American Crime Case #42: COINTELPRO—The FBI Targets the Black Freedom Struggle, 1956-1971

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need

 

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THE CRIME

From 1956-1971, the FBI operated a covert, illegal program that targeted the system’s political opponents in the U.S. The program, COINTELPRO (for COunter INTELligence PROgram), was used to infiltrate, harass, disrupt, smear, and murder or destroy individuals and organizations. COINTELPRO targeted the Black civil rights and liberation movements, communists, socialists, nationalist independence movements, the New Left (student radicals, the antiwar movement), and gay rights and environmental activists.

The FBI was one arm of the U.S. government’s repressive apparatus used to crush opposition during the 1960s and early 1970s. COINTELPRO was the main way the agency went after dissidents and organized opposition. It had been developed by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, from several programs that contained secret databases of people Hoover believed were enemies of the U.S. By 1970 these databases contained 26,000 names1 that Ward Churchill said was anyone “who fight(s) for peace and social justice in the United States.”2

This secret program was only discovered in the early 1970s after some activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and released the documents they had obtained.3

COINTELPRO was used against thousands who were exercising their democratic and First Amendment rights—anyone Hoover felt was fighting to bring social and political change: artists, writers, musicians, actors, attorneys, teachers, students, doctors, academics, religious leaders, progressive and political bookstores, political activists and their organizations.

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

Editor’s note: Here Bob Avakian talks about the 1960s.

Between the anti-war protesters and the war planners in the Pentagon; between the Black Panthers and J. Edgar Hoover; between Black, Latino, Asian, and Native peoples on the one side and the government on the other; between the women who rebelled against their “traditional” roles and the rich old men who ruled the country; between the youth who brought forward new music, in the broadest sense, and the preachers who denounced them as disciples of the devil and despoilers of civilization: the battle lines were sharply drawn. And through the course of those tumultuous times, those who were rebelling against the established order and the dominating relations and traditions increasingly found common cause and powerful unity; they increasingly gained—and deserved—the moral as well as political initiative, while the ruling class dug in and lashed out to defend its rule, but increasingly, and very deservedly, lost moral and political authority.

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 5:6

But it was Black people and their movement for equal rights and liberation that Hoover was most aggressively out to crush.

An FBI memo dated March 4, 1968 established the ways COINTELPRO aimed to stop the Black civil rights and liberation struggles:

  • Prevent the COALITION of militant black nationalist groups ... [that] might be the first step toward a real ... [Black revolutionary army] in America, the beginning of a true Black revolution.
  • Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant Black Nationalist movement.
  • Prevent VIOLENCE on the part of Black Nationalist groups... a goal of the Counterintelligence Program to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.
  • Prevent militant Black Nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to three separate segments of the community (Black community, white community/liberals, and Black radicals who follow these groups).
  • A final goal should be to prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth. Specific tactics to prevent these groups from converting young people must be developed.4

COINTELPRO put Black people under surveillance everywhere—their stores, churches, classrooms, libraries, bars and restaurants, and settlement houses. Black students were particularly targeted for surveillance, and informers were sent into every college to watch all activists. At Swarthmore College, every Black student was under surveillance.5

Smearing and Threatening MLK

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) became an FBI target of COINTELPRO starting in 1957. In 1960, the FBI infiltrated King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

By 1964, the FBI feared that King had become a Black “Messiah” and was not only leading the civil rights struggle, but was “pursuing a more fundamental structural agenda for social change.” The “problem of the removal of King (MLK) from the national scene” was put forward in an FBI memo written on December 1, 1964, where the FBI was looking to work with the most conservative civil rights groups to discredit King. When it was revealed that King was going to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI took tapes of wiretaps and hotel bugs they had from King’s conversations and cut them up and put them together in a way that would make it appear that he “had engaged in a series of ‘orgiastic’ trysts with prostitutes.” The FBI sent an anonymous letter to King saying the tapes would be released soon, and hinted suicide was his only way out. The end of the letter stated:

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have 34 days in which to do ... You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

For more than a year after King was assassinated in 1968, the FBI continued their COINTELPRO program to discredit him.6

Fomenting Feuds and Going After Malcolm X

A major tactic of COINTELPRO was to provoke disputes between groups. This was first put forward in a 1966 memo to create a dispute between the Communist Party, USA, and La Cosa Nostra that “would cause disruption of both groups by having each expend their energies, time, and money attacking each other.”7 The attempt to create this dispute did not pan out as planned by Hoover, but it was a COINTELPRO tactic that would be viciously used with more success against the Black liberation movement.

The FBI claimed the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X was a result of the COINTELPRO program to create a feud between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam (NOI). Despite the fact that it remains a question as to whether the bullets that killed Malcolm X came from the NOI or an undercover NYPD cop, a COINTELPRO memo, dated January 22, 1969 states: “Over the years considerable thought has been given, and action taken with Bureau approval, relating to methods through which the NOI could be discredited in the eyes of the general black populace or through which factionalism among the leadership could be created.... Factional disputes have been developed—the most notable being MALCOLM X LITTLE.”8

Targeting the Black Panther Party

In September 1968, Hoover identified the Black Panther Party (BPP), which had grown nationally as the organization that could unite the Black liberation movement. A COINTELPRO memo targeted the BPP: “It is essential that we not only accelerate our investigation of this organization and increase our informants in the organization but we take action under the counterintelligence program to disrupt the group.” The memo called for creating factionalism between people inside and outside the BPP and to paint a picture that some BPP members were cooperating with the cops.

By early 1969, the BPP had grown in all the major cities of the U.S. Their newspaper had a circulation of 250,000. They had built unity with the Peace and Freedom Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So, COINTELPRO set out to destroy the BPP.

On January 9, 1969, John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, BPP leaders in Los Angeles, were gunned down by members of the US Organization (United Slaves) during a meeting at UCLA to discuss forming a Black Studies Department. Their assassinations were a result of COINTELPRO actions against the BPP. In a memo, dated November 25, 1968, Hoover laid out the plan:

In order to fully capitalize upon the BPP and US differences as well as to exploit all avenues of creating further dissension in the ranks of the BPP, recipient offices are instructed to submit imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP.9

The Los Angeles FBI office sent a memo to Hoover stating that they are:

currently preparing an anonymous letter ... which will be sent to the Los Angeles BPP supposedly from a member of the ‘US’ organization in which it will be stated that the youth group of “US” organization is aware of the BPP “contract” to kill RON KARENGA, the leader of “US”, and they, “US” members in retaliation, have made plans to ambush leaders of the BPP in Los Angeles... It is hoped that this counterintelligence measure will result in an “US” and BPP vendetta.10

After Huggins and Carter were assassinated, the FBI offices in Los Angeles and San Diego produced and distributed in the Black community inflammatory cartoons “attributed to both US and the BPP appearing to viciously ridicule each other.” One of them shows Karenga with a list of things to do, with Huggins’ and Carter’s names checked off, and BPP leader Bobby Seale’s name as the next one on the list.11

During 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois BPP in Chicago, was working to build unity between the BPP and several other organizations—the Blackstone Rangers, the Mau Mau, the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and SDS.12 The Chicago COINTELPRO section sent an anonymous letter to Jeff Fort, leader of the Rangers, telling him that Hampton had put out a hit on him. The letter had a significant impact in preventing Hampton from consolidating this city-wide coalition of political organizations, but it failed to do what had happened in Los Angeles to Carter and Huggins.13

The Chicago COINTELPRO section then sent an infiltrator/provocateur, William O’Neal, into the BPP. O’Neal became Hampton’s bodyguard and gave a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment to the FBI and Chicago police. O’Neal then worked out a plan with the CPD for an “arms raid.” The raid was executed on December 4, 1969, when the armed forces of the state shot their way into Hampton’s apartment with shotguns and a .45-caliber machine gun. Hampton was assassinated in his bed and another Panther, Mark Clark, was also murdered. (See American Crime Case #74, “The FBI-Chicago Police Assassination of Fred Hampton,Revolution newspaper, October 31, 2016.)

A week later, on December 11, Chicago COINTELPRO section head Robert Piper took a major share of the credit for this success in a memo to the FBI headquarters stating that the raid could not have occurred without the intelligence information “not available from any other source,” provided by their informer, O’Neal.14

The FBI has admitted that it ran 295 COINTELPRO operations against Black individuals and Black organizations. Of these, 233 were aimed at the Black Panther Party from 1967-1971. The total number of fatalities resulting from these brutal, illegal operations is unknown, as is the number of years spent in prison by innocent people who were railroaded there by the FBI.15

THE CRIMINALS

Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI: Hoover’s main targets were Black people and their organizations. Legal scholar Randall Kennedy said Hoover “viewed protest against white domination as tending toward treason.”16

On June 15, 1969, Hoover declared, “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”; he pledged that 1969 would be the last year of the party’s existence.

In a memo dated September 16, 1970, Hoover said the “purpose of counter-intelligence action is to disrupt [the Black Panther Party] and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge. If facts are present it aids in the success of the proposal but the Bureau feels ... that disruption can be accomplished without facts to back it up.”

The FBI: FBI agents were required to have informants who spied on Black people and infiltrated Black organizations. In Washington, DC, each agent was required to have six Black informants. COINTELPRO in the Black community was so widespread that Betty Medsger suggested that in the Black neighborhoods of Philadelphia “at that time, anybody a Black person encountered might have been an FBI informer.”17

The U.S. Government: Hoover got permission from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to install “limited” wiretaps on MLK’s phones. And other presidents engaged in covert, often illegal spying (whether directly part of COINTELPRO or not). Dwight Eisenhower authorized spying on Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. John Kennedy spied on congressional staffers. Lyndon Johnson ran frequent “name checks” on Barry Goldwater’s staff. Richard Nixon spied on everybody, including members of the Supreme Court and TV journalist Marvin Kalb.18

THE ALIBI

COINTELPRO was a secretive, covert operation that no one outside the FBI was to know about. Therefore, no public rationale was required; in fact it would alert potential targets and damage this whole system’s legitimacy and credibility. When the COINTELPRO documents were released, they exposed the lie the U.S. proclaims that it is “a bastion of democracy,” where people have the right to speak, organize, dissent, and protest.

THE REAL MOTIVE

COINTELPRO’s purpose was summarized in a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to the FBI spelling out how it was to be used against Black people and organizations:

The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder. The activities of all such groups of intelligence interest to the Bureau must be followed on a continuous basis so we will be in a position to promptly take advantage of all opportunities for counterintelligence and inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant. The pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where such publicity will have a neutralizing effect. Efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents must be frustrated. No opportunity should be missed to exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts of the leaderships of the groups and where possible an effort should be made to capitalize upon existing conflicts between competing black nationalist organizations. When an opportunity is apparent to disrupt or neutralize black nationalist, hate-type organizations through the cooperation of established local news media contacts or through such contact with sources available to the Seat of Government [Hoover’s office], in every instance careful attention must be given to the proposal to insure the targeted group is disrupted, ridiculed, or discredited through the publicity and not merely publicized....

You are also cautioned that the nature of this new endeavor is such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the bureau and appropriate within-office security should be afforded to sensitive operations and techniques considered under the program.19

A letter to Revolution/revcom.us, “A Reflection on Piggery—Then and Now,” points to the necessity the rulers of this system faced, especially in the 1960s and early ’70s, which drove them to implement COINTELPRO, whose lessons remain relevant today:

Black people in the U.S. were relentlessly defying the system in many different forms, taking mass political action and outright rebelling—and this won the sympathy and support from literally hundreds of millions of people all over the world. This put the U.S. ruling class on the political defensive and challenged their pose as the “great defenders of people’s rights.” If they had to openly crush this movement, they certainly would; and the hundreds of times that they directly used police, federal agencies, the National Guard and even the Army to go after people proves this. But they much preferred to conceal their role. Why? Because they were really worried about losing their democratic cover in the eyes of the world, as well as losing legitimacy within the U.S. To put it differently: one reason they need to use underhanded programs like COINTELPRO is precisely to keep people blinded to the fact that this democracy that they preach about is essentially a dictatorship of the capitalist-imperialist class.

COINTELPRO did serious damage to the Black liberation movement from 1956-1971, but it did not stop the struggle for Black liberation, as called for by Hoover. The Black Panther Party, the Black liberation movement, and others brought forward many positive, revolutionary things that are important to learn from. Bob Avakian (BA) came forward during this period and worked closely with the BPP. Over the decades since, he has continued to wrestle with and advance the understanding of what he describes as “The pivotal role of the Black national question, the pivotal relation between national liberation and proletarian revolution, in the U.S.,” as a key part of the new communism he has brought forward.

 

Selected Bibliography

Books

Churchill, Ward and Vander Wall, Jim, The COINTELPRO Papers, South End Press, 1990

Friedman, John S., ed., The Secret Histories: An Anthology, Picador, 2005

Jefferies-Jones, Rhodri, We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America, Oxford University Press, 2017

Articles

Churchill, Ward and Vander Wall, Jim, “COINTELPRO, FBI Counterintelligence, Covert Operations, Black Bag Jobs, Church Committee,” The Freedom Archives

Wolf, Paul, “COINTELPRO: The Untold American Stories,” Civil Liberties Defense Center

National Lawyers Guild, “Counterintelligence: A Documentary Look at America’s Secret Police,” Vol 1. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Operations Against: Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Chicano/Mexicano Movements,” 1980, archive.org

How FBI COINTELPRO Targeted Radical Groups: Important Lessons on Political Piggery,” Revolution newspaper, August 20, 2014

The FBI’s Covert Program To Destroy the Black Panther Party,” AssataShakur.com

Denton, Jack, “The FBI’s Long, Alarming History of Investigating Black Musicians,” Pacific Standard magazine, November 22, 2107

Davis, Joshua Clark, “The FBI’s War on Black-Owned Bookstores,” The Atlantic, February 19, 2018

COINTELPRO, Wikipedia

 


1. We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America, Rhodri Jefferies-Jones, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 130.  [back]

2. The COINTELPRO Papers, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, South End Press, Boston, 1990, p. xiv.  [back]

3. On the night of March 8, 1971, when the nation was paying attention to the first heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, eight antiwar protesters burglarized an FBI office in Media, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, taking thousands of documents. The stolen material included the secret case histories of thousands of Americans. Much of it was malicious gossip about things like “sexual deviance and race-mixing,” two of J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite subjects. Betty Medsger of the Washington Post received some of the files, and she was the first to break the story. She noticed a routing slip with the word “COINTELPRO” on it, but did not know what it meant. NBC reporter Carl Stern sought to find out what this word meant, and he obtained more documents under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the full scope of COINTELPRO.  [back]

4. “The FBI Sets Goals for COINTELPRO,” by the American Social History Project—Center for Media and Learning  [back]

5. “When J. Edgar Hoover Lost and Freedom Won,” interview with Betty Medsger by Mark Karlin, Truthout, January 29, 2014.  [back]

6. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 96-101.  [back]

7. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 42-43.  [back]

8. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 102.  [back]

9. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 130.  [back]

10. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 132.  [back]

11. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 131.  [back]

12. The Blackstone Rangers or the Black P. Stone Rangers was a Black street organization. The Young Lords was a Puerto Rican organization. The Young Patriots was a white street organization. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was a radical student organization.  [back]

13. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 135-139.  [back]

14. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 139-141.  [back]

15. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 164.  [back]

16. “J. Edgar Hoover: Racism and Power”, by Frank Schneiger, February 12, 2017.  [back]

17. “Just Being Black Was Enough to Get Yourself Spied on by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI”, by Betty Medsger, The Nation, January 22, 2014.  [back]

18. “Domestic Spying, Blackmail, And Murder: Inside The FBI’s COINTELPRO”, by Richard Stockton, April 18, 2017.  [back]

19. “COINTELPRO Revisited – Spying & Disruption”, www.whatreallyhappened.com. [back]

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