Though Aretha Franklin is remembered as the Queen of Soul, the singer — who died at age 76 in 2018 — was also an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement and used her musical influence to advocate for racial equality in America.
As a result, the FBI tracked her several times throughout her career, primarily in the late ’60s and early ’70s, for her connection to the movement, newly unsealed documents reveal.
The FBI documents — which total 270 pages and also feature information regarding death threats to the singer and copyright infringement cases — highlight Franklin’s many performances at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Dr. Martin Luther King was president.
The shows for the SCLC took place in Atlanta and Memphis between 1967 and 1968 and were labeled as “communist infiltration” events and “a summary of the racial situation in Atlanta, GA” by the FBI. The bureau was concerned that Franklin’s performances at the events “would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance [in] this area,” due to members of the group that “have supported the militant black power concept.”
Other events Franklin was investigated for included a scheduled Black Panther Party performance, which the singer ultimately skipped due to timing issues but was nonetheless included in the documents. “Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, has directed the Los Angeles Black Panther Party to initiate plans for a major rally culminating in free food distribution to the poor black people in Los Angeles,” it reads. “Source also advised that Gwen Goodloe wanted to contact Negro singing stars Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack to possibly assist in the event.”
Elsewhere in the documents, the FBI saw a link between Franklin and the Black Liberation Army after reportedly finding her address in BLA’s organization documents. According to the bureau, the BLA was a “quasi-military group composed of small guerrilla units employing the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare against the established order with a view toward achieving revolutionary change in America.” Due to insufficient evidence, the FBI concluded that Franklin’s association with the BLA could not be determined.
See the court documents in full here.