But 1968 was tumultuous as well as joyous. It was the year her refusal to perform over a pay dispute triggered violence at a Colorado venue. And it was a year that brought the death of a family friend: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King, whose April 1968 assassination sparked riots throughout the nation, had first become acquainted with Franklin five years earlier while in Detroit for the Walk to Freedom, a march organized by Franklin’s father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, a renowned pastor in the city.
In an interview months after King’s assassination, Franklin found it hard to describe her emotions.
“I just can’t find words to express how I feel,” Franklin told a Canadian newspaper later that year, calling King’s death “a great tragedy.”
Franklin attended King’s Atlanta funeral. Alongside King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, Richard Nixon and Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated two months later, she mourned the loss of a man whose calls for racial equality had sparked a white backlash. And although Franklin was close to the family and a well-known singer, she did not perform. That honor was left to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” and a confidante of King’s.
At the funeral, Jackson performed King’s favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The lyrics are simple, optimistic and speak of hope:
When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home
But Franklin would also eventually perform the song for King’s family. In August, the 26-year-old sang it in front of a still-mourning widow and her four children, who sat in the front row of a memorial service at a Memphis church.
“Sing it,” an audience member reportedly yelled while her voice reverberated throughout the church.
The gospel song has remained an anthem of that era and one that Franklin would return to again and again. She sang it during Mahalia Jackson’s funeral four years later and again in 2011 during the dedication of King’s Washington memorial.
On Tuesday morning, Franklin’s fans poured into Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to pay their final respects to Franklin at her viewing. The Detroit Free Press described her “resting inside a solid brass, gold-plated casket. She was wearing a red, lace-trimmed ruffled suit and crimson satin pumps. Embroidered in golden thread in the lining of the casket were the words ‘Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul.’ ”