COINTELPRO targeted Black activists throughout history. How does it impact Black Lives Matter today?

COINTELPRO Black Activists
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
Image Source: AAIHS

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COINTELPRO, a shortening of “Counter Intelligence Program,” was a series of covert and illegal initiatives by the FBI designed to disrupt and discredit significant movements in the 1960s. Although it was initially focused on Communism in the U.S., it quickly began to target any movement related to equity and social justice. But one of its main goals was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists” (PBS). Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, this group either directly or indirectly caused the death and incarceration of major civil rights leaders.

Most of its focus was on dismantling the Black Panther Party, which Hoover saw as “the greatest threat to the country’” (Berkeley). Some of their actions were direct: they often organized raids with local law enforcement to kill or displace members. One of these resulted in Fred Hampton’s death, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1969, Fourteen plainclothes police officers raided the apartment building where Black Panther members and their families lay sleeping, firing over 90 times from pistols, shotguns, and a machine gun (History). Hampton and chapter member Mark Clark were killed, and four others were physically injured during the raid.

But they also created lies and deceit to influence the actions of leaders and those around them. To disarm the Black Panther Party, they seeded false information to create rifts between BPP leaders (most notably, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton) and create dissent between the BPP and Black nationalist groups. They also drove the actress Jean Seberg, who financially supported the BPP, to die by suicide. They leaked a fake letter to the press insinuating that she was pregnant not by her husband but a high-ranking official of the Black Panther Party (NYTimes). The stress of this controversy caused Seberg to go into labor early, ultimately losing her child. She ultimately died by suicide.

COINTELPRO targeted many other notable civil rights leaders. Their actions led to the assassination of Malcolm X and drove Assata Shakur out of the country. It spied on famed boxer Muhammad Ali and his relationship with the Nation of Islam for years. Through COINTELPRO, the FBI collected a 1,884-page file about the author and activist James Baldwin.

The COINTELPRO program was disbanded after a group of activists exposed them – with proof. On March 8, 1971, four people broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole classified documents outlining the program. The group chose this night specifically; it was the night of the “Fight of the Century,” the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and they knew people would likely be out of office. They seized over 1,000 documents and promptly mailed them anonymously to newspapers across the country (Zinn Education Project). Betty Medsger is reportedly the first person to break teh story at the Washington Post, and you can read more about her experience here. The burglars’ identities remained a secret until 2014 when three of them joined Medsger in an interview with Democracy Now!

This exposure helped to contextualize the loss of great figures, and, in some cases, encourage the families of victims to speak out. One case was after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated, shot while standing on his hotel room’s balcony. The suspect, James Earl Ray, was arrested a couple of months later. Ray confessed and pled guilty to the murder. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison (Stanford).

But days later, he recanted his confession and said he was coerced by law enforcement (Washington Post). This information, paired with the exposure of COINTELPRO in the early ’70s, led the family of Dr. King to be suspicious of the circumstances of his death. Because COINTELPRO had, of course, been actively surveilling Dr. King, too. Since 1963, the bureau regularly wiretapped King’s home, offices, and hotel rooms. They also sent him a tape of a recording of his sex life, along with a blackmail note threatening to expose him publicly unless he killed himself (NYTimes). Other civil rights leaders who surrounded Dr. King, like Bayard Rustin. More extensive records of surveillance of Dr. King, including FBI investigations of his death, will be released to the public in 2027.

In 1993, another man admitted he was part of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King (History). These claims led the King family to sue for wrongful death for a symbolic $100, as the case was solely about seeking justice. The case, Coretta Scott King v. Loyd Jowers, found that Dr. King was the victim of a conspiracy involving the Memphis police and federal agencies. This was a civil, not criminal case, so no one was charged, nor was the federal government on trial. The Department of Justice subsequently rejected the trial results, and the allegations included (DOJ). Regardless, the family is still adamant about the conspiracy (The Grio).

There is abundant evidence of a major high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury, and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations.

Coretta Scott King, The Transcription of the King Family Press Conference on the MLK Assassination Trial Verdict, The King Center

It’s important to remember that COINTELPRO wasn’t the start of violence against civil rights leaders but a more formalized approach to a long history of these kinds of tactics. Much of this work also happened under the War on Drugs led by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (established by Hoover, led by Harry Anslinger). The famed artist Billie Holiday was hounded by law enforcement throughout her life, which ultimately led to her death (28 Days of Black History).

And surveillance continues on civil rights movements to this day. In 2015, it was revealed that the Oregon Department of Justice was conducting digital surveillance on state residents that used the Black Lives Matter hashtag online (Oregon Live). And as protests unfolded across the U.S. last summer, there were a series of reports of law enforcement agencies deploying advanced surveillance technology, including facial recognition, aerial surveillance, and cellular phone exploitation (EFF). More gravely, six activists in the Ferguson, Missouri, community have been found dead in the four years since Michael Brown was killed (CBS News).

Many educational textbooks skip COINTELPRO altogether, which means that many people don’t have this context when they read about the importance of securing our identity in this technologically advanced, connected age. But we can’t forget about the past as we fight to protect our future. COINTELPRO might seem long in the past, but its influence is still causing harm today.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • COINTELPRO was a series of covert and illegal initiatives by the FBI designed to disrupt and discredit significant movements in the 1960s

  • It is directly responsible for the death, exile, deportation, etc of prominent civil rights leaders of the 1960s

  • The family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are adamant that the FBI conspired in his death

  • Surveillance still continues of the current Black Lives Matter movement

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