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.
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.