Aretha Franklin was monitored by the FBI for her civil rights activities as revealed by a 270-page declassified file. Journalist Jenn Dize requested the document using the Freedom Of Information Act. Franklin’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King and her overall interest in Black politics put her on the FBI’s radar. The agency paid close attention to the concerts she performed for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference where King was the president. The organization had planned a big memorial concert for King after his assassination in 1968 and Franklin was scheduled to perform but they changed plans and opted to have a march to Morehouse.
The singer once talked about paying to get Angela Davis out of jail when the activist/scholar was jailed in an upstate New York prison because she was the owner of the guns Jonathan Jackson used in a California courthouse attack. She also performed at a fundraiser given for Davis in 1972 and this was another affiliation the FBI monitored. The organization linked Franklin to the Coordinating Counsel for the Liberation Of Dominica and they also looked at her communication with the Black Panthers.
The file also has documentation of multiple death threats against Franklin including one she received in 1979 after her father C.L. Franklin had passed. There is information about a lawsuit filed on behalf of Franklin regarding copyright infringement in connection to Yahoo! Groups message board and a participant who sold pirated copies of her music and performances. Franklin was one of several entertainers surveilled under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership of the FBI. Hoover was overzealous about the political actions of famous figures especially Black ones like Dr. King and Franklin because of his well-documented fear of “the rise of a messiah” who could unify Black people. Dize’s discovery is a reminder of the influence artists have and the power of music. Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was adopted early as a civil cights and feminist anthem.