Spying on the Queen of Soul

For 40 years, the FBI surveilled Aretha Franklin and other Black ‘radicals.’ We got the recently declassified files.

click to enlarge The FBI kept a file on soul singer Aretha Franklin since 1967, the year she became a star with "Respect." - Alamy Stock Photo, photo illustration by Sean Bieri
Alamy Stock Photo, photo illustration by Sean Bieri
The FBI kept a file on soul singer Aretha Franklin since 1967, the year she became a star with "Respect."

It took four years for the FBI to release its file on Aretha Franklin. Requested via the Freedom of Information Act in 2018, the heavily redacted documents are filled with racist language and extreme surveillance of the late Detroit-based singer and activist. Based on the agency’s admissions, Franklin never did anything wrong. The overstepping surveillance revealed has shocked the nation, but strikes particularly close to home for Michiganders.

With some documents newly declassified earlier this year, the 270-page file spans the years 1967 to 2007 and shows how the agency subjected the Queen of Soul to the sort of surveillance and interference that was placed on contemporaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and Angela Davis via an FBI program designed to, among other things, infiltrate, surveil, and disrupt the civil rights movement — and Black lives.

First obtained by this journalist and published in Rolling Stone, documents in the files are written with a clear distrust of the Queen of Soul by the agency, show intense surveillance of her movements and infiltration of Black spaces, and use racist terminology throughout. The FBI seemed intent on linking Franklin to “militant Black power,” radicalism, extremism, and racial violence, according to the documents. Some are questioning how much has changed in the agency’s tactics in recent years, based on available evidence.

The FBI has declined multiple requests for comment for this story.

Key findings in Aretha Franklin’s FBI files:

  • An FBI source said Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference — associated with Franklin and her minister father Clarence L. Franklin — “has taken a hate America and pro-communist line, which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but which they will blindly follow.”

  • Details of the singer’s addresses and phone numbers and that of her team, including famed Atlantic Records producer and executive Jerry Wexler, were tracked and commented on by agents over time.

  • Tactics such as false phone calls were made by the FBI as part of an attempt to link Franklin to extremism.

  • Unrelated disruptions at events associated with Franklin, such as an unruly audience at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado following a canceled gig, were labeled as racial violence.

  • Daily schedules and movements were leaked from within the civil rights movement to the FBI via informants.

  • After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the FBI was concerned that Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson, and the Supremes were to perform at a memorial event, saying “of this group, some have supported militant Black power concept and been in forefront of various civil rights movements.”

  • The FBI made repeated attempts to link Franklin to extremism or any “radical” movement — but they were never able to do it.

You can download Franklin’s full FBI file at vault.fbi.gov/aretha-franklin.

Detroit’s shining star for civil rights

Aretha Franklin was part of Detroit’s fabric from a young age, and quickly became an international sensation. The late Congressman John Lewis, who passed away two years following Franklin’s 2018 death, said, “If it hadn’t been for Aretha — and others, but particularly Aretha — the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings.” It was this notoriety as a popular Black singer, along with Franklin’s monetary and physical support of the civil rights movement, that seemingly raised the FBI’s suspicion.

Of her 1967 track “Respect,” Franklin wrote in her book Aretha: From These Roots, “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. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

As her star ascended, in 1969, Franklin was arrested for disorderly conduct after a minor traffic accident in Highland Park, and was released after posting a $50 bail. Famously, and to the apparent ire of the FBI, Franklin offered to post bail for activist Angela Davis when the activist was jailed the next year in connection with an escape attempt of prisoners from a California courtroom. Franklin said, “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000 … Angela Davis must go free … Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit], and I know you’ve got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace … I have the money; 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.”

Additionally, of her constant support, Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home.”

It was for these things, among many other reasons, that the Queen of Soul was beloved above and beyond her talent as a singer.

Franklin’s youngest son, Kecalf Franklin, tells us this in light of the newly revealed FBI documents.

“The Franklin family is very proud of our family’s vast contribution to the civil rights movement,” he says. “My mother and my grandfather both sacrificed and endured hostility, racism, and violence in pursuit of justice for all. My mom had a great love for our people and great compassion for the hardships caused by oppression and racism. So many perceive my mother as an entertainer and overlook her contributions of activism. Over and over throughout her life, my mom used her voice to fight against racism and discrimination...”

Kecalf Franklin and other family members not only have had to endure the FBI’s actions surrounding their matriarch, but are also in an estate dispute held up by legal red tape and politics, which has been particularly distressing.

The U.S. history of racist surveillance

The Queen of Soul was not the first to be surveilled as a Black artist and supporter of civil rights, and we already have evidence to show similar surveillance is ongoing. A particularly egregious early case by a U.S. government agency came in the form of the now-dissolved Federal Bureau of Narcotics endlessly targeting Billie Holiday for singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about the lynching of Black people in protest against racism and white supremacy.

Between the years 1956 to 1971, the FBI’s civil rights-targeting activities fell under the program COINTELPRO, through which Franklin was monitored. Through COINTELPRO, the FBI monitored and surveilled Black activists, leftists, and anti-war proponents, infiltrating organizations and civil rights groups and using tactics such as writing a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. urging him to kill himself. The FBI also led a war on Black-owned bookstores and other “non-celebrity” establishments that had any influence in a community. To the public, largely unaware but with many suspecting, the surveillance was everywhere.

The FBI’s COINTELPRO thrived on infiltration and division and wasn’t limited to those in Detroit with celebrity status like Franklin. In 1970, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled “COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT” in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panther Party.

In a now declassified document, the FBI outlined its efforts, saying, “Detroit is drafting an anonymous letter incorporating the suggestion of the Chicago office regarding efforts to further expand the rift between the SDS and the Black Panther Party (BPP). The potential counter-intelligence action mentioned above will be submitted to the Bureau before it is implemented.” Authority to send this letter was granted on Feb. 10, 1970, with a note saying, “The letter would purportedly be from a black militant who has become disenchanted with SDS and who accuses SDS of using blacks. Since the letter may serve to widen the split, it is being approved.”

The fraudulent FBI letter, written as if it were from a Black member of the Black Panther Party, stated, “Since when do us Blacks have to swallow the dictates of the honky SDS? Doing this only hinders the Party progress in gaining Black control over Black people. We’ve been fucked over by the white facists pigs and the Man’s control over our destiny … The damn SCS is a paper organization with a severe case of diarhea of the mouth which has done nothing but feed us lip service … They call themselves revolutionaries but look at who they are. Most of them come from well heeled families even by honky standards. They think they’re helping us Blacks but their futile, misguided and above all white efforts only muddy the revolutionary waters. … The time has come for an absolute break with any non-Black group and especially those nit-shit SDS and a return to our pursuit of a pure black revolution by Blacks for Blacks.”

click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.
click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.
click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.
click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.
click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.
click to enlarge In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party. - FBI
FBI
In the 1970s, the FBI sent a false letter as part of a memo titled "COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT" in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party.

Following the release of Franklin’s FBI files, Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU’s National Security Project, tells Metro Times: “It’s shameful but unsurprising that the FBI kept tabs on this legendary Black woman, who was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, during an earlier era of abuses in the name of national security.”

Shamsi continues, “Unfortunately, abuses of this kind still continue today because after 9/11, the Justice Department loosened important safeguards put in place to protect everyone’s rights and privacy. That’s why it’s so important now for the Justice Department to revise its racial profiling guidance and close the loopholes in it that permit the FBI and other federal agencies to carry out bias-based surveillance and investigations.”

In 2011, the ACLU obtained documents that showed the FBI was targeting Arab American and Muslim communities in metro Detroit, looking for alleged links to terrorist groups. “The use of profiling as a tool to address crime and national security threats is not only unconstitutional, it is ineffective and counterproductive,” said Michael German, an ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent, at the time. “Targeting entire communities for investigation based on erroneous stereotypes produces flawed intelligence.” And last year, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Dearborn man who was added to the FBI’s “No Fly List” after he refused to become an informant for the agency. Critics say the FBI used the list as a way to coerce Muslims to become informants.

Did the FBI protect Aretha Franklin enough?

While the surveillance of Aretha Franklin has captured a lot of attention, questions remain about how the FBI handled threats to her life. In just one example in the files, heavily redacted documents show a man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.”

Despite the threat, the FBI declined to fingerprint the handwritten letter and the SDNY declined to prosecute.

click to enlarge A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.” - FBI
FBI
A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.”
click to enlarge A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.” - FBI
FBI
A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.”
click to enlarge A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.” - FBI
FBI
A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.”
click to enlarge A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.” - FBI
FBI
A man sent a disturbing handwritten letter stating to Franklin and her family, saying, “I’m still in charge of you … your advisors do not know the danger of neglecting what I’m saying.”

Metro Times spoke to retired FBI supervisory special agent Mark Chidichimo, who was not involved in any investigation to do with Aretha Franklin, for comment on why an FBI office would decline to fingerprint such a letter and why the United States Attorney for SDNY would decline to prosecute.

“For me … if the fingerprints were on file, what harm is it?” he says. “Send it off to the FBI lab … that’s a little bit suspect to me. I’ll be 100% honest with you. When I read that, my first impression was, well, why didn’t they send it off?”

The FBI’s racist surveillance of Black people never stopped

The FBI claims to have been long reformed after it escaped the looming J. Edgar Hoover, after whose tenure it created term limits for directors, but many activists and Black leaders dispute things have changed. In 2019, journalist Ken Klippenstein reported modern, leaked FBI files. The documents are marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and “For Official Use Only.” Labels refer to a supposed threat of “Black Identity Extremists” and reference a program codenamed IRON FIST, which uses undercover agents. The term “Black Identity Extremism” created anger and frustration following what happened with COINTELPRO, leading Senator Cory Booker to question FBI director Christopher Wray on use of the term.

Frustrations among modern activists remain high, particularly because of a rise in violent white supremacy in recent years, which some believe receives less focus as an agency target than movements like Black Lives Matter.

In 2020, the FBI’s Black Identity Extremists label was changed to “RMVEs [Racially Motivated Violent Extremists].” Specifically, the documents note anger felt by activists and in Black communities due to “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans,” which is indisputably not just a “perception.”

Of these files and noting their timing, a source now-retired from the FBI tells Metro Times, “I would not be surprised that the reason that Black extremist groups were placed high on the list was an appeasement to the Trump White House.”

In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union and MediaJustice filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to acquire FBI records showcasing the targeting of Black activists — specifically, of what the ACLU has called a “fictitious group of so-called ‘Black Identity Extremists.’”

“The lawsuit enforces the ACLU and MediaJustice’s right to information about a 2017 FBI Intelligence Assessment that asserts, without evidence, that a group of so-called ‘Black Identity Extremists’ poses a threat of domestic terrorism,” the organizations said, adding, “The FBI’s creation of a ‘Black Identity Extremist’ threat label is the latest example in a sordid history of efforts to harass, discredit, and disrupt Black activists who advocate against white supremacy and racial injustice.”

click to enlarge Aretha Franklin preformed at the Lincoln Memorial for President Bill Clinton's inaugural gala. - Mark Reinstein /MediaPunch
Mark Reinstein /MediaPunch
Aretha Franklin preformed at the Lincoln Memorial for President Bill Clinton's inaugural gala.

‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows’

Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler said of Aretha Franklin, “I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows. Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”

The FBI found nothing on Franklin, and the public has been shocked as to the depth of surveillance since these files were uncovered. It isn’t possible for us to know how or if the FBI’s actions caused her any of that pain. Of all of this, civil rights activist and author Dr. Cornel West tells us, “The FBI should be ashamed of its illegal and immoral treatment of the Queen of Soul!”

Franklin’s son Kecalf reminds us in light of these documents, “[My mother] demonstrated and supported the civil rights movement in her art, on all platforms, monetarily and spiritually … to achieve civil justice for all.”

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