Aretha Franklin Was at the Heart of the Civil Rights Movement Alongside MLK

Everyone knows Aretha Franklin was a musical superstar and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights icon, but did they have a relationship?

Jamie Lerner - Author

Mar. 23 2021, Updated 6:05 p.m. ET

Aretha Franklin with King Curtis and Joe Tex
Source: Getty

It could be argued that Aretha Franklin is one of the best singers of all time, with a career that spanned over 40 years. And now, Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of the musical icon in Genius: Aretha gives us a peek into what Aretha's life was really like.

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In the series, Aretha Franklin has at least one scene with Martin Luther King Jr. So, did the two luminaries know each other, and if so, what was their relationship like? 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivering His "I Have a Dream" Speech
Source: Getty
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Aretha Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. had a platonic relationship.

Aretha Franklin paved the way for young Black women to take center stage with a new sort of empowerment. However, she wasn't just a musical icon. Aretha was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of which Martin Luther King Jr. was a figurehead.

Aretha Franklin in the studio
Source: Getty
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Aretha’s father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich., as well as a civil rights activist in his own right. He often brought Aretha on gospel choir tours as a child, in which she would often sing for Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK was actually an old friend of the family who shared their civil rights values and vigor.

Aretha Franklin was a major influence on Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement.

While MLK was naturally a major influence on Aretha and her music, Aretha actually helped power the civil rights movement, too. Activist and longtime friend of Aretha, Jesse Jackson, said in an interview:

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When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. 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.
A Civil Rights March
Source: Getty
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She was so influential to the civil rights movement that MLK actually presented Aretha Franklin with a special award on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference just two months before he was assassinated. Her father also led the Detroit Walk to Freedom, during which MLK delivered the first rendition of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

After Martin Luther King Jr. passed away, Aretha Franklin kept up her relationship with his family.

Even though MLK is gone in body, he will never be gone in spirit. Aretha Franklin, specifically, wanted the world to know this, and worked tirelessly alongside the King family to uphold his legacy. 

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At MLK’s memorial, Aretha Franklin sang one of his favorite songs, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” when she was only 26 years old. When Mahalia Jackson, another gospel singer and activist who had a close relationship with MLK, passed away three years later, Aretha sang the same hymn at her funeral. 

Aretha Franklin with Jesse Jackson
Source: Getty
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Then, when Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, shared how crucial Aretha was to the King family. “After my father’s assassination, her relationship with my mother continued and grew stronger," she explained. "She was one of the many artists that joined my mother in her unwavering efforts to establish the King Holiday.”

Aretha Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. were the epitome of the dream team, and their relationship as civil rights activists and artists cannot go unnoticed.

New episodes of Genius: Aretha are available on National Geographic starting March 22.

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