FBI tracked Aretha Franklin’s civil rights activism, declassified file shows

<span>Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns</span>
Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

The FBI has declassified its file on Aretha Franklin, the late “Queen of Soul” who died in 2018 at age 76. The 270-page document, which includes reports from over a dozen states, shows the bureau extensively tracked the singer’s civil rights activism and her friendships with Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis.

The file also includes several credible death threats against Franklin and a potential copyright infringement lawsuit stemming from a Yahoo! Groups message board in 2005. The case, involving a self-proclaimed “anti-fanatic” who sold pirated CDs and DVDs of her performances, never made it to trial.

The file, requested via the Freedom of Information Act by journalist Jenn Dize, who posted excerpts in a lengthy Twitter thread, and reported by Pitchfork, includes close documentation of Franklin’s performances for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which King was president.

The FBI labeled these shows, held in Memphis and Atlanta in 1967 and 1968, as “communist infiltration” events. The FBI also noted that Franklin was alleged to be involved in a “huge memorial concert” following King’s assassination in 1968 that a source claimed “would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance this area”.

The SCLC ultimately scrapped the memorial concert and held a procession to Atlanta’s Morehouse College instead.

The FBI also tracked a performance by Franklin at a 1972 fundraiser for Davis in Los Angeles. The file noted that Davis was “facing murder-kidnapping charges in California” and that the concert’s sponsors, the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, was “an organization founded by the Communist party, United States of America”.

On several occasions, the FBI identified Franklin as a potential performer at events deemed suspicious that she did not actually attend, including a 1971 benefit event for Davis held by the Boston chapter of the Young Workers Liberation League and a Black Panther Party event in Los Angeles.

A 1976 document linked Franklin to the Coordinating Council for the Liberation of Dominica (CCLD), which a source characterized as “a black extremist group bent on disturbing the tranquility of the Island of Dominica” that “may have established a base of operation in the New York City area”.

The source identified Franklin as a friend of Roosevelt Bernard Douglas, a “black extremist of international note” who went on to become the prime minister of the Dominica. It appears the bureau found no further evidence of an association between Franklin and the CCLD.

The three documented death threats against Franklin included a Cook county jail inmate in Chicago who posed as an FBI agent to extort her for $1m, threatening serious consequences if she did not pay. The file also records harassment at home, by letter and by phone by one person in 1979.

The news comes after Micky Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, revealed he is suing the FBI over a dossier he believes the agency holds on him and his former bandmates.