The FBI Closely Tracked Aretha Franklin's Appearances at Civil Rights Events

The FBI used a network of snitches to spy on entertainers and activists, and the Queen of Soul was no exception.


The FBI kept close tabs on R&B legend Aretha Franklin and her activity in the civil rights movement, newly released Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records show.

The 270 pages of declassified FBI memos, released on the bureau website's FOIA vault, include a series of reports on the "communist infiltration" of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose first president was Martin Luther King Jr. The bureau said SCLC leadership "has taken a 'hate America' and a 'pro-communist' line, which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but which they will blindly follow." 

Franklin makes cameos in those records because she sang at several SCLC events between 1967 and 1968. One report on King's 1968 assassination notes that Franklin was booked to play a memorial concert for King at Atlanta Stadium, which a source warned could "provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance this area." The SCLC ultimately scrapped plans for the concert.

The FBI carefully followed Franklin's other appearances, planned appearances, and contacts with leftist groups or causes, such as the Boston branch of the Young Workers Liberation League, the Black Panther Party, and fundraisers for black radical Angela Davis.

The FBI's close attention to Franklin was not unusual. In fact, the Queen of Soul is in good company. During the 1960s and '70s, the FBI tracked the comings and goings of many artists, musicians, academics, and authors, especially black celebrities and leaders.

The FBI's paranoia even extended to comedians. FOIA records I recently received showed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought stand-up comedian Mort Sahl was a "very sick man" and that the feds kept close tabs on Sahl's jokes about them, believing that he and like-minded comedian Lenny Bruce were receiving material from "communistic" sources. (The FBI obsessively investigated any public comments impugning its good reputation, even as it went about illegally burgling and wiretapping Hoover's political enemies.)

You never know who's going to pop up in the bureau's vault. In 2017, Reason obtained FBI files on Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax that described the arch-nerd as "eccentric and frightening," a drug user who carried firearms, a proud pen pal to prison inmates, and "known to be member of the Libertarian Party."

In the latest issue of Reason magazine, you can read about how the FBI is still abusing its power to investigate would-be radicals for their speech.