NEW YORK - Four days after the assassination of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, the Atlanta field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) directed a memo to a trusted adviser of then director J. Edgar Hoover, describing plans for a “huge memorial concert” at the Atlanta Braves’ stadium with artistes Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr, Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson and the Supremes.
The memo, dated April 8, 1968, informed FBI leadership that some in the group supported “militant black power” and most were in the “forefront of various civil rights movements”.
Citing an unnamed source, it said the concert by “these prominent performers” could create an “emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance” in Atlanta.
The concert never took place, but the memo to Cartha DeLoach, a close aide to Hoover, is part of Franklin’s 270-page FBI file, which was released last month, four years after her death in 2018, at age 76.
The file, as previously reported by Rolling Stone magazine, reveals that the FBI monitored the giant of soul and gospel music for years, collecting intelligence from sources on her involvement in the civil rights movement and what it suspected were her links to Black Panthers, communists and those it deemed “black extremists”.
Franklin’s name appears in documents concerning “possible racial violence”, the “communist infiltration” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an “extremist matter” involving the Black Panther Party, which wanted to enlist her, musicians Roberta Flack or Ike and Tina Turner for one of its events giving away free food in Los Angeles.
The file reflects an era when the FBI spied not only on civil rights leaders, political organisers and suspected communists, but also on popular black entertainers involved in civil rights activism such as singer Harry Belafonte and satirist Dick Gregory, who were also under FBI scrutiny.
Franklin was not only an enormously popular performer steeped in civil rights activism, but she also gave voice to the struggle for civil rights and women’s equality, with songs like Respect, Think, People Get Ready, and Young, Gifted And Black.
And Franklin and her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, were both close to King, who was a target of FBI surveillance.
Dr Daphne Brooks, a professor in Yale University’s African American studies department who wrote the liner notes for Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete On Columbia, 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”.
The documents convey the FBI’s deep distrust of Franklin’s support for prominent civil rights groups of the 1960s and early 1970s, as they opposed the war in Vietnam and racial segregation in the United States.
A 1968 memo on “communist infiltration” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference quoted an unnamed “confidential source” who said the leaders of the conference “hate America” and were “pro-communist”.
The file mentions that Franklin performed at the conference’s “freedom banquet” that year in Memphis, Tennessee, where King’s widow Coretta Scott King invoked the year 1776 in speaking about the country’s long history of racial injustice.
In 1972, the FBI heard from a “confidential source abroad” who linked Franklin to Roosevelt Douglas, then a young leader of Dominica’s drive for independence from Britain who would one day serve as prime minister of the Caribbean nation. The file labeled him a “black extremist of international note.”
The file noted that a communist newspaper carried a story about Franklin in 1972, after she and singer Sammy Davis Jr headlined a concert in Los Angeles that raised US$38,000 for the legal defence fund of scholar and communist activist Angela Davis, who was on trial on charges of kidnapping and murder.
Franklin had also offered to post bond for Davis “not because I believe in communism but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people,” she told Jet magazine in 1970. Davis was acquitted in 1972.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on the file.
Franklin’s son, KeCalf Franklin, 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.”
Even as the FBI monitored Franklin’s civil rights activities, the file shows the agency also investigated after she received death threats, harassing phone calls and an extortion letter.
Some of the threats clearly shook Franklin.
In 1974, when an agent went to her New York City home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to speak to her about a letter containing an apparent death threat, Franklin refused to read it, “stating the whole affair scared her and she did not want to know about it or what was contained in the letter”, the file states.
The documents do not indicate that the threats led to any arrests or charges. And the scrutiny of Franklin’s political activities never linked her to criminal activity of any sort.
For instance, after the FBI found a mailing address associated with Franklin in a 1973 review of documents obtained from the Black Liberation Army, an anti-capitalist group that embraced “armed struggle”, it stated: “The significance or association of Franklin to the BLA is not known to this bureau.”
“If you’re not used to FBI files, this stuff is shocking,” said Dr Kenneth O’Reilly, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the author of Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File On Black America, 1960-1972, which argues that the bureau viewed African Americans as second-class citizens with second-class loyalty to the country.
“But if you’re used to reading FBI files, it’s just normal,” he said. “It’s what they did back then: If you were famous they had a file on you, especially if you were African American.” NYTIMES