Aretha Franklin: Freedom, Respect, and the Moral Universe

By Christine Jones

Pow­er­ful and proud, Aretha Franklin’s music cham­pi­oned the ideas of free­dom and dig­ni­ty, mak­ing her voice an inte­gral part of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment in the Unit­ed States with songs like “Respect” (1967) and “Think” (1968). When I hear the word “free­dom” sung repeat­ed­ly in the cho­rus of “Think,” I’m remind­ed of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s icon­ic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al in 1963, where he etched the words “Free At Last” into the vocab­u­lary of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. The song, “Respect”, unwa­ver­ing­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly demands just that and trans­lates effort­less­ly into a voice for the fem­i­nist move­ment of the time. I was a child in that era, born in 1960, and the mes­sages expressed by voic­es like Aretha Franklin’s have left an indeli­ble imprint on me and many in my gen­er­a­tion. Those voic­es made me feel that, as Mar­tin Luther King put it, “the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards jus­tice.” They made me feel that the Unit­ed States was a place of social progress despite its struggles.

That said it is with sad­ness that I write this piece in hon­or of the leg­end of soul, Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16 of this year. Yes, we mourn her loss as she was an icon of human resilience. How­ev­er, there is anoth­er sad­ness that emerges from what I can only describe as dashed hopes and aspi­ra­tions that relate to a false per­cep­tion of social progress. In oth­er words, I feel remorse when it seems that the bat­tles fought and the grounds gained in the Civ­il Rights Era and the Women’s Move­ment were aber­ra­tions in the “arc of the moral uni­verse.” I also fear that Aretha Franklin’s voice of strength and for­ti­tude – that has res­onat­ed for decades – could become inaudi­ble at one point. And last, I feel remorse that the coun­try that I thought I knew has moved in a direc­tion I nev­er would have pre­dict­ed. The irony doesn’t escape me that just today – as I write about an artist whose mes­sage speaks about strength and social progress – the Unit­ed States Sen­ate con­firmed a Supreme Court jus­tice whose influ­ence could take the U.S. down a dan­ger­ous­ly con­ser­v­a­tive path for decades to come.

Yet, as we turn our gaze back to Aretha Franklin, we see that not only her music but also her actions expressed the ideals of social jus­tice and equal­i­ty of her time. She con­tributed both her time and mon­ey to Mar­tin Luther King’s efforts in the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. Her father, C. L. Franklin, was a civ­il rights activist and orga­niz­er as well as a King’s friend. Thus, the young Aretha Franklin had grown up sur­round­ed by activism, and ear­ly on, a clause in her singing con­tract stat­ed that she would nev­er per­form for a seg­re­gat­ed audi­ence. She was also a vocal advo­cate for women’s rights, and her words in a 2016 inter­view with Elle mag­a­zine echoed the sen­ti­ment of her 1967 hit song, “Respect”: “Women absolute­ly deserve respect. I think women and chil­dren and old­er peo­ple are the three least-respect­ed groups in our soci­ety.” Final­ly, like the cho­rus of “free­dom” in her 1968 song, Aretha Franklin demon­strat­ed her ded­i­ca­tion to the free­dom of Blacks when she post­ed bail in 1970 for polit­i­cal activist Angela Davis who had been arrest­ed on fab­ri­cat­ed charges. Aretha Franklin told Jet mag­a­zine dur­ing that same year, “Angela Davis must go free. Black peo­ple will be free. […] 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.”

Voic­es like hers will be sore­ly missed – espe­cial­ly in times that seem to need her vision of equal­i­ty and respect more than ever. The arc of the moral uni­verse will con­tin­ue to bend towards jus­tice, except that it is per­haps a lit­tle longer than we thought.

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Chris­tine Jones is a musi­cian and social activist in Los Ange­les. She per­forms as a pianist and sings with “Voic­es of Rea­son,” the only athe­ist choir in the U.S. She is a vocal pro­po­nent for the sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and gov­ern­ment and serves on the board of Athe­ists United.