of songs on the Billboard Hot 100 for 40 years. In 2008 she won her 18th Grammy Award, making her one of the most decorated artists in Grammy history. Though her hits such as “Respect”, “Think”, and “Chain of Fools” will be famous for many more decades, there was much more to Franklin than just her music. Writing most of her music during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Aretha Franklin used her platform as a renowned female artist to support activists during this important period.
Born in Memphis Tennessee on March 25, 1942 to a Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, Franklin was the fourth of five children. Her parents separated by the time she was six, and at the age of ten her mother passed away from a heart attack. Aretha and her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, following a job opportunity for her father, C.L. Franklin. Aretha began her music career singing in front of church congregations. At the age of twelve, her father began managing her performances. She often went on the road with him to perform in various chapels. C.L. Franklin was known for having the “million-dollar voice,” earning large sums of money for the powerful sermons he would give. Not only was he a minister, but a well-known civil rights activist. C.L. Franklin organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom: the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S history until the March on Washington eclipsed it two months later. It was at this demonstration in Detroit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a friend of Aretha’s father, gave an early version of his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Under her father’s influence, Aretha learned the significance of equality and the importance of civil rights. Due to her father’s status, Aretha was exposed to celebrities at the time such as Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At sixteen, Aretha Franklin went on tour with King, and would eventually sing at his funeral in 1968.
Surrounded by civil rights activists from a young age, Aretha spent much of her career supporting civil rights movements. She released arguably her most popular song, “Respect,” in 1967. Immediately linked to civil rights and feminist movements, the song became an instant hit. In an interview with Elle in 2016, Aretha explained her surprise at the instant success of her song: “I was stunned when it went to No. 1, and it stayed No. 1 for a couple weeks. It was the right song at the right time.” Franklin even had it written into her contract that she would never perform for a segregated audience.
Franklin also showed her commitment to the feminist movement by specifically adding the line: “you know I’ve got it” to her famous anthem. “As women, we do have it,” she says. “We have the power. We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.”
From a young age, Aretha Franklin was immersed in one of the biggest struggles for civil rights in history. She used the knowledge gained in her youth after her career took off. Providing money for civil rights groups and performing at benefits and protests, she worked tirelessly to combat inequality. Aretha Franklin not only changed the face of the music industry as we know it, but she devoted her career to showing her undying support for feminist and civil rights movements.