FBI vs. Aretha Franklin, et al.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been much in the news, and not just for armed arrests of pro-life activists. As Rolling Stone reports, the FBI surveilled singer Aretha Franklin from 1967 all the way until 2007. Franklin’s FBI file runs 270 pages, freighted with phrases such as “black extremists,” “militant black power,” and so forth. Agents were particularly troubled by Franklin’s association with civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in 1968. 

Franklin sang at King’s funeral, and for the FBI, this could have been a “racial situation.” According to documents obtained by Rolling Stone, FBI agents regularly tracked Franklin’s addresses, phone numbers, and activities. The FBI tried to link Franklin with the Black Liberation Army and even searched her contract with Atlantic Records in an attempt to “link Franklin’s business dealings to the Black Panther Party.” 

Kecalf Franklin, Aretha’s son, was unsure if his mother was aware of this FBI targeting. As he told Rolling Stone, “I do know that she had absolutely nothing to hide.” FBI racism doubtless played a role in the targeting of Aretha Franklin. On the other hand, when it came to targeting the innocent, the bureau was an equal-opportunity offender. Consider the case of actress Jean Seberg, born in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1938. 

Of some 18,000 hopefuls, the 17-year-old landed the title role in Otto Preminger’s 1957Saint Joan.”Bonjour Tristesse” followed in 1958 and Seberg’s performance in the 1960Breathless,” with Jean-Paul Belmondo, brought international attention. Seberg landed roles in “Lilith” (1964), “Paint Your Wagon” (1969), “Airport” (1970), and many other films in America and Europe. 

Seberg was hardly the first celebrity to mistake the Black Panthers for a civil-rights organization. In 1969, she hosted a fundraiser with Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Paul Newman on the guest list. That caught the attention of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, who regarded Seberg as “potentially dangerous.” 

According to the Washington Post, the bureau bugged Seberg’s telephone, monitored her bank account, and traced her movements. The FBI funneled information on Seberg to the CIA, U.S. embassies, and the Secret Service. The bureau also targeted the actress with a vicious smear campaign. 

The FBI charged that Seberg was a “promiscuous” and “sex-perverted white actress” and circulated rumors that she was impregnated by a high-ranking member of the Black Panthers.

The New York Times cited a letter from the FBI’s Los Angeles field office requesting Hoover’s permission to publicize the pregnancy to “cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.” 

FBI headquarters granted approval but said, “it would be better to wait approximately two additional months until Seberg’s pregnancy would be obvious to everyone.” Seberg “should be neutralized. Her current pregnancy by [name redacted] while still married affords an opportunity for such effort.”

The father of the baby was Romain Gary, Seberg’s second husband. The baby girl, Nina Hart Gary, was delivered by Cesarean section and died three days later. In 1970, Newsweek published an article about Seberg and her baby “by a black activist she met in California.” Seberg and Gary filed a libel suit and won $10,000. According to Gary, Seberg attempted suicide every year on the anniversary of her child’s death.

In September 1979, the New York Times reported, “Miss Seberg was found . . . in Paris wrapped in a blanket and lying in the back seat of her automobile. She died of an overdose of barbiturates and left a suicide note. She was 40 years old.” Gary blamed his wife’s downward spiral on the FBI, and he was in the best position to know.

It was said of bank robber John Dillinger, slain by the FBI in 1934, that he was crooked but not twisted. It would be hard to find a government official more twisted than J. Edgar Hoover, advancing a story he knew was untrue against an actress who had committed no crime. Had Aretha Franklin been aware of the FBI campaign against her, she too might have entered a downward spiral. 

Letting the Panthers Run Free

Why was the FBI wasting valuable resources tracking someone who was quite obviously not a criminal?” wonders Robert Spencer. In light of the revelations, people have a right to wonder how the FBI performed against actual criminals and “black extremist” groups, often the same people.

The FBI failed to stop Joanne Chesimard of the Black Liberation Army from robbing banks, murdering police officers, and escaping to Cuba. Chesimard is now known as Assata Shakur, the icon of Black Lives Matter. As one-time leftist David Horowitz (author of Radical Son) learned, the Black Panthers were also engaged in the murder business.

I agreed to work with the Panthers,” Horowitz explained in 2015. “I raised over $100,000 and created the Oakland Com­munity Learning Center.” The school provided free meals for children and served as “the party’s show­piece and base of operations throughout the seventies.” As Horowitz later discovered, the school was “a front for a criminal gang attempt­ing to control the illegal traffic of the East Oakland ghetto.”

As Horowitz recalls, “my association with the Panthers terminated in 1974 when they kid­napped and murdered the woman I had engaged to do bookkeeping for the school, Betty Van Patter, a well-known member of the rad­ical community and the mother of three children.”

On January 17, 1975, Van Patter was found in San Francisco Bay, dead from a blow to the head. At that time, Huey Newton had fled to Cuba, and the party’s leader was Elaine Brown, who denied knowing anything about Van Patter’s disappearance and death. Amara Baltar, Van Patter’s daughter, believes her mother was murdered to be silenced. 

“I believe my mother was killed by the Black Panther Party,” Baltar told the East Bay Times. “The truth is, I believe they killed her. I know they killed her. The truth is the most important thing. That is what heals you. There’s that old saying, ‘The truth will set you free’—that’s the truth for sure.”  

In her 1993 book, A Taste of Power, Brown wrote that Van Patter was becoming too nosy about Panther business and that she wasn’t a benefit to the party. “While it was true that I had come to dislike Betty Van Patter,” Brown explained, “I had fired her, not killed her.” Local police, fearful of reprisals, kept their distance. The FBI, which once regarded the Panthers as a major national security threat, never brought charges.

Elaine Brown continued a career as a “prison activist, writer, and singer,” and in 2008, the former Black Panther sought the Green Party nomination for president. That was one year after the FBI stopped spying on Aretha Franklin. Maybe the bureau was more concerned with singers and actresses than murder cases with evidence pointing to the Black Panthers. 

Misplaced Priorities Then and Now

After the Seberg smear, new FBI boss William Webster proclaimed, “the days when the FBI used derogatory information to combat advocates of unpopular causes have long since passed. We are out of that business forever.” According to Webster, “criminal conduct is the key requirement for all domestic investigations of the FBI.” Then and now, the people have cause to wonder.

Terrorism is criminal conduct, of course, but the FBI failed to stop the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and al-Qaeda’s massive attack of September 11, 2001, with 3,000 casualties. The FBI failed to stop domestic terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 (14 dead); the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, with three deaths and more than 200 wounded; San Bernardino, California, in 2015 (14 dead); and Orlando, Florida, in 2016, when Omar Mateen murdered 49 people and wounded more than 50 others.

FBI bosses ran covert operations against candidate and President Donald Trump, but none ever faced criminal charges. The FBI is now the private Stasi and KGB of the Biden junta, treating pro-life protesters like al-Qaeda terrorists. None of this should come as a surprise. FBI headquarters still bears the name of J. Edgar Hoover, who targeted Aretha Franklin and so many others. The singer had nothing to hide, but plenty of artistry for the people until her death in 2018 at the age of 76. 

Franklin is remembered for hits such as “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” but fans should know that the Queen of Soul could hold her own with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. On Aretha’s Jazz,” check out her rendition of “Somewhere,” with Franklin on piano and Phil Woods on alto saxophone. Give a listen to her up-tempo rendition of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and a 2011 live performance of James Moody’s classic. Lady Gaga should not try this at home.

In 1980, when still under FBI surveillance, Franklin hit the big screen in “The Blues Brothers.” When Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) come into her restaurant, she tells the cook, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, “we got two honkies out there dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants. They look like they’re from the CIA or something.”

One wonders what the FBI sleuths thought about that. You can’t be too careful with someone who sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images