As the world engages in a week of tributes to Aretha Franklin and John McCain, I am reminded that when giants die, they inevitably leave massive footprints behind.
For McCain, a Navy veteran who was tortured during his five years as a prisoner of war and went on to serve as a U.S. senator, those footprints stretch from Vietnam to the U.S. Capitol, where McCain will lie in state before his funeral.
For Aretha Franklin, whose public viewing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit is being live-streamed even as I write this, those footprints span generations that were impacted and inspired by her music.
Though they differed in race, gender, and background, McCain's and Franklin's footprints have converged at a time when such differences have become a source of division. Now more than ever, we need giants whose lives hold lessons. We need giants whose footprints set a path.
Like Franklin, McCain came from a family whose traditions helped determine what his path would be. Both his father and grandfather were Navy admirals, and McCain became a Navy pilot. After McCain was shot down during the Vietnam War, his years as a prisoner of war left physical wounds — he could not raise his arms above his head — and emotional scars.
When others clamored for the United States to use torture in the so-called war on terror, McCain stood against it, with his own experience as a prisoner giving him the credibility to do so. When McCain ran for president and a woman at one of his rallies famously said that then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama — a black man — was an Arab, McCain said Obama was a good citizen and a family man.
Still, McCain was not perfect — especially on issues of race. For many years after his time as a POW, he regularly referred to his Vietnamese captors as "gooks," a racial epithet used to describe East Asians. And in 2000, during his first run for president, he doubled down when he was confronted. In 1983, he voted against legislation to mark a federal holiday in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, though during his 2008 presidential campaign, he acknowledged that was a mistake.
Some believe McCain modified his racial positions for political expediency, and perhaps they're right. But in recent years, as it became clear that McCain's Republican Party was moving toward becoming the party of aggrieved white people, McCain could have gone along with the politics of racism and hate. He didn't, and in following his own path, he left behind the footprints of a giant.
For her part, Aretha Franklin also came from a legacy forged by her family. Her father, C.L. Franklin, was a gifted and nationally known preacher who used his pulpit and influence to become active in the struggle for black civil rights.
A friend and confidant of King, C.L. Franklin organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations of its time. But it was his role in training his daughter Aretha as a gospel singer that endures as his legacy.
But Aretha Franklin got much more from her father than her voice. She also embraced his views on civil rights.
In the 1960s, when it was common for musical artists to perform before segregated audiences, Aretha Franklin refused to do so, and even had it written into her contract. It was the move of a giant — one that few artists could afford to embrace.
It was in 1967, when Aretha Franklin covered the Otis Redding song, "Respect," that she became much more than a bona fide star. She also became an icon of both the civil rights and women's rights movements, and her version of that song became an anthem.
Three years later, when Angela Davis — a communist and an activist — was jailed on trumped-up conspiracy charges, Aretha Franklin offered to pay her bail. Franklin told Jet magazine that she made the offer "not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people — they've made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people."
Like John McCain, Aretha Franklin understood who she was, valued where she came from, and left behind the footprints of a giant.
At a time when too many of us are struggling to fit into other people's boxes, we could all benefit from following in their footsteps.