The FBI's War Against Black Radicals

Nearly 50 years after it was first exposed, the FBI’s secret counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, continues to inspire fear and suspicion among African American activists regarding the breadth and limits of federal surveillance. As recently as 2017, many Americans were shocked to learn of an anti-terrorist initiative by the FBI to track what it termed Black identity extremists (BIE), speciously tied to Black Lives Matter protests. For some, the revelations conjured concerns about a revival of the 60’s era program which was applied to Civil Rights and Black Power activists with devastating results — even as they failed to dampen Black activism.

The existence of COINTELPRO was first revealed on March 8, 1971, after a break-in at FBI offices in Media, Penn. yielded evidence of a massive government spying campaign aimed at individuals and groups the FBI deemed political subversives. Five years later, the published findings of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities — more popularly known as the Church Committee — exposed the full depth of the FBI’s program.

From 1956 to 1971, the FBI, under the leadership of Director J. Edgar Hoover, waged a secret war against groups and individuals designated as “dangerous” or “subversive” targets. This included an estimated 2,300 discrete covert operations. Although the FBI is authorized to conduct counterintelligence operations to investigate threats posed by hostile foreign intelligence agents operating within the US, the 1976 Senate report found that the Bureau illegally modified these “techniques” in a campaign of sabotage and terror directed at American citizens. Some of the targets of the FBI’s program, like the Ku Klux Klan, clearly warranted scrutiny. The Bureau, however, regularly exceeded its investigatory authority, crossing the line from fact-finding to outright harassment. The FBI also encouraged criminal activity through extensive use of informants and agent provocateurs. As William Sullivan, one of Hoover’s top lieutenants within the Bureau testified, “No holds were barred.”

The racial bigotry of the FBI leadership permeated program operations. This was evident by the organizations and persons most frequently targeted — activists associated with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The FBI’s efforts to discredit Civil Rights leaders such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. undermined any claim officials made on the legitimacy of the program as a lawful investigatory tool.

From 1963 until his assassination in April of 1968, King was the focus of a concentrated operation “to ‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader” and undermine his credibility, the Senate report noted. Wiretaps were deployed in King’s home and office, allegedly to investigate his ties to the Communist Party. Agents also placed listening devices in King’s hotel rooms, to uncover information which the Bureau could use to further embarrass and discredit him.

One of the egregious examples of the Bureau’s efforts to neutralize King was an anonymously mailed copy of a recording which purportedly contained evidence of marital infidelity. The mailing included a letter, which “Dr. King and his advisers interpreted as a threat to release the tape recording unless Dr. King committed suicide,” the Senate report noted. Failing to achieve the desired result, FBI officials offered to share extracts from the tapes with “friendly” news sources in a further attempt to smear King.

King was not the only target of the FBI’s efforts to disrupt Black political protest. In March 1968, Director Hoover issued a directive commanding agents to pursue a number of objectives aimed at undermining civil rights and Black power organizations. Resident agencies were directed to prevent “coalition building” as well as the potential for violence by Black “nationalist type organizations.” Hoover also called for operations aimed at dampening youth interest in both movements. He further commanded field agents to undertake actions to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant Black nationalist movement.”

COINTELPRO documents on Black extremists. (Courtesy of FBI.gov).

An important part of Hoover’s directives included discrediting Black nationalist groups and leaders. Not surprisingly, the Black Panther Party became one of the primary targets, and a veritable army of informants was employed against them. Agents were not beyond encouraging actual violence to disrupt the group’s activities. The San Diego FBI office, for example, orchestrated a rift between the local Black Panther Party and Ron Karenga’s Black Nationalist US Organization through a series of bogus letters containing threats and incendiary drawings. These tactics ultimately resulted in violence claiming the lives of three Black Panthers and one member of US.

The FBI’s program also targeted Black musicians, athletes, and entertainers. Interestingly, the 1971 Media, Penn. break-in took place on the same night as the so-called “Fight of the Century,” when Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Years earlier, the FBI targeted Ali after he had been stripped of his boxing title for refusing induction into the Army. As Ali appealed his conviction for draft evasion in 1968, he discovered that he could skirt the boxing ban by arranging a fight on federally controlled territory. Ali’s camp quickly made plans for a fight on the Pima Indians Gila River Reservation in Arizona. The tribal council offered their tacit blessing with Ali’s unsolicited promise that a portion of the proceeds would support tribal youth programs.

When news of the planned fight surfaced in September 1968, the FBI took immediate action. A subsequent COINTELPRO memo dated October 10, 1968 documented the Bureau’s successful effort to stop the match through a meeting arranged by a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a representative of the Gila River Reservation Tribal Council and the FBI Phoenix Office. During that meeting, the special agent in charge advised the tribal representative that allowing Ali to fight on tribal lands would disgrace the memory of all the tribe’s sons who served in the military.

The following day, the tribal council voted to cancel the fight. They explained to reporters that they did not want to appear to condone or be in “sympathy with militant groups such as the Black Muslims” nor did they want to “desecrate the land so many of our brave boys in the military had walked on.”

While the FBI’s efforts ultimately did not deter Black political organizing and protest — though it did have a chilling effect in some quarters, sowing the seeds of fear and mistrust among organizations that sometimes resulted in bloodshed — organizing and activism continued. The lessons from COINTELPRO remain pertinent for a new generation of activists. While the culture of racism, paranoia, and unchecked police power that set the stage for earlier abuses still exists, present-day activists have at least one key advantage: a blueprint for better communication and vigilance.

Today, state and federal law enforcement agencies have far more sophisticated tools at the disposal for disruption, so activists should assume that surveillance is the bare minimum, and that vigilance and heightened scrutiny in response to spurious government interest is normative. As revelations such as the 2017 FBI Black identity extremist document release make clear, Black activists are still under scrutiny and targets of pointed surveillance. Finding ways to recognize and navigate these concerns remain paramount, particularly when the thinnest of legal or investigatory matters can pave the way for massive violations of civil liberties, or much worse.


About the Author

Yohuru Williams is a Professor of history and Dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He is a noted scholar of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movement. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven; Teaching Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies; and Liberated Territory: Toward a Local History of the Black Panther Party.