Labor Day Essay: Aretha Franklin, John McCain, and the Embodiment of Respect

As summer winds to its unofficial close and we take a moment to celebrate the social and economic achievements of U.S. workers, it’s remarkably appropriate that we’re simultaneously celebrating the labor and legacy of two American icons. One, the Queen of Soul and the voice of a generation. The other, a war hero and dedicated public servant.

The two have little in common on the surface, and the roots from which they came are very different. Aretha Franklin was the daughter of a prominent Baptist minister and civil rights activist. She got her start singing gospel in Detroit, Michigan. John McCain was the son of a naval admiral, born at a naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone. He followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy before enlisting in the Navy.

Their careers, too, were seemingly incomparable. The first became an idol of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. She challenged a culture marked by division and despair with messages of hope, demanding decency for all people. She received many accolades, including 44 Grammy nominations and 18 wins. She became the first female inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for helping to shape our nation’s artistic and cultural heritage.

The second bravely served his country on the battlefield, as a prisoner of war, and as a public servant. He was honored for his military service with numerous medals, including the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He went on to serve the people of Arizona in Congress for more than three decades. His careers as both a representative and senator were characterized by his commitment to his values and his willingness to work across the aisle.

Unsurprisingly, the passing of both Aretha Franklin and John McCain just days apart from one another has filled our television screens and news feeds with images and stories about the lives they led and the people they touched. But there’s more than their end-of-life dates that connect these two giants of American culture and politics. I harken back to one word that encapsulates them both: Respect.

For Aretha Franklin, the word is undeniably tied to her being. Her chart-topping rendition of “Respect,” became the rallying cry for a generation. Throughout her life, she pressed for the respect of women, of people of color, of indigenous peoples, of the elderly. And she paved a path for droves of people who looked like her to shape the future.

For John McCain, he demonstrated respect through his words and his actions. When he disagreed with his peers — or his direct political opponents — he didn’t stoop to name-calling or bashing of someone’s character. Instead, he remained steadfast on the issues and demonstrated respect at all costs.

The young girl singing gospel in Detroit and the midshipman entering Naval service probably never could have imagined their lives being linked in such a way. They may not have come from similar backgrounds. They may not have moved or inspired the same groups of people. They may not have been honored with the same awards or medals. And they may not have necessarily sat on the same side of the aisle. But what they both embodied throughout their lives was the value of respect.

While they may no longer be with us in life, we still have so much to learn from the labor of these two American greats. On this Labor Day, let us not forget the importance of showing respect for all people. For our loved ones, our peers, our coworkers, and our political opponents. For those we know, and for those we don’t know.

Live like Aretha. Live like John. Give respect, and demand respect. It’s the only hope we have for a better tomorrow.

About the Author

Clarence E. Anthony

About the Author

Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.