“Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up. And I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.” I thought of Aretha Franklin’s words each time I was at one of her concerts. The last being at the Universal Amphitheater in 2005. Her words were not just the obligatory and hyperbolic spiel about the black struggle when she spoke to Jet Magazine in December 1970. This was at the height of the Black Power movement. She was even then a living, breathing, walking, and as she noted jailed proof, that she was more than willing to put her money, her talent, and her body squarely on the line for her beliefs.
This is the Aretha that is often forgotten, ignored, or simply downplayed in the avalanche of tributes about Aretha. Most talk endlessly and glowingly about her high place and icon status as the “Queen of Soul.” The other tributes and remembrances to and are of her prodigious fund raising, benefit concerts, personal giving, and support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ SCLC and other civil rights organizations. These are tributes that Aretha richly deserves and are her contributions to civil rights that must be remembered in perpetuity about her life and work.
However, this is only part of the picture of who and what Aretha was and stood for. When she wrote that ‘Black people will be free” she was telling why she agreed to post the then huge bail for Angela Davis. Her offer to post bail drew gasps and outrage, and even hysteria from many quarters, including from her father, the famed Detroit minister, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Franklin adamantly and publicly opposed Aretha getting involved with Davis and having the taint of being a black radical.
But Aretha’s decision to back Davis and hitch her musical star to the radical black movement was not just done out of personal rebellion or solely from her belief in the black struggle. Aretha made clear that her support was based on her own personal experience sitting in a jail cell. In the Jet interview she was blunt,” jail is hell to be in.” Aretha had been arrested in July 1969 in Detroit for disorderly conduct and tossed in a cell.
This was a point in time when dozens of Black Panthers, and other lesser known black radicals, were being routinely jailed and imprisoned. This stirred deep personal pain and angst in Aretha. A couple of years later, in April 1972, Aretha went even further. In a response to an invitation to provide even greater support to the Black Panther Party by appearing at a fundraiser for the party in Oakland, she again made clear that she was willing to do whatever it took to assist the Party. There was almost a pleading tone in her letter to a party member that she felt “inadequate’ as an artist in not being able to utilize her “talent” even more effectively to assist the movement.
Aretha saw the role of the artist as not just one of being in the business of making music and entertaining but as a committed activist. Aretha understood that as a popular celebrity artist she could leverage that fame and following into a musical bully pulpit to raise public consciousness and awareness about the aims of the black movement, up to including support of the Black Panther Party. That support was not an easy task, and it involved risk.
The Party, though on the decline then, still carried the stigma of being a violent, bunch of anti-white and especially anti-police gun toting black radicals. The FBI and local police’s colossal stealth campaign to destroy the party was still very much in full swing at the time. Aretha’s name an open support of Davis and sympathy toward the party and the black movement almost certainly wound up in pages of the FBI’s racist, and patently illegal, COINTELPRO files and dossiers on the Panthers and other black radical organizations.
Aretha was undeterred she told the Panther writer that she had hoped at some point to meet with him and members of the party. That didn’t happen and that must remain one of the great what ifs in the history of the black movement.
The important thing, though, is that Aretha took the extra step beyond the exemplary and commendable support she gave to established civil organizations and support a movement for racial change. This was a step that few others who were deeply committed to civil rights in the entertainment business then were willing to take—or now. Aretha did, and this is the Aretha that we must also remember. An Aretha who was even more than just a civil rights fighter.