The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBIExcerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI. (Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “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 FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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