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The FBI monitored Aretha Franklin's role in the civil rights movement for years

This March 26, 1972 file photo shows the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaking to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York as Tom Todd, vice president of PUSH, from second left, Aretha Franklin and Louis Stokes.
Jim Wells
/
AP
This March 26, 1972 file photo shows the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaking to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York as Tom Todd, vice president of PUSH, from second left, Aretha Franklin and Louis Stokes.

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

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

Informants mentioned Franklin, a Detroit native, in separate memos for possibly appearing at the SCLC's 1967 and 1968 national conventions, in Atlanta and Memphis, respectively. The FBI mailed several copies of "The Atlanta Voice" newspaper, which reported on her visit to town, to FBI offices around the country, as well as 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 personal connections. In 1970, she offered to pay the bail of Angela Davis, a notable activist who had been arrested for kidnapping, conspiracy and murder and was later acquitted. Aretha's father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was also a close friend of King's, and she went on to work with King, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others.

In a memo dated April 8, 1968 – four days after King was assassinated – 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.
Dave Pickoff / AP
/
AP
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.

However, it was canceled by the SCLC after "A source...states [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] members felt the performance by these prominent entertainers would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance in the area."

"Of this group, some have supported militant black power concept and most have been in forefront of various civil rights movements," the memo said.

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

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

Though, in May 1973, two informants said they never knew Franklin to be associated with any "radical movements."

"In view of the fact there is no evidence of involvement by Miss Franklin in [Black Liberation Army] activities and in view of her fame as a singer, it is felt that it would not be in the best interests of the Bureau to attempt to interview her," the memo said.

Franklin's father, C.L. Franklin, was also surveilled.

At an August 1968 SCLC meeting, in which Rev. James Bevel criticized America's role in the Vietnam War and spoke of a shift away from nonviolence, C.L. Franklin spoke of how China was becoming a more powerful nation, eclipsing England, which had "degenerated from a first to a third-rate power."

"There is no vestige of doubt that consciously or sub-consciously the SCLC leadership has taken a 'hate America' and a 'pro-Communist' line, which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but which they will blindly follow..." an informant said in the memo.

The FBI additionally surveilled a call C.L. Franklin received from the Black Panther Party in order to get in touch with Aretha Franklin. The agency matched the phone number to C.L. Franklin through a "pretext phone call" to his hotel. The purpose of those types of calls is to "solicit incriminating statements from the suspect," according to the Department of Justice.

"No further investigation is being conducted by the Los Angeles office concerning Aretha Franklin," the memo said.

The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Courage News founder Jenn Dize in 2018. The documents additionally show death threats made against Franklin and infringements of her music and performances.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayana Archie