Spying on the Queen of Soul
For 40 years, the FBI surveilled Aretha Franklin and other Black ‘radicals.’ We got the recently declassified files. @Afeni 🔥 | #FreePalestine 🇵🇸
and me in @Detroit Metro Times
. Important NEW info in this one.
The files, which I obtained in early September after a four-year wait (see our Rolling Stone story), show that the FBI seemed intent on linking Detroit-based Aretha Franklin to ‘militant Black power,’ radicalism, extremism, and racial violence.”
Aretha Franklin was incredibly important to the Civil Rights Movement, which is apparently enough to raise the suspicions of the FBI. Late Congressman John Lewis said, “If it hadn’t been for Aretha…the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings.”
Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis, saying, “Angela Davis must go free…Black people will be free…I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it, and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Angela Davis recently commented on @Afeni 🔥 | #FreePalestine 🇵🇸
and my reporting, saying, “I was shocked [that the FBI surveilled Aretha Franklin]…But I shouldn’t have been.” usatoday.com/story/entertai…
Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home.”
Kef Franklin, Aretha’s youngest son, told us, “So many perceive my mother as an entertainer and overlook her contributions of activism. Over and over throughout her life, my mom used her voice to fight against racism and discrimination.”
Kecalf Franklin and other family members not only have had to endure the FBI’s actions surrounding their matriarch, but are also in an estate dispute held up by legal red tape and politics, which has been particularly distressing. See: justiceforthequeen.com
Aretha Franklin was not the first to be surveilled as a Black artist and supporter of civil rights—Federal Bureau of Narcotics endlessly targeted Billie Holiday for singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about the lynching of Black people in protest against racism and white supremacy.
Through COINTELPRO, the FBI monitored and surveilled Black activists, leftists, and anti-war proponents, infiltrating organizations and civil rights groups and using tactics such as writing a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. urging him to kill himself.
In 1970, the FBI sent a false letter in Detroit as part of a memo titled “COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT” in an attempt to divide interests and allegiances between the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panther Party.
In a now declassified document, the FBI wrote, “Detroit is drafting an anonymous letter incorporating the suggestion of the Chicago office regarding efforts to further expand the rift between the SDS [Students for. Democratic Society] and the Black Panther Party (BPP)…”
The FBI document outlines, “The [fraudulent] letter would purportedly be from a black militant who has become disenchanted with SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and who accuses SDS of using blacks. Since the letter may serve to widen the split, it is being approved.”
The fraudulent FBI letter, written as if it were from a Black member of the Black Panther Party, stated, “Since when do us Blacks have to swallow the dictates of the honky SDS? Doing this only hinders the Party progress in gaining Black control over Black people…” (cont’d)
(Cont’d) “We’ve been fucked over by the white facists pigs and the Man’s control over our destiny … The damn SCS [SDS] is a paper organization with a severe case of diarhea of the mouth which has done nothing but feed us lip service…” (cont’d)
(Cont’d) “They call themselves revolutionaries but look at who they are. Most of them come from well heeled families even by honky standards. They think they’re helping us Blacks but their futile, misguided and above all white efforts only muddy the revolutionary waters” (cont’d)
(Cont’d) “The time has come for an absolute break with any non-Black group and especially those nit-shit SDS and a return to our pursuit of a pure black revolution by Blacks for Blacks.” (End of false FBI letter)
Of the revelations on the FBI’s surveillance of Aretha Franklin, Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU’s National Security Project, said: “It’s shameful but unsurprising that the FBI kept tabs on this legendary Black woman, who was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement…”
The ACLU’s Shamsi continues, “Unfortunately, abuses of this kind still continue today because after 9/11, the Justice Department loosened important safeguards put in place to protect everyone’s rights and privacy.”
ACLU obtained docs showing the FBI was targeting Muslim communities in Detroit, looking for alleged links to terrorist orgs. Last year, they filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dearborn man who was added to the FBI’s “No Fly List” after he refused to become an informant for the agency.
In Aretha Franklin’s FBI file, there is an instance where she received a threatening letter. But the FBI declined to fingerprint the letter and SDNY declined to prosecute. Did the FBI do enough to protect Aretha?
I spoke to a former FBI agent who told me, “For me … if the fingerprints were on file, what harm is it? Send it off to the FBI lab … that’s a little bit suspect to me. I’ll be 100% honest with you. When I read that, my first impression was, well, why didn’t they send it off?”
Abusive surveillance and other tactics used by the FBI are not “old news.” Abuses are still very much happening today and everyone in the US deserves to be aware of it.
In 2019, @Ken Klippenstein
did important reporting via leaked documents on the IRON FIST program and FBI labeling of “Black Identity Extremists.” tyt.com/stories/4vZLCH…
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union and MediaJustice filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to acquire FBI records showcasing the targeting of Black activists — specifically, of what the ACLU has called a “fictitious group of so-called ‘Black Identity Extremists.’”
In 2020, the FBI’s Black Identity Extremists label was changed to “RMVEs [Racially Motivated Violent Extremists].” Specifically, the documents note anger felt by activists and in Black communities due to “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans.”
Of these files and noting their timing, a source now-retired from the FBI tells Metro Times, “I would not be surprised that the reason that Black extremist groups were placed high on the list was an appeasement to the Trump White House.”
Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler said of Franklin, “I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows. Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain…anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”
The FBI found nothing on Aretha Franklin, and the public has been shocked as to the depth of surveillance in the files. Civil rights activist and author Dr. @Cornel West
tells us, “The FBI should be ashamed of its illegal and immoral treatment of the Queen of Soul!”
Aretha Franklin’s son Kecalf reminds us in light of these documents, “[My mother] demonstrated and supported the civil rights movement in her art, on all platforms, monetarily and spiritually … to achieve civil justice for all.”