Death knocked on Aretha Franklin’s door numerous times over the past few years. And she shut the door in his face.
She had too much to do.
Some people might have thought it was the supper club she had planned to open downtown, not far from where she lived privately and quietly in Riverfront Towers on the Detroit River, Michigan.
Some might have thought it was because she had that last album to finish, the one she talked to me about last year, the one that would feature her friend, Stevie Wonder, who visited her Tuesday.
But many folks might not know that Aretha Franklin had persevered, survived and stayed, because she also was needed in a civil rights struggle that her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, helped lead, that his fellow soldiers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy knew would last longer than their lives — and that she quietly and anonymously helped fund for decades.
“When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, her friend of more than 60 years. “On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.
“She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency,” said Jackson, who said he has visited with her nearly a dozen times in the past two or three years during the course of her illness.
Other ministers and civil rights activists concurred with Jackson’s assessment of the socially conscious singer’s contributions to the movement and to helping others, something she did nationally for decades without credit and something she did locally through the New Bethel Baptist Church, without fanfare.
“First of all, she was very philosophic, not only in terms of the movement, but she also put her resources where the movement’s needs were,” said the Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of the Little Rock Baptist Church and a friend of Ms. Franklin’s for 45 years.
“Whenever there was a tragedy with families, any civil rights family, she was always giving,” Holley said. “I wish I had the words to express it. She’s a very special person in a sense that she sung the blues, but she never lost her roots with the church and her relationship with God. She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking but they don’t do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person.
Jackson and other ministers watched Ms. Franklin grow up in the church, becoming an international star while never leaving the church. He said he watched her rise from gospel to rhythm and blues to soul — all while continuing her father’s work.
“She was the fountain of love, particularly on giving,” he said, treating fellow activists like family and young singers like younger brothers and sisters who just needed a platform.
For decades, Ms. Franklin helped the ministers and activists in the streets, doing everything from providing support for the families of jailed patriarchs to bridging the gaps between a rally planned and a rally happening.
She easily stepped into the very large shoes that her father wore as one of the northern tent poles of a movement that was largely based in the South but spread nationwide thanks to Franklin and others.
While her entertainment star was rising publicly, something else was happening privately: Aretha Franklin was going to work. Her father’s mission lit a fire under the young singer, who began living parallel lives as global star and private civil rights activist.
“A lot of times in this civil rights movement, you’ll have tragedy or death,” Holley said. “She was always there. She was always giving.”