Aretha Franklin attracted an untold number of soul-music fans — scratch that; fans of any music genre — during her 63-year career as an unrivaled singer.
Turns out she attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) too.
According to 270 pages worth of documents that the domestic intelligence and security service recently made public, the FBI kept tabs on Aretha Franklin’s alleged associations with the civil-rights movement and other groups.
Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy? Seriously?
Born in Memphis in March 1942, Aretha Franklin racked up multiple titular honors over the course of her career. The “Queen of Soul” was the most familiar and lasting moniker for the singer who was also a pianist, songwriter, and mother.
“Fringe Group Agitator” isn’t a nickname that the general public applied to her. But apparently, the FBI had its own suspicions about the musician.
The agency thought Aretha Franklin might have harbored secret affiliations with civil-rights groups, Black nationalists, and communism, as NPR noted.
The secret surveillance of a figure who loomed as large as Franklin calls to mind the FBI’s similar questionable targeting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, the FBI thought he might unify black nationalists.
Famously, MLK was a leader of nonviolent resistance. But the FBI monitored him in the event he might flip and spur violence among his followers, according to Senate Select Committee documents.
Similarly, the FBI harbored concerns Franklin might spark radical activities among members of the Black movement.
The FBI’s suspicions resonated so strongly that the agency kept tabs on Franklin for an astonishing 40 years.
Ultimately, the agency didn’t collect sufficient material — if any — to support its unfounded claims, as Vice notes.
Civil-Rights Groups Lionized Aretha Franklin
Rolling Stone spurred the public release of the FBI’s previously secret documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2018. The FBI reportedly tracked her from 1967 to 2007.
Sure, Aretha Franklin joined the civil-rights movement and hoped to leverage some of her fame to help the cause. She performed at and attended events by civil-rights groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as NPR reported.
Incidentally, MLK served as the Conference’s first president.
Franklin also helped fund civil rights groups, as Time wrote in an article published shortly after the singer’s death in August 2018. She not only joined the fight for the rights of Blacks but also women and American Indians.
Underscoring those affiliations, civil-rights groups unofficially adopted Aretha Franklin’s biggest songs, “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” as their anthems.
In a more concrete example, Franklin stood up for activist Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party in the U.S. as well as an academic and teacher.
Franklin’s Support of a Declared Communist
Davis urged authorities to free Davis in 1970 after protestors used guns she owned to take over a courtroom, as The New York Times recounted in its own tribute piece to the soul legend. Four people died in the incident.
While Davis was in jail, Franklin reportedly commented about her arrest to the magazine Jet.
“Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin said. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”
Meanwhile, the FBI maintained its seemingly unshakable stance that Franklin was a threat to the national security of sorts.
“Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin … of this group, some have supported militant Black power concept … [performance at MLK memorial by these prominent entertainers] would provide the emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance in this area,” the FBI documents said, according to The Source magazine.
The FBI even continued to monitor Franklin when she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at the inauguration of former President Barack Obama.
Aretha Franklin’s Last Battle
Franklin’s music also factored into another ceremony: her funeral. Former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ariana Grande, and Stevie Wonder all attended the event.
Franklin died of pancreatic cancer when she was 79 years old.
Since her passing, U.S. citizens continue to celebrate Franklin’s music and legacy. More than 200 soundtracks contain at least one of her songs.