The Queen of Soul was much more than a great voice. She was an instrument. She was an instrument of change. She was an instrument of power. She was an instrument of love. Her passing saddens us not because her life on Earth has ended, but because she is no longer here to share ours. Her life reminds us just how far we have come as a country toward realizing social progress. It spans the heartbeat of the Civil Rights Movement and the pinnacle of Black achievement in the election of President Barack Obama.
The list of historic occasions marked by Aretha Franklin’s unique, powerful voice is nothing short of incredible. She sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968. She sang at famed Gospel Singer Mahalia Jackson’s funeral in 1972. She sang at civil rights icon Rosa Park’s funeral in 2005. She sang for Madiba, the wise and fearless leader of South Africa. She sang at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. She sang at the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006. Aretha’s life and career almost perfectly tracks the ascent of African-Americans in this country from the Civil Rights Movement until today. Her life also tracks the ascent of soul music, R&B and other forms of Black artistic expression into the mainstream of American culture.
Franklin always insisted upon being called “The Queen.” She reveled in her status as an icon of American popular culture. But unlike many so-called icons, her iconography lived up to and even surpasses her fame. Her music and her live performances were never less than thrilling. Her voice was truly one of America’s national treasures. Her life and work were an almost perfect storm of pure artistic talent and genius meeting a unique historical moment. She coincided with the rise of television and the recording industry. She coincided with the popularity of Motown and legendary artists such as Shirley Caesar, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and The Supremes. When she burst upon the scene as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 1964, singing the “Evil Gal Blues,” the country was taken aback by her voice and unshakeable confidence. Her strident, rhythmic piano playing style was a reminder of her deep church choir roots, and remained a fixture of her unique musical composition.
Franklin was so much more than a brilliant artist, though. She was a humanitarian and civil rights activist who committed her voice and her resources to the struggle for African-American equality. The child of a nationally renowned Baptist minister, Franklin was basically raised up in the budding Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was an outspoken civil rights activist who instilled the desire and intention in his children to be free of the moral and physical shackles of racial discrimination. The Rev. Franklin invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at a Walk to Freedom in 1963, which was attend by more than 125,000 people and sponsored by an organization he founded called the Detroit Council for Human Rights. Franklin proudly wore her hair in an Afro during the late 1960s and 1970s, signaling her alignment with the age of Black consciousness that was emerging in America and around the world as Africa threw off her colonial European masters.
But she did far more than dress the part. She and fellow artist-activist Harry Belafonte raised more than a quarter million dollars for Dr. King’s civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When civil rights activist Angela Davis was wrongly imprisoned in 1970, Franklin insisted on paying her bail, stating, “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. 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.”
Her art and activism blended so effortlessly in fact that her song, “Respect,” recorded in 1967, became one of the most iconic songs of the Civil Rights Movement.
Unlike other artist and activists of her time, Franklin lived to see her people arrive at the mountaintop. Her performance at the inauguration of Barack Obama marked a crowning achievement for African-Americans, who just a few decades earlier—within Franklin’s lifetime—were not even allowed to vote or use public swimming pools, and were forced to sit at the back of the bus. Here she was, proudly regal and confident, as always, signaling the fulfillment of the prophesy spoken into existence by her friend and mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., decades earlier.
Rarely have we seen such a perfect blend of art and public activism as we did in Franklin. She wielded her voice like a sword for truth and love. She put her money where her mouth was. She boldly withstood the pressures of fame and stardom to stand up and be a voice and a light for so many. She was an icon. And her iconography remains a shining legacy to the leader of the band.
Mr. Williams is manager/sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. Watch “Right Side Forum” every Saturday live on Newschannel 8 TV 28 in D.C., 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and repeated at 6:30 p.m., Est. Follow on Twitter @arightside. Visit online at www.ArmstrongWilliams.com.