by Brooke Obie | President Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Aretha Franklin on November 9, 2005. The award is the nation’s highest honor, and recognizes exceptional meritorious service.
As family and fans around the world mourn the death of the legendary gospel and soul singer Aretha Franklin, 76, I can’t help but listen to the song, “I Am Sealed Til the Day of Redemption,” in her honor. That was the first song Ms. Franklin ever sang in church.
King Jesus will come and He’ll take me away /
And forever I’ll live in a beautiful mansion /
I’m gonna live with the saints in glory someday /
“That was my song,” Franklin shared with me over the phone when I interviewed her for EBONY back in 2013. For such a powerhouse singer, her speaking voice was soft and gentle, but still so full of soul.
The occasion for our brief chat was the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Ms. Franklin was my historian. The Queen of Soul had toured with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, singing at church events and protests with him beginning when she was only 16 years old.
Coming of age in the 1950s, the Detroit native was so committed to the cause of civil rights that she had asked her father, prominent pastor and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin, for permission to go with Dr. King, knowing how dangerous it could be. She shared with me a terrifying evening she spent ducked down in a church choir stand behind Dr. King when they heard a loud boom in the back of the church. It was only a fan that had backfired, but they knew their safety wasn’t guaranteed. It was dangerous enough to be a Black person; to be active in the movement alongside someone as visible and targeted as Dr. King was nothing short of courageous.
Yet, Ms. Franklin knew how powerful songs could be to lift the spirits of those in need and even propel people forward to act. She’d grown up on Negro Spirituals and hymns and knew that even during slavery, Black people had used songs as a powerful weapon of self-defense and survival. She felt it was her duty to use her gift to uplift her people and to fight for the end of racism in America.
As her profile as a recording artist grew, she financially supported Dr. King and the movement. She was 24 years old when she recorded her 1967 hit “Respect,” and it quickly became an anthem for civil rights protestors. Just a year later, she sang at the funeral of Dr. King.
But her activism didn’t end with her mentor. When civil rights icon Angela Davis was falsely accused of murder and imprisoned in California, Aretha Franklin offered to pay her bail, “Whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000,” she told Jet magazine in 1970. “I have the money,” she said, “I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to be able to use it in ways that will help our people.”
In 2009, she went on to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Sitting at Ms. Franklin’s feet five years ago, listening to her tell her stories of Dr. King, I felt tethered to a history and a legacy so much deeper than I could understand. If I had had more time to speak with her, there are so many more questions that I would have loved to have asked her. But I am forever grateful for the time she gave me and so glad to have asked her what she hoped her legacy would be:
“Hopefully, the music has been uplifting and supporting…” she told me then. “…a spiritual stronghold for people who need that and for people who don’t know anything about the church and the Lord.”
With her hopes for her musical legacy fulfilled and her impact on history secured, Ms. Franklin’s “someday” to “live with the saints in glory” has come. I can only imagine how the heavenly choir sounds now that the angels have added the Queen of Soul to their ranks. Her music lives on in all of us she touched, lifting our spirits, giving us courage and inspiring us to action, just as she intended.
Brooke Obie is a well-traveled writer and editor. She’s the senior digital editor for Guideposts.org, where she manages the health & wellness, relationships and travel verticals.