FBI Documents Show Agency Monitored Aretha Franklin For Years: NPR


This March 26, 1972 file photo shows the Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York City as PUSH Vice President Tom Todd, second from left, Aretha Franklin and Louis Stokes.

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This March 26, 1972 file photo shows the Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York City as PUSH Vice President Tom Todd, second from left, Aretha Franklin and Louis Stokes.

Jim Wells/AP

The FBI spent years monitoring ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin, trying to gauge how involved she was in the civil rights movement, communism and the Black Power movement, a 270-page document shows.

Franklin, who died in 2018, was watched before several performances and appearances she made for civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including the first president was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Informants mentioned Franklin, a Detroit native, in separate memos to have possibly attended the 1967 and 1968 SCLC National Conventions, in Atlanta and Memphis, respectively. The FBI sent several copies of “The Atlanta Voice,” which reported on his visit to town, to FBI offices across the country, as well as to the U.S. Attorney General and the Secret Service.

During this time, Franklin was, in fact, actively involved in the civil rights movement through her music and her personal connections. In 1970, she offered to post bail for Angela Davis, a notable activist who had been arrested for kidnapping, conspiracy and murder and later acquitted. Aretha’s father, Reverend CL Franklin, was also close friends with King, and she continued to work with King, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others.

In a memo dated April 8, 1968 – four days after King’s assassination – Franklin was scheduled to perform at a memorial concert for him in Atlanta, along with Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson and The Supremes.

In this March 13, 1972, file photo, Aretha Franklin holds her Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blue Performance of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in New York City.

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In this March 13, 1972, file photo, Aretha Franklin holds her Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blue Performance of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in New York City.

Dave Pickoff/AP

However, it was canceled by the SCLC after “A source…says [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] the members felt that the performance of these prominent artists would provide an emotional spark that could ignite racial unrest in the region.”

“Of this group, some supported the concept of militant black power and most were at the forefront of various civil rights movements,” the memo reads.

She was identified in a 1969 memo titled “Possible Racial Violence, Urban Areas, Racial Matters” when, the year before, Denver concertgoers rioted after she refused to perform at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. because she was not paid properly.

In 1971, memos listed the Black Panther Party of Los Angeles and the Boston Young Workers Liberation League as organizations that intended to reserve her for rallies.

However, in May 1973, two informants said they had never known that Franklin was associated with “radical movements”.

“Given that there is no evidence of Miss Franklin’s involvement in [Black Liberation Army] activities and given her fame as a singer, it is believed that it would not be in the interests of the Bureau to attempt to interview her,” the memo reads.

Franklin’s father, CL Franklin, was also being watched.

At an SCLC meeting in August 1968, where the Reverend James Bevel criticized America’s role in the Vietnam War and spoke of an abandonment of nonviolence, CL Franklin explained how China was becoming a more powerful nation, eclipsing England, which had “degenerated from a first to a third-rate power.”

“There is no doubt that, consciously or unconsciously, the leadership of the SCLC has taken a ‘hatred of America’ line and a ‘pro-Communist’ line, which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but will follow. blindly…” an insider said in the memo.

The FBI also monitored a call CL Franklin received from the Black Panther Party in order to get in touch with Aretha Franklin. The agency matched the phone number to CL Franklin through a “pretext phone call” to his hotel. The purpose of these types of calls is to “solicit incriminating statements from the suspect,” according to the Justice Department.

“No further investigation is being conducted by the Los Angeles office regarding Aretha Franklin,” the memo reads.

The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Jenn Dize, Founder of Courage News in 2018. The documents further show death threats made against Franklin and attacks on his music and performances.

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