Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died in Detroit on Thursday morning at the age of 76 due to pancreatic cancer. To honor her life is to honor not just her musical talent, but also her civil rights work.
It’s well-known that Franklin’s 1967 song, Respect, became the anthem of the modern feminist movement. But what may not be as well known was her activism when not in the studio or onstage, using her celebrity and her wealth to help the black community.
One example of Franklin’s activism was when she offered to post bail for UCLA philosophy instructor Angela Davis, an avowed Communist who was arrested on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit both crimes. A Jet article from 1970 quoted Franklin saying she would pay the bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” ($666,000 and $1.66 million, respectively, in today’s dollars). While she was out of the country and unable to personally post Davis’ bail, a dairy farmer put up his property as collateral to bail Davis out. Davis was eventually acquitted.
“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 to my beliefs,” Franklin told Jet. 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 [Davis] free if there is any justice in our courts,” she added. “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.”
Aretha Franklin on Dr. Angela Davis' bond:"…Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in." pic.twitter.com/zJgK5XQO7V
— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) August 13, 2018
Franklin also told Jet a few weeks later that she along with her father, brother, and two sisters would be setting up a charitable foundation to help mothers on welfare “who need this help more than anybody.” The singer told Jet that the foundation would be funded with proceeds donated “from at least five concerts a year.”
In his book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, author David Ritz wrote about how Franklin used political action to keep herself grounded.
“There was a period when, like many of us, she expressed a degree of militancy,” Rev. Cecil Franklin, Aretha’s brother, told Ritz. “We’d come from this highly charged political background and were raised by a father unafraid to speak his mind. And though it might not have been anything the mainstream wanted to hear, Aretha wasn’t about to hold back. Why should she?”
“I encouraged my sister’s political stances,” Cecil Franklin added. “I think they helped her. When she was politically engaged, she regained a stronger sense of herself. Political involvement took the concentration off herself and her personal problems. It got her out of herself.”
At a recent show in Detroit, Jay-Z, his wife, Beyoncé, and rapper DJ Khaled all paid their respects to Aretha Franklin.
“This show is dedicated to Aretha Franklin,” Beyoncé said. “We love you and thank you.”
Scott Alden is a freelance contributor covering national politics, education, and environmental issues. He is a proud Toledo University graduate, and lives in the suburbs of Detroit.