There “ain’t no way” the highest domestic law enforcement agency in the country was keeping tabs on Aretha Franklin — but they were.
The FBI kept a careful eye on the Queen of Soul and her activism, nothing unusual during the civil rights era when the bureau was monitoring a host of the movement’s luminaries. Franklin was best known for her sturdy catalog of R&B and gospel hits, but the file shows her possible affiliation — both real and perceived — with Communist and Black liberation organizations was a regular focus for federal agents. Franklin died in 2018.
Though the documents are redacted, the agents and investigators seem to conclude there was no cause for alarm, despite the extensive monitoring.
The file also outlines death threats and an extortion attempt targeting the singer, as well as a copyright infringement lawsuit.
The FBI press office has no additional information on the 270-page file, it says, but Jenn Dize, founder of Courage News, said she obtained the records in a Freedom of Information Act request. The journalist, who says she “frequently report(s) on abuses of alphabet agencies, especially as related to the civil rights movement,” requested the documents in 2018, she wrote in a Thursday tweet.
One document, stamped September 1976, issues several thinly backed allegations against Franklin, including:
a 1972 article in a “West Coast communist newspaper” indicating Franklin had performed at a concert arranged by a group linked to the Communist Party, which was raising funds to free Angela Davis, a political activist who was facing murder and kidnapping charges in California at the time;
a confidential source later that year identifying Franklin among “persons associated or known to” the leader of a “black extremist group bent on disturbing the tranquility of the Island of Dominica,” north of Venezuela;
and an April 1973 review pertaining to the Black Liberation Army showing one document bore the address of Franklin’s booking agency in New York City. The document described the BLA as “a quasi-military group … employing the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare against the established order with a view toward achieving revolutionary change in America.”
Despite the allegations, the document states there is “no additional pertinent information” on Franklin.
Those documents followed years of reports on the beloved songstress. In 1967, a classified memo titled, “Communist infiltration of Southern Christian Leadership Conference internal security,” stated “a weekly Atlanta Negro newspaper” reported Franklin would perform at the SCLC’s 10th anniversary banquet. The SCLC at the time was helmed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, another popular target of FBI monitoring.
Days after King’s assassination, the bureau expressed concern that Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson and The Supremes were scheduled to perform at a memorial concert, and that some of the entertainers “have supported militant black power concept and most have been in forefront of various civil rights movements.”
It further states that “(Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members felt the performance by these prominent entertainers would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance this area.” The SCLC later decided against holding the memorial service, the document states.
Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, also drew the FBI’s attention after he denounced England and praised Communist China at an August 1968 SCLC event. According to the FBI document, the SCLC had “taken a ‘hate America’ and ‘pro-Communist’ line, which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but which they will blindly follow.”
In following years, federal investigators would also look into: Franklin’s and fellow singer Roberta Flack’s contracts with Atlantic Records; an August 1968 “melee” that erupted at Denver’s Red Rocks amphitheater after Franklin declined to perform; and her alleged connections to the BLA and Black Panther Party.
A January 1972 memo says a confidential informant provided a phone number obtained by Black Panthers, and via a “pretext telephone call” — a trap in which law enforcement uses an informant to convince a suspect to say something on a recorded line — “it was determined that Cecil Franklin is the father of Aretha Franklin, noted Negro singer and entertainer, and a Mrs. Owens is her manager. No further investigation is being conducted by the Los Angeles Office concerning Aretha Franklin.”
The bureau concedes in a May 1973 document that two sources, whose names are redacted, told authorities that, to their knowledge, Franklin had never been connected to “any radical movement.”