Four years ago, after Aretha Franklin passed away at 76, reporter Jen Dize submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to unseal the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s file on the late soul queen. The contents of the 270-page file were finally published late morning in a report by Dize on her investigative journalism substack, Courage News. (Dize had posted what she felt were the most relevant documents hours earlier in a Twitter thread.) They detail a complicated relationship between the Bureau and the legendary singer that found them acting as her harasser, protector, and legal advocate at different points in her life.
Early on in Franklin’s career, the FBI kept tabs on her friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr. and, later, Angela Davis. The newly unsealed file refers her 1967 and 1968 performances at Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference meetings as “communist infiltration” events. It also mentions her involvement in a memorial show in honor of Dr. King alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and others. “Of this group, some have supported militant Black power concept,” a Bureau source warned. “[The concert] would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance in this area.” A similar note was made on her performance at a fundraiser for the Angela Davis Legal Defense Fund.
Throughout the early and mid ’70s, the Bureau seemingly remained obsessed with connecting Franklin to “militant” groups, including the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, and the Coordinating Council for the Liberation of Dominica, which the file refers to as “a black extremist group bent on disturbing the tranquility of the Island of Dominica.”
“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,” one filing reads, referring to an event that was ultimately cancelled due to scheduling issues. “Source also advised that Gwen Goodloe wanted to contact Negro singing stars Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack to possibly assist in the event.”
During that same decade, the FBI documented three threats to Franklin’s life: an extortion attempt by an inmate in Illinois impersonating a Bureau officer, a tip from stranger implying she was on a “hit list,” and an intimidation campaign by an individual who harassed her by phone and mail with direct death threats.
The lion’s share of the file, however — nearly the last two thirds of the document — are dedicated to an entirely different matter. In 2005, attorneys for Franklin reached out to the Bureau requesting their aid in locating the moderator of a Yahoo! message board that claimed to be “the unofficial biggest Aretha Franklin fan site.” Franklin and her lawyers were pursuing a copyright infringement case against the mod, who was allegedly selling pirated audio and video footage of her concerts. Included in the excruciatingly detailed correspondences are step-by-step instructions for joining the fan group, ostensibly as a means to infiltrate the criminal conspiracy.