On this day in 2009: Aretha Franklin performs at Obama inauguration

    Aretha Franklin | Wikimedia Commons

    On Jan. 20, 2009, legendary recording artist Aretha Franklin, donning a head-turning, bow-tied, grey felt hat, performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” during U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C.

    The event was historic in that Obama became the first Black president. For Franklin, who was born in Memphis, Tenn., and raised in Detroit, it was yet another storied appearance at a notable political event. 

    In 1968, she sang at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1977, she sang at a President Jimmy Carter inaugural event. Several years late, in 2015, the 73-year-old Franklin took the stage in a floor-length fur coat, sat down at the piano and brought Obama to tears during a stellar performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors.

    Franklin died on Aug. 16, 2018. Obama released a statement on the day of her death:

    “America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up performing gospel songs in her father’s congregation. For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine. Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.

    “Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. Michelle and I send our prayers and warmest sympathies to her family and all those moved by her song.”

    In 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill designating a portion of the M-10 freeway between Livernois and I-94 in Detroit as the “Aretha Franklin Memorial Highway.”

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.