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Rep. John Lewis: Aretha Franklin “Moved All of Humanity”

The Georgia congressman and Civil Rights hero on the moral power of the Queen of Soul

Anthony Geathers/Redux, Al Pereira/Getty

Over the course of his lifetime, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) saw Aretha Franklin sing more times than he can count — in stadiums, parks, at a private birthday in Washington, D.C. He can’t recall exactly when the first time was, but he knows where: her father’s church, in downtown Detroit. She was just a young girl. Back then, her father, C.L. Franklin, a Baptist minister and close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the famous one. “He had a syndicated program on Saturday nights,” Lewis recalls. “He would preach, and many African-American ministers all over the nation were trying to imitate him — his preaching, his style. Even in places like Georgia and other places around America today ministers are preaching in the style of Reverend Franklin.”

As a teenager, Franklin traveled the country on tour with King, Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte. She transformed into a musical icon, lending her voice in support of equal rights, and was present with Lewis for some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most pivotal moments. “If it hadn’t been for Aretha — and others, but particularly Aretha — the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings,” Lewis says. “She lifted us and she inspired us.”

The congressman also credits the singer’s music as a critical source of strength when Lewis, in his role as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was organizing protests in Selma, Alabama. “I will never forget on one occasion, we left from jail and we went straight to the local club,” Lewis says. “The young people, the children, the teenagers, those of us in our twenties, woud dance by the music of Aretha.” The jukebox gave three songs for a quarter, and Lewis picked all Aretha Franklin songs. Among them, of course, was the song that would become an anthem of both civil rights and feminism: “Respect.”

Among Lewis’ fondest memories is seeing Franklin perform in August of 1967. It was the last day of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s annual gathering, and Franklin was scheduled to close the event with a few songs. Lewis remembers how happy she looked as she sang. “She was moved by, call it the spirit, or moved by the environment — all these people who had been beaten during a demonstration, or march, or protest — I think she was overcome by it all, and she was showing her gratitude. And she just kept singing and wouldn’t stop.” Finally, an organizer gently told her it was time to end the show. She didn’t listen. “She just kept going,” Lewis says. “They start dimming the lights, and closing down the program….And that was the last time that [King] saw Aretha perform.”

Eight months later, in April, 1968, King was gunned down, standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d been scheduled to attend a rally that evening; according to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, King’s last words were a request, directed at the musician Ben Branch: “Make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Franklin, famously, would sing the song at his funeral. Lewis recalls the pain in her voice that day. “She put everything she had in the song,” he says. “Her heart was very heavy — her heart was bleeding.” For Franklin, it was more than just a political loss. “Dr. King was very, very close to her father,” Lewis says, noting that they marched together in Detroit, and King occasionally gave sermons at her father’s church. “She loved and admired Dr. King.”

Years later, Lewis had the chance to be present for another historic Aretha Franklin performance. It was January 2009, and the occasion was the inauguration of the first Black president. Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

“Somehow it fell to my lot that day to lead Aretha to the room where she had to be before she did the song,” Lewis recalls. Despite the enormity of the moment, once backstage, he recalls, they pleasantly joked about her hat. “It was very moving for her to be there,” says Lewis. “And it moved President and Mrs. Obama. And it moved all of humanity, really.”

Her singular ability to move people is what Lewis says he’ll treasure most about Franklin’s memory. “She had the capacity and ability to help move us closer to what Dr. King called ‘The Beloved Community’ — where we could lay down the burden of hate and separation and move just a little bit closer.”

“I will never, never ever forget her.”

In This Article: Aretha Franklin

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