The FBI’s War on Civil Rights Leaders

Steeped in its own racism, without any checks or balances, the FBI devoted more resources to harming the civil rights movement than any other task in its purview.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On March 8, 1971 an anti-war activist group, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania where they discovered a cache of classified documents, many bearing the cryptic code “COINTELPRO.”

They leaked the documents to the press and on March 24, 1971, The Washington Post ran a cover story on the vast program initiated by the FBI in 1956 to neutralize suspicious persons and organizations. Although initially formed to target the Communist Party U.S.A., it was quickly expanded to include a wide range of groups considered “subversive.” No segment had been as central to COINTELPRO operations as civil rights activists. A wider scope of the FBI’s actions, however, was not known until Congressional hearings five years later. What came to light was exceptionally chilling—seeped in its own racism, without any checks or balances, the FBI devoted more resources to harming the Civil Rights movement than any other task in its purview.

Fourteen years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Dr. T.R.M. Howard founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in Mississippi. An advocate of civil rights, Howard provided resources and assistance for Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old kidnapped and murdered in that state in August 1955. Since Till’s family had received death threats, Howard secured them with a safe haven during the trial. When an all-white jury acquitted two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in September, Howard denounced the verdict and widespread racial oppression and terror. Howard then traveled to other cities, including Montgomery, Alabama, where he spoke at the church of a 26-year-old new pastor, Dr. Martin L. King Jr. on Nov. 27, 1955. Like at other meetings, Howard detailed the great abuses, corruption and indignities regularly experienced by black people. And Howard openly criticized the FBI for doing nothing to protect black citizens in Mississippi. Local newspapers reported on these speeches and FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, incensed, wrote a rare open letter to Howard in 1956 denouncing him. Hoover also opened a file on Howard, putting him and the RCNL under COINTELPRO surveillance, along with communists groups (Howard was, however, virulently anti-communist). The FBI then recruited local black citizens to spy on Howard and others. One of these included Ernest C. Withers, a celebrated photographer of the black freedom movement who was granted access into intimate meetings and gatherings of civil rights leadership. He dutifully reported his observation back to the Bureau, where it developed schemes for disruption.

Hoover despised T.R.M. Howard, but the director’s contempt for the young minister whom Howard met in Montgomery would far surpass the contempt he held for almost any other public figure. Hoover’s special attention to King has been depicted in numerous movies, documentaries, books, and a wide array of articles—journalistic and scholarly. Hoover infamously claimed that the most prominent civil rights leader was the “most notorious liar in the country.” FBI agents were directed to spy on King’s personal life and professional life and disrupt both. Ultimately, the FBI, over the course of more than a decade, collected hundreds of pages of surveillance on King, hours of secret recordings, and a trove of his public work—writings, and speeches alike. It even attempted to tarnish his reputation months after he was assassinated. Under Hoover’s direction, in the months after the 1963 March on Washington and King’s most famous speech, FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan, head of the Intelligence Division, reported to Hoover that effective exploitation of the information gathered on King, “if handled properly, [could] take him off his pedestal… the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction.”

King was not alone. Every major advocate for black people in the country had been targeted by the Bureau. In fact, there was little differentiation between ideological lines and black leadership. In a meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Hoover said in reference to black nationalist Malcolm X and integrationist King, “we wouldn’t have any problem if we could get those two guys fighting, if we could get them to kill one another off…”

The campaign against King is best understood as a continuum of government policies that pre-date King by decades. The FBI had been, like other American institutions, inextricably tied to the ideology of white supremacy. In the 1930s, everything from the military to restaurants officially discriminated nationwide. Challenges to that archaic and endemic belief were almost always considered subversive. The predecessor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), targeted the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its leader Marcus Garvey. It also spied on Garvey’s ideological antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the NAACP.

Hoover’s behavior is often viewed as paranoid and even exceptional, but he operated with the full sanction of the wider state. During the civil rights movement, three U.S. presidents: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all supported Hoover’s efforts which were codified to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” targeted organizations. This would be achieved through various and sundry tools, including illegal activities. COINTELPRO used informants, agent provocateurs, infiltrators, legal and illegal wiretaps, break-ins, false correspondence, and “bad-jacketing,” which was the act of making a legitimate member of a group appear to be a collaborator with the state. Psychological warfare included calling the parents of young civil rights activists to inform them that their children had been murdered or kidnapped.

FBI agents worked with journalists to plant stories in order to discredit leadership and organizations. Across the country, the Bureau collaborated with local police to repress targeted groups. Sharing resources and intelligence, activists were arrested, fired from jobs, expelled from schools and lost business contracts. COINTELPRO even used switchboard operators and postal workers to spy on citizens, with or without court order.

Though there was a special interest in civil rights groups, the FBI used its extensive resources to spy on and antagonize a wide range of communities. The Bureau established categories for various targets, which included everything from the anti-war and women’s liberation movements, to socialists, black nationalists, student groups, journalists, intellectuals, non-violent integrations and revolutionary nationalists. They were separated into the “Agitator Index,” the “Rabble Rouser Index,” and the “Security Index.”

After King’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Freedom Movement took a turn toward the more radical permutations of Black Power, and no organization evoked Hoover’s rage and interest more than the Black Panther Party. Five months after the King assassination, Hoover called the Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” In internal memos, he encouraged “hard-hitting” ideas from agents to destroy the Party. The Bureau submitted anti-Panther ghost-written articles to the press, planted false correspondence between the Panthers and other organizations and used a classic “divide and conquer” tactic to foment hostility between the Panthers a black nationalist group, the US Organization, in Los Angeles. This last effort culminated in actual shoot-outs, multiple beatings, at least one bombing, and four Panthers dead in Southern California by 1969. With excitement over the violence, the San Diego FBI office submitted in a report:

“Shootings, beatings, and a, high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.”

Hundreds of Panthers were stopped, harassed and arrested by the police across the country. Hoover explained that the, "purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”

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The effectiveness of COINTELPRO was overwhelming. Many organizations were destabilized with arrests, raids, break-ins, and killings. The most famous raid of the Panthers occurred in December 1969 in Chicago when a 14-man police raiding party killed two Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Several other Panthers were injured in the pre-dawn attack. Nationally, the Panthers insisted that the FBI and local police were involved in a conspiracy to destroy them. Hoover denied it. The magnitude of these coordinated activities, however, were not known until the 1976 congressional hearings.

Analysis of the COINTELPRO documents revealed that the overwhelming majority of targets were not tied to the Soviet Union or any foreign power. They included many non-violent black civil rights groups, but also organizations in other communities, including the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the National Lawyers Guild, and women’s liberation movement groups.

In 1976 the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee," released a detailed report that unveiled the magnitude of the FBI’s actions and the hubris with which it functioned. The Bureau had, “at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered.” In part, it states:

Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that ... the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association….

The special attention to the Black Freedom movement is sobering. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan had files, but were significantly outnumbered by files on civil rights groups. There were only two files for right wing groups. For black nationalists, the Panthers represented 233 of 295, (79 percent) of all operations in that category. The Congressional hearings found that the FBI devoted less than 20 percent of its intelligence efforts to disrupt organized crime or to solve crimes related to bank robberies, murders, rapes and interstate theft. By contrast, more than half of all FBI targets were political organizations. The FBI was less concerned with actual criminal enterprises, like mob families, than with organizations and people who dared attempt to realize rights promised them legally.

Forty years after the Church Committee Hearings, few Americans are as universally celebrated as Dr. Martin L. King Jr. As we enter the King holiday on the last days of the Obama presidency, it is remarkable how many people, across ideological lines, continue to find utility in his wisdom. Conservatives like Sean Hannity and progressives like Melissa Harris Perry quote King alike. Just last year on Jan. 18, 2016, FBI Director James Comey met with journalists, FBI leadership and various government officials at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to honor King’s life and legacy. “Special agents and intelligence analysts now visit the memorial during their training, where they study Dr. King as part of their curriculum.” The memorial, which opened in 2011, “serves as an example of constraint and oversight in the history of the FBI and Dr. King.” J. Edgar Hoover, however, may be turning over in his grave.

In the aftermath of the revelation of these sordid policies, COINTELPRO was officially dismantled, although similar surveillance efforts continue. Comey’s remarks suggest that the FBI views the program as a cautionary tale for forging a more professional agency not marred by such corruptive forces as racism. What is most instructive about this Orwellian tale, however, is the narrative of how one person (in this case Hoover) can be such a powerful force of institutionalized—and national—corruptive activity. With further attention, of course, we see that one person is rarely acting alone.