If you’ve gotten tired of crawling down the YouTube rabbit hole in search of Alex Jones rants and ASMR videos — and who hasn’t? — you can always pay a visit to The Vault. Recently launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it’s a searchable database of some 6,700 declassified documents that includes some of the agency’s most notorious cases. There, you’ll find a treasure trove of downloadable FBI files, herded into 20 categories that range from “Anti-War” and “Civil Rights” to “Public Corruption” and “Popular Culture.”
Keep clicking and you may soon find yourself poring through the FBI files of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, WWII propagandist Tokyo Rose, Beatle John Lennon, KFC founder Harland “Colonel” Sanders, poet Carl Sandburg and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Also, Abbie Hoffman, Adolf Hitler, Jimi Hendrix, Liberace, Bettie Page and Princess Di.
When it comes to artists and entertainers, these investigations will typically fall into one of three categories. They may be illegal threats against the artist. Or copyright infringement on their work. Or, in relatively rare cases, suspected ties to organizations that the agency considers dangerous and subversive.
Aretha Franklin, it turns out, hit the trifecta. The Baptist preacher’s daughter, who would go on to become America’s revered Queen of Soul, was a longtime person of interest for the agency.
Last month, the singer’s FBI files were finally made available to the public, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from Jenn Diaz, a journalist who focuses on “the abuses of alphabet agencies, especially as related to the civil rights movement.” All 270 pages of poorly typed field agent reports, Xeroxed press clippings, outlandish claims and obligatory redactions can be read, as the FBI puts it, “in the privacy of your own home or office.” (Note their use of the word “privacy.”)
Franklin’s file starts off with a rambling handwritten letter sent to her from a stranger who purported to be the artist’s husband. “Dear Arethea [sic],” it begins, “I’m still in charge of you an [sic] everything else that you know about. I may appear to be a farmer or a small town boy too [sic] you, but I’m not to be crossed.”
For Franklin, it was one of many attempts at extortion. Another letter, which politely asked the singer to send a million dollars, was signed “The FBI,” but actually came from a Chicago prison inmate. The agency responded promptly, sending a special agent to inform the prisoner that he was in violation of the “impersonation of an FBI agent” statute.
The FBI agent’s warning fell on deaf ears: “[Redacted] then inquired whether the interviewing agent could prove that [redacted] was not in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At this time [redacted] was admonished that he should never, in any way, use the name of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or attempt to impersonate an FBI agent.”
The file also includes, in sometimes tedious detail, an endless stream of copyright infringement cases, as the agency went about cracking down on bootleg cassette manufacturers and Aretha fan groups who kept posting her songs on their Yahoo message boards.
But the FBI wasn’t always on Franklin’s side. The bureau spent years investigating her social and political affiliations, just as it had white protest singers (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs) and Black jazz musicians (Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday).
The agency closely monitored Franklin’s involvement in the civil rights movement, her support for Angela Davis, and her planned performance at a Martin Luther King memorial alongside Roberta Flack, Sammy Davis Jr. and other artists who the FBI claimed were advancing the “militant Black power concept.”
The agency was particularly obsessed with Aretha Franklin’s involvement in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization founded by King, which had held voter registration drives in Selma, Alabama, and would play a major role in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
“SCLC leadership has taken a ‘hate America’ and ‘pro-communist’ line,” wrote the agency, “which the mass of Negroes will not recognize but which they will blindly follow.”
In some respects, the FBI files say as much about America as they do Aretha, a fact that the agency tacitly acknowledges in a caveat on its website’s opening page: “The content of the files in the Vault encompasses all time periods of Bureau history and do not always reflect the current views, policies, and priorities of the FBI.”
Franklin passed away in 2018, at the age of 76, the same year that Diaz filed her FBI request.
“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience,” said Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, at the time. “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”