The FBI’s Years-Long Surveillance of Aretha Franklin Revealed

It has recently come to light that the late, great Aretha Franklin was under surveillance by the FBI for over 40 years. That's right, folks - the "Queen of Soul" was considered a threat to national security and was spied on by government agents for nearly half a century. The magazine Rolling Stone has obtained documents that show the full extent of the FBI's surveillance of Ms. Franklin, and the picture they paint is not a flattering one.

The file on Aretha Franklin began in 1967 and lasted until 2007 (she died in 2018). The magazine reveals that the file is 270 pages and is full of phrases such as: “pro-communist,” “hate America,” “radical,” “Black extremists,” “militant Black power” and “racial violence.” In other words, the FBI thought that Ms. Franklin was a threat to national security and used their resources to keep tabs on her for four decades.

It questioned the singer’s relationship with other artists and activists that she had. Some of the documents were heavily redacted. Kecalf Franklin, the performer’s son, 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.”

The documents show that the FBI was tracking Franklin’s phone numbers, activities, and addresses. They also contained letters and death threats directed at her father Clarence L. Franklin, a minister and civil rights activist.

 

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. JIM WELLS/AP

What's even more damning is that much of the information in the file appears to have been gathered simply because Ms. Franklin associated with known radicals or supported causes that were unpopular with the government. For example, she was placed under surveillance after attending a fundraiser for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later after performing at a benefit for Angela Davis, a Black Panther Party leader who was charged (but later acquitted) with murder. Clearly, the FBI thought that anyone associated with Ms. Franklin was also a threat and acted accordingly.

From Rolling Stone:

Among the documents obtained by Rolling Stone —some of which are newly declassified— is a 1968 document discussing funeral plans for Martin Luther King Jr., calling it a “racial situation.” It further notes “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 emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance in this area.”
The FBI's surveillance of Aretha Franklin is yet another example of the government's history of targeting people of color who are critical of the status quo. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Angela Davis to Malcolm X, there is no shortage of examples of influential people of color who were spied on and harassed by government agents simply because they dared to challenge the status quo. The fact that Aretha Franklin was treated in such a manner is both shocking and unsurprising all at once - but it serves as yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant against government overreach if we are to safeguard our civil liberties.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a long history of unsuccessfully trying to connect musicians with radical movements. Some notable artists that have FBI files include Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and Whitney Houston, and The Notorious B.I G.