FBI file shows bureau kept tabs on Aretha Franklin’s activism, a common focus during the Civil Rights era
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.
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.”
“In view of the fact there is no evidence of involvement by Miss Franklin in BLA activities and in view of her fame as a singer, it is felt that it would not be in the interests of the Bureau to attempt to interview her,” explains the letter addressed from a New York FBI agent to then-acting Director William Ruckelshaus.
CNN has reached out to Franklin’s estate.
Here are some highlights from those archives:
W.E.B. Du Bois
Fannie Lou Hamer
A June 1963 memo outlines her and other activists’ arrest for sitting in the white section of a Greyhound bus and at a whites-only lunch counter in Winona, Mississippi. Hamer told authorities it was two days before she was informed of her charges — immoral conduct and resisting arrest — during which time two Black inmates beat her with a blackjack on the orders of a state policeman, while a “third white male in the cell struck victim with his hand in attempt to quiet her screaming when being beaten by the prisoners.” She was eventually released on a $200 bond, the equivalent of almost $2,000 today.
The Rev. Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King
Malcolm and Betty Shabazz
Years earlier, a 1958 memo cited an article in the People’s Voice reporting that Robinson “had accepted chairmanship of the New York State organizing committee for United Negro and Allied Veterans of America,” noting that both the newspaper and the UNAVA had Communist ties, with the latter accused of being “a communist front ‘to provoke racial friction.'”