FBI Spied on Aretha Franklin

During civil rights movement, agency looked for connections to Black Panthers
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 12, 2022 4:24 PM CDT
FBI Spied on Aretha Franklin for Years, 270-Page File Shows
Aretha Franklin sings during the funeral for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit in 2005.   (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Spying on the leaders and organizers of the civil rights movement was a regular FBI practice, but a recently released file shows the extent of the surveillance of Black entertainers, including singer Aretha Franklin. Comedian Dick Gregory and singer Harry Belafonte were being monitored as well, the New York Times reports. "Picking up in 1967 and 1968 through the early 1970s, the FBI was keeping files on almost every major Black figure and particularly anyone who seemed to be, or was suspected of being, involved in civil rights or Black politics," said Beverly Gage, a Yale professor of history and American studies.

The agency gathered information on Franklin's civil rights activities and the connections they suspected of existing between the singer, who died in 2018, and Black Panthers, Communists, and people it labeled "Black extremists." One memo in her file, written a few days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., warned about a memorial concert planned but never held in Atlanta. Franklin was to perform, as were Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson, and the Supremes. Given the participation of "these prominent performers," the event might cause an "emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance," the memo said.

The file "allows us to once again think about the role that Black art plays in revolutionary ideas in this country and what a threat that poses to the edifices of power," said Daphne Brooks, a Yale professor of African American studies. The FBI did not comment on the contents of the file. Franklin's son KeCalf told Rolling Stone: "I'm not really sure if my mother was aware that she was being targeted by the FBI and followed. I do know that she had absolutely nothing to hide, though." (More Aretha Franklin stories.)

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