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Aretha Franklin, "Queen of Soul," dies at 76

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin performs on October 16, 2011, at dedication of National King Memorial
Photo by Clayborne Carson

Aretha Franklin, widely recognized as the “Queen of Soul,” died at her home in Detroit today. The official cause of death was advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type. She was 76.

Born on Memphis on 25 March 1942, Franklin moved at the age of four to Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, took over duties at New Bethel Baptist Church, a hub for civil rights activities. It was the influence of New Bethel and her father that would foster Franklin’s singing skills and her activist spirit.

 “When Dr. King came to Detroit, many of the black bourgeoisie did not exactly embrace him. But people like her father, who was a grassroots minister, did,” according to neighbor Greg Dunmore.

In June 1963, King was featured when C. L. Franklin led the “Walk to Freedom,” one of the largest civil rights marches ever recorded at the time.

“Aretha was a child of the movement,” said former SCLC executive director, Andrew Young.

A demo tape in 1960 brought Franklin an offer from Columbia Records in New York, which she accepted. She had married her manager at Columbia, Ted White. She found commercial success by the middle of the decade, and used that success to garner momentum for the cause she had known since youth. Her 1967 hit song, “Respect,” became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Rebecca Burns, author of Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation, writes that “In 1967, according to ‘Jet,’ [Harry] Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin and Joan Baez raised more than $250,000 for King and the SCLC with a seven-city concert series.”

“She along with Harry Belafonte were probably the most consistent and helpful people from show business. They knew that we needed their help,” said Young.

Also in 1967, Franklin was booked as the headliner at SCLC’s anniversary convention at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency. But she had to be snuck in to the venue due to a fight she’d previously had at the hotel with White, who was by then her ex-husband.

“She was small at the time, so I had to pad her and slip her into the hotel,” said Xernona Clayton, an associate of the King family. “I camouflaged her. When you are committed to the cause of freedom, you go where the need is. She knew that her presence would make a difference. In her heart, she said, ‘I gotta be there.’”

Franklin sang for two hours, according to Young. “But nobody cared because she sounded so good.”

“She would come and help attract crowds and raise funds for the movement, and she was very good at that,” said former SCLC president Rev. Joseph Lowery.

By the late 1960s, Franklin had reached such national acclaim that her hometown of Detroit declared 16 February 1968 “Aretha Franklin Day,” featuring a performance at Cobo Arena. In attendance was King, who presented Franklin with an award on behalf of SCLC. After King’s assassination two months later, she would sing “Precious Lord” at his memorial service.

Franklin’s rare talent and musical renown kept her performing throughout the decades, often at the intersection of music and activism. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, she would sing at the inaugurations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Rosa Parks’s funeral, and a memorial service for Mrs. Coretta Scott King. She continued into the early 2010s, cancelling occasionally due to unnamed health problems.

“She used her voice to deliver music for social justice,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “She was a fighter who used her art as a platform.”

For more on Franklin’s life and career, see: