The soul singer was an architect of the civil-rights movement as much as a witness to it.
If the Great Migration could be condensed into a single personal narrative, it might be Aretha Franklin’s. Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, to a traveling, womanizing preacher and a gospel-singing mother, Franklin was whisked north by the same currents that brought millions of black souls to the great industrial and financial centers of the country. Settling with her father in Detroit, she received just about as formal a training in gospel music as was possible back then, singing in her father’s church and on revival tours, and learning from Mahalia Jackson, who stopped in to check on the Franklin household at times.
At 18, Franklin cast off the gospel and embarked on a pop career that would span nearly six decades, spawn a legion of hits, garner countless awards, and see her enshrined as the Queen of an art she helped build. Fifty years ago, she received an award for excellence from Martin Luther King Jr. Four years later, she sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” his favorite song, at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral. Almost four decades after that, Franklin serenaded President Barack Obama and the rest of the country with “My Country 'Tis of Thee” at his inauguration. There were generations in her church hat.