Aretha Franklin's Unsealed FBI File Reveals Singer's Civil Rights Actions Were Being Tracked


Leon Morris/Redferns

The FBI was keeping tabs on late singer Aretha Franklin's civil rights activism in the 1960s and '70s, according to documents recently declassified by a journalist using the Freedom of Information Act.

Files obtained by journalist Jen Dize and published in the Substack newsletter Courage News on Thursday indicate that the FBI showed "repeated and disgusting suspicion" of Franklin, as described by Dize. She wrote on Twitter Thursday that she first requested the documents in 2018, when the "Respect" singer died at age 76.

The documents denote Franklin's 1967 appearance at a convention hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as Franklin's father Clarence "C.L." Franklin's public discussion of China as a growing power in the '60s. The documents reportedly claim that "SCLC leadership has taken a 'hate America' and 'pro-Communist' line."

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The FBI tracked Franklin ardently in the late '60s and '70s, and even once used a "suitable pretext telephone call" to Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in November 1972 to determine that the Black Panther Party had contacted Franklin via phone, the documents show.

Another document from 1968, described as a "summary of racial situation in Atlanta, GA," shows an FBI source thought performances by Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando and The Supremes at a Martin Luther King memorial "would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance [in] this area," as the documents note that some of that group "have supported militant black power concept."

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American Soul and R&B musician Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018) plays piano as she performs onstage during the 'Soul Together' Concert at Madison Square Garden, New York, New York, June 28, 1968.
American Soul and R&B musician Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018) plays piano as she performs onstage during the 'Soul Together' Concert at Madison Square Garden, New York, New York, June 28, 1968.

Jack Robinson/Getty

In 1979, the FBI documented a death threat Franklin and her family received over the phone from a man who claimed he had married the singer in 1958. The death threat came four months after Franklin's father was shot twice during an attempted robbery at his Detroit home, according to the document and the Detroit Historical Society.

Franklin received a similar threat via mail in 1974, according to the documents.

A majority of Franklin's now-released 270-page long FBI file involves Franklin's attorneys reaching out to the FBI in 2005 regarding "the sale of bootleg Aretha Franklin DVDs and CDs" by a moderator of a Yahoo! message board group dedicated to the singer.

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Franklin and her attorneys pursued a copyright infringement case against the moderator, and documents show the moderator in 2006 "probably sold $3,500 to $4,000 worth of CD's and DVD's over the past two years."

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The files show the FBI documented instructions for joining the fan group, which contained 115 members and had as few as 25 "members who are active posters."

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"Due to the relatively low amount of economic damage sustained by Ms. Franklin, [REDACTED] was recommended for and accepted into the pre-trial diversion program," a document dated May 23, 2007 reads.

"At this time, all investigative leads have been exhausted and the case brought to its logical conclusion. As a result, it is requested that this case be closed," the document adds.

Franklin died in August 2018 at age 76 of pancreatic cancer.

She was a longtime civil rights activist, and wrote in her memoir that "Respect," one of her biggest hits, was an anthem for the movement.

"It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect," Franklin wrote. "It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance."