Released FBI File Shows Extent of Government Spying on Aretha FranklinHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, civil liberties, FBI, Aretha Franklin, Law Enforcement
Four days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta field office of the F.B.I. directed a memo to a trusted adviser of J. Edgar Hoover, describing plans for a “huge memorial concert” at the Atlanta Braves’ stadium with Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Mahalia Jackson and the Supremes.
The memo, dated April 8, 1968, informed F.B.I. 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 D. DeLoach, a close aide to Hoover, is part of Franklin’s 270-page F.B.I. file, which was released last month, four years after her death in 2018, at age 76.
The file, as previously reported by Rolling Stone, reveals that the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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, 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 F.B.I. spied not only on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, but also on popular Black entertainers involved in civil rights activism like the singer Harry Belafonte and the satirist Dick Gregory, who were also under F.B.I. scrutiny.
“Picking up in 1967 and 1968 through the early 1970s, the F.B.I. was keeping files on almost every major Black figure and particularly anyone who seemed to be, or was suspected of being, involved in civil rights or Black politics,” said Beverly Gage, a professor of history and American studies at Yale and the author of a forthcoming biography, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.”
Hoover, who molded the F.B.I. as director from 1924 to 1972, was also suspicious of the sweeping cultural changes of the 1960s, Professor Gage said, and he viewed “new forms of culture and dress and music as being symptomatic of a national cultural decline.” As a result, Franklin fell “into these very broad categories of suspicion that the F.B.I. was gathering intelligence about on a very widespread scale,” Professor Gage said.
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