Aretha Franklin was tracked by the FBI. Activist Angela Davis 'was shocked ... But I shouldn’t have been.'

DETROIT – Revelations that the FBI closely monitored Aretha Franklin during the civil rights movement prompted dismay from one of the era’s most prominent government targets.

Angela Davis, the Black feminist activist once placed on the FBI’s most-wanted list, said she was initially astonished by the recent FBI disclosure.

“I was shocked,” Davis said Friday in Detroit. “But I shouldn’t have been.”

A 270-page Franklin dossier was released in September following Freedom of Information Act requests by the Detroit Free Press,part of the USA TODAY Network, and other news media outlets after the singer’s 2018 death. It shows that the Detroit music star was very much on the FBI’s radar, largely because of her associations with Davis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Franklin document, compiled over four decades and heavily redacted in places, includes FBI investigations into matters unrelated to racial-justice pursuits, such as online music-piracy claims and death threats against the singer.

Angela Davis, left and Aretha Franklin, right.
Angela Davis, left and Aretha Franklin, right.

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But dozens of pages zero in on Franklin's activity in the late '60s and early '70s, when the Detroit soul star was highly visible on the civil rights front and became celebrated by leading figures in the Black Power movement.

The FBI tracked her concert appearances, her record label affiliations and her suspected – though usually debunked – ties to radical and militant groups.

“It’s an indication of the fact that they understood her power,” Davis said. “Of course, she never should have been under surveillance. But she was such an inspiration to all the people who were involved in the movement at that time.”

Davis said she and the Queen of Soul were not closely acquainted: “I just appreciated her music and all of the work she did.”

Still, their lives became intertwined in late 1970, when Franklin famously offered to pay the bond of the imprisoned Davis.

Davis, 78, was in Detroit last week for the launch of “New Standards,” an installation that bills itself as “examining the relationship between jazz and gender.” Davis, a University of California, Santa Cruz professor and jazz aficionado, is a close friend of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who conceived and curated the installation.

Activist Angela Davis, left, and University of California Santa Cruz professor Gina Dent look over artwork during a VIP event at the Carr Center Performance Studio in Detroit on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. The "New Standards" installation features artwork by major jazz musicians and Detroit artists.
Activist Angela Davis, left, and University of California Santa Cruz professor Gina Dent look over artwork during a VIP event at the Carr Center Performance Studio in Detroit on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. The "New Standards" installation features artwork by major jazz musicians and Detroit artists.

“On the one hand, I’m critical of the repressive apparatus and how they treated (Franklin),” Davis told the Detroit Free Press Friday. “But on the other hand, I say: 'Yes, she was one of the most powerful figures in the movement.'"

Davis was a UCLA philosophy professor and Communist Party USA leader when she emerged as one of the most prominent Black activists at the turn of the 1970s.

She became a national figure in August 1970 when she was accused of supplying the guns used in a California courthouse attack that attempted to free three inmates affiliated with the Black Panther Party. A kidnapped federal judge and three others were killed in a subsequent shootout.

Davis was eventually acquitted in a jury trial, but she had fled California after the initial indictment and promptly landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. She was found and arrested several months later. Denied bail, she was then jailed for 16 months while awaiting trial.

Davis’ cause was taken up by Black and white celebrities around the world – with Franklin among the most notable.

The singer vowed to pay Davis’ bond, “whether it’s $100,000 or $200,000,” she said at the time, adding that “jail is hell to be in.”

“I have the money,” said Franklin, as quoted by Jet magazine in December 1970. “I got it from Black people – they’ve made me financially able to have it – and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

Franklin, then 28, noted that her decision did not sit well with her Detroit-preacher father, a civil rights pioneer uneasy with the movement's radicalization.

"I respect him, of course, but I'm going to stick by my beliefs," Franklin said. "Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free."

Davis said Friday: “I’m still so proud of the fact that she offered to pay my bail.”

The 270-page Franklin dossier, which can be viewed on the FBI’s web vault, reveals that the federal bureau kept close tabs on the singer’s activities, often via confidential informants embedded in civil rights groups.

A 1968 document showed the bureau eyeing “communist infiltration” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by King and tightly aligned with the Franklin family. FBI surveillance included an August 1968 Memphis memorial and convention with a performance by “jazz singer Aretha Franklin” and a speech by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.

Aretha Franklin was also documented for her performance at a 1972 event that generated $38,000 for a Davis defense fund.

A year later, the FBI obtained a letter to Franklin (“a well known gospel and soul singer”) from an attorney for Davis, asking that the singer donate money to the Women’s Bail Fund, an organization set up to aid New York inmates.

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: bmccollum@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Aretha Franklin tracked by the FBI for Angela Davis, MLK Jr. ties