Aretha Franklin, who died today at the age of 76 in her home in Detroit, was known for her unbelievable musical talent and majestic career, but the Queen of Soul was also a longtime warrior in the fight for social justice.
A close friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited her in her final days, Franklin was a vocal supporter of civil rights movements, often performing at benefits and encouraging voter registration. But her private and church-based work—including stepping in to financially support Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement, the families of incarcerated people, and black activist ministers—was largely under the radar, Jackson told the Detroit Free Press recently. That’s part of why she was a fitting choice to sing at the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, where she regaled the crowd with an emotion-filled rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” (video).
A reminder of Franklin’s ready activism came this week with the resurfacing of a 1970 article from the magazine Jet (p. 54), reporting her intention to post bail for the black power activist Angela Davis, who was being held in prison in connection with the escape attempt of prisoners from a California courtroom, in which several people were killed. (She would eventually be acquitted.)
At a time when Davis was called a “dangerous terrorist” by president Richard Nixon, Franklin didn’t hesitate to risk her her reputation and money to support the now legendary civil rights activist.
Discussing her offer to pay—”whether it’s $100,000, or $250,000″—to free the University of California, Los Angeles philosophy instructor and “admitted communist” Davis, Franklin explains that she was going against the advice of her own father, a Baptist minister and close associate of Dr. King, in making the offer. Her argument for why she did so is a poignant, pithy defense of the fight for freedom and racial equality:
My daddy (Detroit’s Rev. C.L.Franklin) says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. 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. Jail is hell to be in. 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.”