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Aretha Franklin, civil rights stalwart: ‘In her voice, we could feel our history’

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Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday, was best known for her rapturous, soulful voice and her ability to reach into the chest of her audience.

[NEW YORK] Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday, was best known for her rapturous, soulful voice and her ability to reach into the chest of her audience.

But beyond the floor-length furs, gorgeous gowns and elaborate headdresses she wore onstage, beyond the lights, Franklin was involved with the civil rights movement, and she remained passionate about the progress of African-Americans and women throughout her life.

"She used her platform to inform others," the Rev Jesse L Jackson said in an interview. "She did not put her career before principles."

Franklin put on fundraisers, went on tour, gave free shows and bailed out activists in support of social movements. The fight was never over. Her career spanned five decades, from the early days of the civil rights movement through the two terms of the first black president.

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SINGING AT KING'S FUNERAL

Franklin met Martin Luther King Jr when she was very young. He was a friend of her father, the Rev Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, who was a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and a civil rights activist. King would meet with her father at the family home. From an early age, Franklin was exposed to the civil rights movement.

"She faced the burden of race and gender," Jackson said. "It was her plight."

When King was killed in 1968, Franklin, who was 26 years old, was asked to sing "Precious Lord" at his funeral. The hymn was one of King's favourites. He was known to call on Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, to sing the hymn to him when he was feeling weary.

Nearly four years later, Franklin was asked to sing at Jackson's funeral, where she showed up and once again sang the hymn heartily.

AN EXAMPLE OF ‘BLACK TOGETHERNESS'

In 1970, a 26-year-old philosophy instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles named Angela Davis was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Davis was wanted on suspicion of buying guns that men later used in a deadly courtroom kidnapping attempt. She was arrested that October.

In a December 1970 issue of Jet magazine, Franklin pledged to bail out Davis "whether it's US$100,000 or US$250,000."

"Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free," she told the magazine. "I've been locked up and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace."

"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," Franklin said.

In the subsequent issue of Jet, readers wrote the editor calling Franklin a "true sister" and "black and beautiful." One reader wrote: "This shows a sign of blacks becoming more together. The money made by Franklin is money from the black community to help Ms Davis, this is black togetherness."

Davis was eventually bailed out by Roger McAfee, a dairy farmer who put his property up as collateral. Davis was acquitted of all charges and continued to be an activist for black rights.

A VOICE THAT SANG FOR EVERYONE

In January 2009, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, was inaugurated. Mr Obama asked Franklin, who had supported his campaign, to sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at the historic event.

Franklin showed up and showed out, as usual.

"Every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine," Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, said in a statement Thursday.

"Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect."

Franklin performed several times when Mr Obama was in office. During the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin sang "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," in tribute to Carole King, a co-writer of the song, who was receiving a lifetime achievement award.

It was one of Franklin's most powerful performances in the last few years of her life. Mr Obama is seen wiping tears away from his face within seconds of Franklin starting to sing.

Franklin, who began singing while playing the piano, eventually stood up and walked toward the audience. She then removed her floor-length fur coat, a sign that she was going to take the crowd to church, and elevated the room.

The audience — which included Viola Davis, Michelle Obama, George Lucas and Clive Davis — was on its feet by the time the performance was over.

A WOMAN FOR THE WOMEN

Franklin's music could be inspirational, sultry, warm, joyful and glamorous, but she was always for the empowerment and elevation of women.

"She identified with that struggle," Jackson said. "She supported equal pay, equal work for women."

Franklin also empowered women through lyrics in her songs, like "Respect", "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "Think". They were the kind of songs that could build on the strength of a woman.

On "Respect", she did not ask to be respected, she commanded it. The song was written by Otis Redding, but Franklin made it her own and then gave it to women.

Jackson saw Franklin the day before she died. He managed to say goodbye.

"She was in a deep, deep sleep," Jackson said. "She was on the way to heaven. It was a hard goodbye."

NYTIMES