Bankole: Aretha a ‘soul force’ for civil rights

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is being remembered for many things she has done as one of the musical greats of the last century.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a top assistant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King himself co-founded, said Franklin should be seen as a voice of the civil rights movement.

On March 26, 1972, the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York with Tom Todd, vice president of PUSH, second left, singer Aretha Franklin and Congressman Louis Stokes, D-Cleveland.

During an interview, Lafayette said the iconic singer should be viewed as one of the greatest voices to give inspiration to the movement King led.

“We should remember the fact that her songs were not just simply words that came out of her mouth. But when you heard her sing, you could hear the language of her soul,” Lafayette said. “Even people who could not sing were deeply moved. She was a soul force for civil rights and she appealed to all generations.”

The musical roots of the 18-time Grammy winner, Lafayette said, must be linked back to the church in which she grew up. New Bethel Baptist Church, where she first sang at age 12, was led by her father the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, another remarkable musician who was a friend of King. The Rev. Franklin was largely responsible for the June 1963 “March for Freedom” down Woodward, where King first delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, which later culminated into the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” held in August of that year.

“One of the things that is important to emphasize is that many of the people who gave leadership to the movement came out of the church environment,” Lafayette said. “That’s because the church was financially independent and did not depend on other institutions. The church gave spiritual and faith commitment and (gospel musicians) translated their faith to social responsibility. Aretha Franklin gave without question the spiritual fortitude in terms of music.”

The Rev. Daniel Aldridge, a local civil rights activist, said it should not be lost on anyone that Franklin’s music was the product of a lifelong commitment to civil rights.

“Aretha was part of a family that was committed to the movement. It is hard for me to separate her from her father. She had been involved ever since she was a little girl through the work of her father,” Aldridge said. “She was around so many influential people in the movement like Sam Cooke, whose music connected the movement and who was also close to her father.”

“She sang the kind of music that gave people restoration,” Aldridge added. “Her music was part of her voice and she was a very inspiration and uplifting voice. She was also very selective in terms of what she chose to sing. Her entire musical presentation reminded you of the south even though she was in Detroit.”

Music was key to the movement that Franklin represented through her songs over the decades, Lafayette said.

“It was one of the most important things that kept people going forward in the movement,” Lafayette said. “Even though people were on different intellectual levels, they all had that in common not only with the articulation of the music but also the intonation. Even when Dr. King spoke, his baritone voice gave inspiration to people.”

Even though Franklin was a true Detroiter, who supported the city and raised funds for many causes, she remained a global figure, Aldridge said.

“She is really part of the great black musical diasporic tradition known all over the world,” Aldridge said. “She transcends civil rights into human rights.”

Franklin, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was given in 2014 an honorary doctor of arts degree from Harvard University, where she sang the national anthem.

Franklin once described a vocation that made her one of the world’s greatest singers and a musical lantern for the movement that fought to affirm the rights of African-Americans and all oppressed people:

“Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting, for sure. It can take you right back, years back, to the very moment certain things happened in your life. It’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.”

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