Faculty of Arts Department of English
and American Studies English Language and Literature
COINTELPRO: FBI and the American Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A. for his patience and valuable advice. A big thanks goes also to my family
for their relentless moral support.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction 2
1.1. Relevance of the COINTELPRO 3
2. Targets 5
2.1. Black Panther Party 5
2.3. Martin Luther King, Jr. 8
2.4. Black Power – A Brief Commentary 11
3. COINTELPRO 13
3.1. Roots, Goals and Targets 13
3.2. Methods 15
3.3. Exposé and Aftermath 18
4. FBI’s War against the Black Panther Party 20
4.1. Introduction 20
4.2. Operations 21
4.2.1. Coalitions with Other Groups 21
4.2.2. Internal Split 26
4.2.3. Further Methods of Repression 27
5. FBI’s War against Martin Luther King, Jr 29
5.1. Introduction 29
5.2. Neutralize King the Activist/ Discredit King the Man 30
6. Conclusion 36
7. Works Used and Cited 38
8. Appendices 43
9. Resumé 47
The aim of this thesis is to discuss the involvement of the FBI in the African American Civil Rights and Black Power movements on the example of the Bureau’s war against Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party, as the representatives of two sharply conflicting approaches to the struggle for civil and human rights in the postwar United States. Attention will be paid to the rationale for waging such a war in the first place and to the substantiation of FBI’s strategies employed against civil rights and black power leaders and organizations under its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Finally, the question of whether, and if then how and to what extent, the operation was successful in realizing and achieving its desired major objectives, will be addressed.
Even though forty years have elapsed since its termination, FBI’s Counterintelligence remains one of the controversial parts of the modern history of the United States.1 Due to the FBI’s unwillingness to reveal many of its secret documents and scores of intelligence files accumulated on the targets of its operations, COINTELPRO still remains largely shrouded by mystery and provides a fertile soil for growth of various conspiracy theories and radical interpretations of a varying degree of plausibility. Nevertheless, those documents that were published under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) add up to create a rather comprehensive account of more than a decade of a highly evolved secret political operation under which no holds were barred in a systematic war against its numerous targets, two of which I am going to discuss on the following pages.
It is not possible to talk about FBI’s activities against Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party without first providing a certain historical and ideological perspective, on the basis of which the operations can be considered. In the first part of my thesis, I will, therefore, provide background information on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party and discuss ideological, political and organizational differences between King and the BPP’s leadership, as well as differences between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as such. By doing so, I will try to throw a light on what made FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover consider them a significant threat to the US domestic peace and internal security, and partially explain his crusade against King, despite the latter’s nonviolent philosophy.
In the second part I am going to introduce the FBI’s Counterintelligence and illustrate concrete operations which took place under the aegis of COINTELPRO, as well as strategies, techniques and tactics employed by the FBI in order to disrupt, discredit and ultimately neutralize the people and organizations which were deemed subversive. Next, the consequences of these operations will be discussed and a conclusion drawn as to their outcomes. It is the objective of this thesis to find out whether the FBI’s activities constituted a reaction adequate to the purported or real danger posed by The Black Panthers and Martin Luther King, with regard to unlawful and violent methods the Bureau often resorted to.
There are many who believe that, despite its official dissolution in 1971, COINTELPRO is not only an important, if somewhat obscure, part of the American history, but that its mechanisms are still secretly operating in the war against organizations and individuals that stand in opposition to US policies (Churchill). Whether one wants to agree with such opinion or not can be a matter of discussion; the question of government’s role and the authority of law enforcement agencies in suppressing potentially dangerous elements is nevertheless still very topical, even more so in the era of the American War on Terror and the highly controversial Patriot Act. There is ample evidence suggesting, that in a number of cases, tactics not unlike those espoused by COINTELPRO in the 1960s, were used against political groups and activists after its termination.2
A greater public awareness of these issues can, besides significantly molding one’s views on the concept of constitutionally guaranteed rights and civil liberties, be an important step towards realizing the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.” (as cited in Lane)3
Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton as a reaction to police brutality in the ghettoes and as a vanguard of black revolutionary activism. Despite its relatively brief existence, it has become one of the most notorious and controversial organizations in the US history. Viewed by some as a haven for criminals and gangsters, by others as champions of the downtrodden African Americans and true revolutionaries, the Black Panthers are still a source of perplexity and disagreement among scholars and public alike.4
The organization was initially conceived as a radical black nationalist movement, determined to put an end to the exploitation of black communities by white power structures represented by the police force, and to achieve self-determination through complete control over the institutions and means of production in the community. Building on the legacy and philosophy of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams’ book Negroes with Guns, Black Panthers believed that violent resistance and armed struggle were not only justifiable, but necessary in attaining civil rights for the oppressed Black population and for achieving their revolutionary platform (Newton, Revolutionary Suicide). The main points of the Party’s political agenda were later summarized in the Ten-Point Program, which the Black Panthers adopted as their manifesto.5 The points were aimed at both securing what the Party considered to be the basic survival needs - decent housing, full employment and relevant education - as well as more radical demands, such as complete exemption from military duty and immediate freedom for all Black prisoners, whose sentences were believed to be inherently unjust and invalid because they were not tried by a constitutionally guaranteed jury of their peers.
The Panthers established their presence in the community by creating neighborhood patrols, formed to eradicate “police brutality and murder of Black people” (Revolutionary Suicide 117). Using Newton’s intimate knowledge of the legal code and the fact that the Californian legislature officially allowed them to carry unconcealed guns in public, they soon gained notoriety for intimidating police patrols with shotguns, while not actually transgressing the penal code in doing so. The Party’s violent and radical reputation and national notoriety significantly grew after extensive media coverage of their California State Assembly armed protest against the Mulford Act, banning public display of loaded firearms (Alkebulan). A steadily growing number of new members and supporters paradoxically received an important incentive after Newton’s arrest for the shooting of Oakland Police Officer John Frey. The ensuing murder trial and a massive “Free Huey” campaign provided an ideal platform for introducing the Black Panthers’ program to a much wider audience. New chapters were quickly being created all around the country. The campaign was marked by a strong anti-white sentiment and fierce rhetoric with the Black Panther Party Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver threatening to “beat California’s governor Ronald Reagan to death with a marshmallow” (as cited in Hilliard, and Cole 128) and the Party’s Minister of Justice H Rap Brown famously proclaiming: “Huey Newton is our only living revolutionary in this country today...He has paid his dues. He has paid his dues. How many white folks did you kill today?” (as cited in Pearson 152) Newton’s conviction was later overturned. Party’s bold agenda and predisposition for criminal behavior led to routine encounters and shootouts with the police, most of which were followed by large-scale arrests, while some resulted in the deaths of both policemen and the Panthers, including prominent Party members such as Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton (Pearson).
After Newton’s release from prison in 1970, there was an apparent change in the Party’s official orientation - from overt militarism and the established violent image to the so called “community survival programs” and from black nationalism to Huey P. Newton’s concept of “Revolutionary Intercommunalism,” based on the philosophy of an Algerian philosopher Frantz Fanon.6 Their socialist philosophy and primary concern with class rather than racial distinctions allowed the Panthers to form alliances with both black and white radicals and find supporters among influential white personalities.7 The survival programs such as The Breakfast for Children program, clothes and food giveaways, free hospital and a community learning center were, in Newton’s words “designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America” (Revolutionary Suicide 297). The programs probably represented a genuine attempt to create a model of community service and organizing, they, however, also constituted an effort to gain credibility and support necessary for Party’s political aspirations. While the new direction of Panthers’ activity had many supporters, the more radical wing of the Party, advocating guerilla warfare, felt betrayed, which eventually resulted in a split within the party, with Eldridge Cleaver leading the group of dissenters from Algeria, where he had to flee from the authorities. These internal tensions were also successfully fostered and used by the FBI to create conflicts and contribute to the mounting paranoia among the party’s leadership (Alkebulan).
While continuing to run the community survival programs, the organization found itself in a state of growing disintegration. Newton’s behavior was becoming erratic and unpredictable as he got entangled in scandal after scandal. After a murder of a prostitute Kathleen Smith, he jumped the bail and fled to Cuba, where he continued to manage the party’s affairs, even though Elaine Brown assumed his position at home. In Newton’s absence the Panthers were slowly gaining respectability and political influence (Pearson). Their new face was nevertheless shattered, after they became increasingly associated with extortion, beatings and unsolved murder cases. After Newton returned to the US to face the murder charges, his organization continued in the downward spiral, losing most of its credibility when the evidence of Newton’s embezzlement of the free clinic and learning center funds became public (Coleman, and Avery). Largely discredited and decimated, in the beginning of the 80s the Black Panther Party slowly ceased to exist,8 leaving behind a legacy of rampant lawlessness but also unparalleled revolutionary fervor.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely heralded as one of the most influential American Civil Rights leaders and preachers of nonviolence in the 20th century. In 1964 he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, today he is posthumously commemorated on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but also in statues, memorials and street names in most major American cities. During his lifetime, however, he was nevertheless a remarkably controversial figure, revered by many as the pre-eminent leader of the Civil Rights struggle, while criticized by radicals for what they viewed as his integrationist stance and hated by white proponents of the status quo, who on the contrary regarded him as a dangerous radical.
King first achieved national prominence in 1955, when as a young preacher in Montgomery, Alabama he became the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, eventually achieving integration of the city’s bus lines. Thanks to his oratorical prowess, charisma and Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy, he managed to build a large following among blacks as well as garner the necessary white support. In 1957 he became the first president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Carson). As the organization’s leader, King was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, leading his race during peaceful marches, sit-ins and public boycotts in the South, resolutely refusing to encourage violence of any kind. After his visit to India he stated: “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” (King, Jr. 84-92)9
In 1963, King led the extensive Birmingham campaign, aimed to end the city’s discriminatory racial policies and achieve desegregation of public facilities. The protests were carried out in the spirit of nonviolent sit-ins, boycotts and marches but met with a fierce reaction from the city’s police, who did not back from using tear gas, clubs, police dogs and fire hoses in suppressing them. The campaign was nevertheless successful not only in helping to bring down the Jim Crow system in Birmingham but also in sending a signal to the rest of the world about the situation of African Americans in the US (Garrow, Bearing the Cross). In August 1963 King was one of the main organizers and keynote speakers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, attended by more than a quarter million people. It was during this march that King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that has become one of the symbols of the American Civil Rights Movement (Carson). Despite its high attendance, positive publicity and significance as one of the precursors to the 1964 landmark Civil Rights Act, the march was not considered a success by all black activists. There were those, who viewed it as an inaccurate reflection of the American racial situation, a watered-down demonstration of their demands and a false gratification in an era that was calling for a radical change (X, and Hailey). In the eyes of young radicals, King was becoming a symbol of outmoded and inefficient strategies and a tool of the same establishment he was trying to change. These sentiments were deepened and their disbelief towards the power of nonviolence substantiated, after the March from Selma to Montgomery, organized by King, had to be halted because of a ferocious mob backlash and police violence. Campaigns organized in the North did not prove to be very successful either and still more disenchanted people started to question the efficacy of King’s leadership (Carson).
In the last years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. lent his voice to the antiwar and antipoverty movements, strongly opposing American foreign policy with regard to the Vietnam War, and leading the Poor People’s Campaign against government’s insufficient antipoverty policies. This had a negative influence on his relationship with the Johnson administration and prompted J. Edgar Hoover to further intensify his efforts to discredit King and prove his alleged communist ties (Garrow, Bearing the Cross). On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he went in support of black sanitary workers, protesting against unequal wages. James Earl Ray was later convicted as the assassin. The case has since led to questions regarding government’s potential involvement and the possibility of a frame-up; however, not enough compelling evidence supporting such claims has been found (Posner).
Black Power – A Brief Commentary
The term Black Power does not refer to a uniform movement but rather an assortment of groups and organizations, whose philosophy, goals and strategies used to achieve those goals, to a smaller or greater extent correlated. In spite of the revolutionary rhetoric associated with the movement, the Black Power slogan, first used by Stokely Carmichael, served primarily as a call for a black racial and cultural pride as well as for unity in asserting black self-determination and self-sufficiency (Carmichael). While the SCLC and the NAACP were viewed by radicals as seeking integration into the existing society, organizations such as the Nation of Islam, the SNCC and the Black Panther Party believed a complete reconstruction of the system was necessary for a change to come. Views on the means of achieving these objectives, and their exact nature were not only what distinguished the radicals from the strident proponents of nonviolence but also from one another.
Many younger civil rights activists, dissatisfied with the failure of nonviolence to significantly improve the situation of poor African Americans, were becoming increasingly outspoken in their criticisms of the traditional leadership and turning towards more radical philosophies of racial liberation, violent if necessary. Their feelings were also reflected in changing attitudes towards white participation in the movement. People like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael believed that whites should be working for a change within their communities rather than be members of black organizations. Mistrust towards the white race as a whole, and orientation towards the African roots were crystallized in a turn to the philosophies of Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism. On the other hand, drawing from a socialist perspective and seeing a practical need for cooperation with whites, other organizations such as the Black Panther Party, despite their exclusively black membership, were not reluctant to accept support from and form coalitions with white groups.
The aims of Black Nationalism, namely economic, political and cultural independence for the African Americans, have never really been actualized beyond the level of words and political platforms. The Black Panthers’ intercommunalist efforts did not prove to be successful either. From a long-term perspective, the Black Power movement has nevertheless significantly contributed to the cultivation of black racial pride and dignity. It has also become an important source of inspiration for uniquely Afro-American forms of art and culture as well as for future generations of African American activists and politicians. The movement, therefore, was not only an angry antidote to the Civil Rights movement but rather its legitimate offspring that in many ways helped to further its causes.10 3. COINTELPRO
3.1. Roots, Goals and Targets
The Counterintelligence Program was launched in 1956 by the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover as a covert operation aimed at infiltration, surveillance, disruption and neutralization of then growing Communist Party USA (CPUSA) (Glick 11). The operation contributed to the party’s gradual decline and had far-reaching consequences in later years, when allegations of communist ties became one of the primary incentives for targeting groups and individuals considered potentially subversive. The history of the FBI’s (then Bureau of Information) surveillance of communists and their sympathizers began after the WWI when Bureau’s General Intelligence Division formed an extensive network of informants and agents assigned to collect intelligence and infiltrate the CPUSA and the Socialist Party of America (SPA). Although temporarily discontinued in 1924 (Churchill), the program was relatively successful in suppressing radicalism in the US and in laying strategic, methodological and ideological foundations for future FBI’s operations.
Despite its primary focus on the American communists, other groups became objects of BoI’s investigation because of their political orientation, among them Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which was perceived as a “dangerous source of unity among urban blacks and as a great menace to the social order as were Communists and anarchists” (Goldberg 120). This established a model for future counterintelligence operations against Civil Rights leaders and social activists, who, despite having no criminal or violent tendencies, were subjected to the same degree of surveillance and repression as hate groups and militant or violence-prone organizations.
In the 1960s the list of FBI’s targets was further expanded to include other groups and individuals, including groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), white hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the National States’ Rights Party, civil rights and black nationalist organizations, as well as the entire “New Left” (Glick 12). Activities of public figures and groups that vocally supported any such organizations or advocated their causes were closely monitored as well. Even though it is probably the least known of the FBI’s operations, its program against the groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico resulted in more than a million pages of files accumulated over the years on leading activists, extensive infiltration and numerous arrests which were said to possibly have had “a chilling effect on the political opposition in Puerto Rico” (Navarro). Hoover’s efforts to disrupt and discredit the SWP, antiwar organizations and other groups from the “New Left” such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Progressive Labor Movement (PL) were even far more comprehensive, building on successful anti-communist programs from the previous years and the strictly followed premise that the groups “call for the defeat of United States in Vietnam…and do not hesitate to utilize unlawful acts to further their so-called causes” (Chomsky).
Civil rights and black nationalist groups nevertheless quickly got to the center of Bureau’s attention, when in 1967 they became targets of the COINTELPRO’s “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” branch. Organizations such as the Nation of Islam, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Black Panther Party as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Elijah Muhammad and Stokely Carmichael by name, were all considered dangerous because of the influence they yielded over the black population and their potential to stir the masses towards a unified action. The program’s objective was primarily to prevent: “1. the formation of a Black political front, 2. ‘rise of a messiah,’ 3. violence directed at the state, 4. the gaining of movement credibility, 5. and long-range growth of organizations, especially young people” (Grady-Willis 366). In order to do so the FBI launched a program designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” their “activities, leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder” (Blackstock 110). In J. Edgar Hoover’s eyes the threat of violence and disorder was thus intrinsically tied with every organization advocating betterment of the situation the African Americans found themselves in, as any such organization inevitably presented a challenge to the political system and racial situation in the US. To a large extent, the question of criminality became secondary. The Bureau’s role was then not as much to investigate the organizations’ potential for criminal behavior, as to take preemptive steps towards their neutralization, based on the, largely unquestioned, presupposition of existence of such potential.
According to Brian Glick, the FBI, in order to achieve its goals of disruption and neutralization of the targeted organizations and individuals, relied primarily on four main categories of methods: infiltration, psychological warfare from the outside, harassment through the legal system and extralegal force and violence (10). Even though the primary role of intelligence lies in acquiring, analyzing and evaluating information “in the light of a strategic purpose” (Donner 3), FBI’s infiltrators took an active part in undermining and misdirecting their targets from the inside, acting as agents provocateurs. In the case of the CPUSA, the infiltration was reportedly so extensive that by 1965 almost a third of its membership was said to be formed by paid informants and infiltrators (Churchill 5). Probably the best documented case of the FBI’s use of an undercover agent was Gary Thomas Rowe’s successful infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, that contributed, albeit not without a great deal of controversy,11 to stronger persecution of the party’s illegal activities and to its eventual downfall. Undercover agents did not only actively participate on neutralization of the infiltrated groups, they also became instruments of spreading paranoia and confusion. Threat of infiltration helped to foster an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, which was further fueled by FBI’s tactic of “snitch jacketing.”12
Out of the four categories of activities, FBI’s operations undertaken under its psychological warfare from the outside were certainly the most imaginative, often displaying Bureau’s penchant for bizarre and unpredictable methods of subversion. The strategies employed ranged from forged correspondence, anonymous phone calls and derogatory articles in the media, to bogus cartoons, poems,13 leaflets and pamphlets, used to sway public opinion against the targets, sow misinformation, exacerbate conflicts within the organizations and prevent them from forming coalitions with other groups (Glick). In order to function properly, the Counterintelligence needed cooperation of sympathetic media that would serve as channels for spread of derogatory information on the selected targets. Ward Churchill states that FBI agents “had at their disposal an already developed network of some 300 cooperating journalists…all of them prepared to pump out the Bureau line on virtually any topic, including in some cases a willingness to simply sign their names to news stories and opinion pieces written by FBI propaganda specialists” (8). With support from the media, it was not difficult for the FBI to manipulate public opinion, which was used extensively to discredit undesirable political candidates and activists,14 undermine public initiatives or disseminate misleading information. Many activists fell victim to another widespread strategy – personal threats spread by anonymous letters and phone calls. In one such phone call, the caller warned Stokely Carmichael’s mother that a “Black Panther hit squad was en route from California to New York with the purpose of assassinating her son” (Carmichael 674). Efforts were made, prior to the phone call, to circulate rumors that Carmichael was a CIA agent. Wiretaps were installed in the headquarters of organizations and the activists’ houses while their telephones were bugged and under constant FBI surveillance. The information gained was assiduously filed to be later used for extortion or further counterintelligence operations.
One of the most potent weapons in the FBI’s arsenal lied in its close collaboration with local police in arresting individuals whether on substantiated, insignificant or trumped up charges. Not only did the numerous arrests serve to neutralize the persons’ activities, they also presented a significant drain of funds that had to be paid as a bail. In many cases, fabricated evidence and perjured testimony led to revoking an activist’s parole or to wrongful convictions of criminal activity, sometimes leading to severe prison sentences (Glick 53). Allegations of COINTELPRO frame-ups, prosecutorial misconduct and politically motivated trials, on the other hand, also became an oft-used argument of defense teams in cases where factual evidence spoke clearly against the defendant (Horowitz).
However, it was especially FBI’s reliance on extralegal force and violence in suppressing political dissent that made the history of the COINTELPRO so infamous. Many of the operations sanctioned by the FBI involved extortion, burglaries, vandalism, violent assaults, inciting violence, and in several documented cases possibly assassination (Wolf).15 In many cases, violent conflicts between militant groups, rather than being prevented, were provoked and encouraged by the Bureau. An FBI report states that “shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest continue to prevail in the ghetto area…it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program” (as cited in Glick, 60). Other implemented programs included burglaries, warrantless searches and vandalism of “underground press,” Black Panther and SWP offices. According to Morton Halperin “it is known […] that the FBI conducted at least 239 ‘black-bag jobs’ aimed at fifteen domestic groups and over ninety burglaries against the Socialist Workers Party during this time” (114).
3.3. Exposé and Aftermath
The very existence of the COINTELPRO was finally publicly exposed in 1971, after scores of secret counterintelligence files had been stolen from FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania by a group called the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, and promptly forwarded to several news agencies. The aroused public outcry, although not nearly as strong as in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, nevertheless forced J. Edgar Hoover to officially permanently discontinue the counterintelligence operations in 1972 (Chomsky). In the course of the following years, further revelations produced during investigation by the Church Committee16 contributed to a growing public awareness of the full scope and fundamentally criminal nature of the FBI’s clandestine activities.
4. The FBI’s War against the Black Panther Party
The FBI’s Black Nationalist Hate Groups Counterintelligence Program was started in August 1967. Oddly enough, the Black Panther Party, which was just starting to gain both local and national reputation, was not included among the targeted groups until a year later (Grady-Willis 366). The reason for this might have been that the party, given its initially almost solely police-patrolling agenda, was not yet perceived as an organization with a higher political potential or aspirations but rather as another, albeit more political, of gangs or gang-like groups so abundant in poor black ghettoes. However, because of their rapidly gained national notoriety and growing popularity, especially among disenchanted and alienated black urban youth, coupled with their military posturing, incendiary rhetoric and explicitly anti-capitalist philosophy, the Black Panthers soon became one of the FBI’s primary targets. In a 1968 memo, J. Edgar Hoover ordered the initiation of “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP,” which by then he had come to consider “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (Churchill 7).
Dressed in black berets and leather jackets, publicly carrying shotguns and not shying away from the word “revolution,” in the eyes of the police the Black Panthers embodied a very real threat; so real indeed that their neutralization using any means necessary was chosen as the called-for response. The party furthermore personified a politically conscious organization with a considerable popular support among young radicals, which predisposed it not only to be subjected to police repression but also to a large-scale subversion by the COINTELPRO. Unlike the spontaneous eruptions of violence during the 1965 Watts riots,17 the Black Panthers represented a danger of organized, unified “revolutionary” activity. In 1971, Los Angeles Police Department chief Edward Davis informed the investigating Senate committee: “We have revolution on the installment plan. It has been going on for several years. It is going on everyday now” (Austin 92). The party’s militant image and rhetoric, too radical to attract large segments of population and fostered by the media as a signal of “a breakdown of obedience to the laws” (93), also contributed to the mounting fear and opened the door to a fierce repression. How strong the emphasis placed on neutralization of the party really was is clearly evident from the fact that out of 295 documented counterintelligence operations18 initiated against civil rights and black nationalist groups under the COINTELPRO, 223 were aimed at crippling the Black Panthers (Grady-Willis 366).
4.2.1. Coalitions with Other Groups
In the course of its war against the Black Panther Party, every conceivable weapon was employed by the FBI in order to disrupt, misdirect and discredit the organization. According to Huey P Newton’s doctoral dissertation War Against the Panthers, “the FBI engaged in or encouraged a variety of actions intended to cause (and in fact causing) death of BPP members, loss of membership and community support, draining of revenues from the Party, false arrests of members and supporters, and defamatory discrediting of constructive Party programs and leaders” (35). Besides heavy infiltration, close surveillance and efforts to discredit the BPP in the media and to the general public, the greatest care was paid to fostering internal conflicts within the Party and preventing formation of strategic coalitions with other groups. Police repression involving routine arrests, vandalism and violence, whether perpetrated by police or provoked, was commonplace (Churchill).
From its inception, one of the main goals of the FBI’s Counterintelligence was to “prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups,” for it “might be the first step toward a real ‘Mau Mau’ in America, the beginning of a true black revolution” (as cited in Brands 114). In the case of the Black Panthers, the greatest threat was felt from their possible cooperation and coalitions with big urban street gangs, the most looming of which seemed to be their merger with the Chicago-based Blackstone Rangers (Glick 48). Such groups, if successfully politicized, could significantly contribute to the Party’s manpower and influence, and at the same time, this time under the banner of revolutionary struggle, turn its attention against police and white establishment, rather than exploit their communities and engage in self-destructive gang wars. They would thus pose a much greater threat to the maintenance of the fragile domestic law and order.
Another organization coalition with which had to be prevented by all means was the SNCC, a veteran civil rights organization with a much deeper history and political experience than the Black Panthers. When prominent members of the SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman and H. Rap Brown assumed positions of honorary BPP ministers, the coalition of the two groups seemed to be becoming a real possibility (Carmichael 660). The Bureau, however, did not only try to prevent the Panthers from forming coalitions with other organizations; measures were also taken to foster conflicts, create animosity and even instigate violence between the Party and its rival groups, most prominently Maulana Ron Karenga’s Los Angeles-based black nationalist US Organization (Austin).19
In spite of extensive FBI surveillance of both organizations and a massive campaign designed to drive a wedge between them, the intended merger of the BPP and the SNCC, according to Stokely Carmichael, did not come to fruition mostly because of deep ideological and organizational differences between the two parties as well as the inexperience and overly authoritarian nature of the BPP’s leadership.20 Those, on the other hand, were also the weak areas, conflicts in which the Bureau tried to exacerbate until they would, eventually, become irreconcilable. From the most part unbeknownst to the organizations, the Bureau’s secret operations, based on “character assassination, false accusations [and] forging of incriminating letters” (665) did, nevertheless, continue even after their “split.” Anonymous letters were sent and phone calls made by the FBI, accusing one group’s members of making a contract on life of someone from the other. At different times both Newton and Carmichael were accused of being CIA informants (Carmichael).
The Blackstone Rangers (later Black P. Stones) represented an entirely different target than the SNCC. Despite their efforts in community organizing, the group was in essence still primarily a militant street gang with a long record of violence and criminal activity. Furthermore, Fred Hampton, a chairman of the BPP Illinois chapter, hoped that “if the Rangers joined the Panthers, then together they would be able to absorb all the other Chicago gangs” (as cited in Austin 200). His goal was to create a strong multi-racial “Rainbow Coalition.”21 In order to forestall such discussions, the groups’ violent tendencies were encouraged by the Bureau with the help of agent provocateurs and a series of skillfully crafted threatening and derogatory letters, accusing the Panthers of spreading rumors about, and planning to kill the head of the Rangers Jeff Fort, as well as to steal their territory (Newton, War against 47). Regardless of whether the animosity created between the two groups was the result of the Bureau’s activities or not, their relations quickly deteriorated and eventually escalated into a series of violent clashes (Alkebulan 55).
Although many Panthers and Rangers were killed in armed confrontations with the police, the death of Fred Hampton was special in that it became the prime symbol of FBI’s ruthlessness in suppressing its targets. Hampton, a young charismatic leader with a growing national following and an effective community organizer, was instrumental in the discussions with the Chicago gangs. In 1968 an FBI informant William O’Neal successfully infiltrated the Chicago BPP chapter and quickly rose to a position of Fred Hampton’s bodyguard. As traditional strategies to discredit and neutralize Hampton failed, fiercer measures were to be taken (Newton, War against 48). Under the pretext of search for illegally kept weapons, on December 4, 1969, a fourteen-man police squad raided his apartment. O’Neal furnished a detailed floor plan and most probably also drugged Hampton, who was unconscious during the raid. After a brief shoot-out that left him wounded, the paralyzed victim was killed by two police shots in the head. In a follow-up FBI memo, the raid, which left two Panthers dead22 and four others wounded, was called successful (Churchill 29).
Maulana Ron Karenga’s US Organization, a strong cultural black nationalist organization with a considerable following, was the BPP’s primary rival in the Los Angeles area. Hostility created by their territorial disputes was further intensified by strong ideological and political contradictions, which, when fostered by the FBI, led to catastrophic consequences. The Bureau’s “psychological warfare,” in the form of “forged letters, derogatory cartoons and anonymous death threats, […] created the mutual impression that each group wanted to attack the other” (Alkebulan 84). In a memo, sent to the FBI headquarters by an agent it is stated that “although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this over-all situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of unrest is directly attributable to this program” (as cited in Chomsky). The atmosphere thus created led to the 1969 UCLA23 shoot-out, provoked by FBI infiltrators, which resulted in the killing of BPP’s Los Angeles chapter’s leaders Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins by members of the US. The shooting marked a beginning of an open gang warfare, costing lives members of both the Panthers and the US. With the seeds of destruction successfully sown, the FBI could let retribution do its work, while safely continuing to foster the aroused animosities and cripple the organizations.24
4.2.2. Internal Split
After Newton’s return from prison, it was becoming apparent that the BPP was not anymore the ideological and strategic monolith it used to be, and that it was becoming increasingly split into two radically different camps (at least ideologically). Huey Newton, afraid of Eldridge Cleaver’s influence, was critical of the Party’s increasing militarism during his absence, and called for turn towards community survival projects and political activity. Cleaver, directing his supporters from his self-imposed exile in Algeria, espoused underground guerilla warfare and violence as the only way of bringing about the people’s revolution (Churchill). According to Stokely Carmichael, such radicalism and military posturing, besides being naive, was also extremely counter-productive, leading to conflicts, public mistrust and unnecessary negative publicity. (666) The Newton-Hilliard Oakland leadership of the BPP was, on the other hand, under intense criticism for its increasing despotism and centralization as well as their blatant abuse of funds for community projects (Alkebulan 87). When FBI’s infiltrators reported on the aura of growing polarization within the Party, the headquarters initiated an immediate counterintelligence operation, designed to fuel the internal conflicts and create disintegration. A 1968 memo to the head of the FBI intelligence operations William C. Sullivan reads:
…create suspicion amongst the leaders as to each others sources of finances, suspicion concerning their respective spouses and suspicion as to who may be cooperating with law enforcement. In addition, suspicion should be developed as to who may be attempting to gain control of the organization for their own private betterment, as well as suggestions as to the best method of exploiting the foreign visits made by BPP members (as cited in Wolf).
Although the rift was, as Austin puts it, primarily a result of an “impassable ideological gap” (304) between Newton and Cleaver, roots of the fear, mistrust and paranoia that afterwards seized the Party can, to a large extent, be traced to the COINTELPRO. Both the camps, still formally unified, became victims of an intensive campaign carried out under the guise of anonymous threats and letters from a Party member Connie Mathews, who served as an official intermediary between Oakland and Algiers headquarters (Glick 47).
The Bureau’s campaign, originally mostly in the vain of personal attacks and accusations, used the chaos to spread information of each side’s plans to murder the leader of the other faction, or some of his close associates. The situation escalated when during a televised discussion Cleaver criticized Newton for straying away from the revolutionary path, for which he was immediately expelled from the Party. Cleaver reacted by expelling Newton and calling his International Section the only “real” BPP (Newton, War against 42). Satisfied with its role in the Party’s dissolution, the FBI headquarters could comment: “Since the differences between Newton and Cleaver now appear to be irreconcilable, no further counter-intelligence activity in this regard will be undertaken at this time and new targets must be established” (46). The results of the created friction led to deaths of numerous Panthers as both camps tried to reassert their leadership. With the rising tide of violence coupled with Newton’s deep mental problems, his goals of community organizing took a back seat and many Panthers, disillusioned or fearing for their lives started leaving the Party. The massive exodus left the BPP, already losing its public support, decimated and not able to recover (Churchill 34). 4.2.3. Further Methods of Repression
A fact often missing from literature uncritically sympathetic to the Black Panthers is that not all the arrests and confrontations with the police were the results of an FBI conspiracy or police brutality but were in many cases completely substantiated by the Panthers’ actual involvement in a criminal activity.25 Official files nevertheless reveal a
history of large-scale repressive measures, false arrests, frame-ups and unfair trials. Philadelphian police department introduced a strategy that became one of the most effective weapons in the police arsenal. In a war against Malcolm X’s RAM, its members “were arrested on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail” (Grady-Willis 366). This would prove to have a devastating effect of disrupting the organization while draining its funds. Bobby Seale writes that “ninety percent of the charges…were dropped after we bailed the people out. Those kinds of bails and exorbitant ransoms which they put on the brothers were a means they continuously used to deplete our funds” (202). In several cases the FBI’s strategies might have had even much more serious repercussions. In 1972, in the most notorious case of what might be considered a political imprisonment, a high-ranking Party member Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt was found guilty of a first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was reversed 27 years later after it was found that the main witness in the trial was an FBI informant and that wiretaps possibly proving Pratt’s alibi had disappeared from the Bureau’s files (Martin).
Not surprisingly, police operations against the Panthers were widely publicized, which helped to foster the Party’s militant image, largely ignoring its community activities. In an effort to hit the BPP’s deteriorating public support suffering from scandals and negative media coverage, the Bureau unleashed a campaign of bogus leaflets and inflammatory cartoons seemingly produced by the Party. The campaign was pronounced successful in discouraging Panthers’ supporters. Although the impact of any of the implemented counterintelligence measures is hard to estimate, there is no doubt that in the case of the BPP they did if not cause than certainly accelerate its final demise.
5. The FBI’s War against Martin Luther King, Jr.
That Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a communist sympathizer is today largely acknowledged as a fact.26 The same conclusion was also drawn in William C. Sullivan’s August 23, 1963 analysis of communist influence on the American Civil Rights Movement, which, according to Sullivan, showed “a failure of the Communist Party in achieving any significant inroads into the Negro population and the civil rights movement” (“Martin Luther King, Jr.” 116). J. Edgar Hoover, however, was of a sharply different opinion. Compelled by Hoover’s urging and the newly emerging information about alleged communist ties of King’s close associate and advisor Stanley Levison, on October 10, 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader (Garrow, “The FBI and MLK”). What Kennedy yet did not know was that by giving his authorization for the electronic surveillance, he gave the Bureau free hand in its later counterintelligence efforts to discredit and neutralize King both politically and personally. The FBI’s mandate gradually grew from installing wiretaps in the SCLC’s offices to bugging King’s home and hotel rooms and from reporting on Stanley Levison’s possible dangerous influence on King to closely scrutinizing every avenue of King’s private life (Garrow, Bearing the Cross). Every compromising piece of information was to be used to intimidate, demoralize and publicly discredit the man labeled by Sullivan as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security” (as cited in Halperin et al. 77).
5.2. Neutralize King the Activist /
Discredit King the Man
As one of King’s closest friends and associates, young white businessman Stanley Levison was in the beginning of the 1960s also becoming one of the most influential men in the SCLC and was thus in a position to influence the entire American Civil Rights Movement. As the civil rights leader’s advisor he was involved in everything from helping to manage the organization’s finances to crafting King’s speeches. Through the work of the Childs brothers, FBI informants in the CPUSA, the Bureau, however, had monitored his activities since the 1950s, when he had served as an important official and financier of the Communist Party (Garrow, “The FBI and MLK”). In spite of his later avowed complete dissociation from his Communist past and the CPUSA, which he called “irrelevant and ineffective,” (Garrow, Bearing the Cross 235) the FBI did not curtail its surveillance of Levison and continued to warn Attorney Kennedy about his dangerous influence on King. He was suspected from being a communist agent possibly assigned to infiltrate the movement. The Kennedys, seeing the danger such sensitive information could represent not only to King but to the whole pending Civil Rights legislation and especially their own public reputation, tried to persuade King to completely severe his ties with Levison. President Kennedy is heard on a tape saying to his brother: “King is so hot that it’s like Marx coming to the White House.” (as cited in Meroney) As King failed to do as instructed and in spite of his promises continued to secretly communicate with his trusted advisor through an intermediary, Kennedy authorized, albeit reluctantly, electronic surveillance (Garrow, Bearing the Cross).
Beginning with a wiretap on his SCLC office lines, the surveillance was quickly extended to all the organization’s lines in Atlanta and King’s private home phone. As a part of the FBI’s counterintelligence operations the information about possible communist infiltration of the SCLC was also leaked to the media (Churchill, and Vander Wall 352). Even though, as the official FBI documents show, never during the course of its investigation did the Bureau find any evidence of Levison’s further adherence to his communist past, it continued to closely monitor his interactions with King, which provided justification for the continuing electronic surveillance and intensified operations against the SCLC and its leader. Furthermore, misleading allegations of communist influence on King, besides being a frequent subject of FBI’s memos and reports to governmental officials, would periodically resurface in the friendly media. Their frequency was dramatically increased after his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam which triggered a strong backlash and alienated him from the Johnson administration. In a particularly virulent reaction the Life magazine called his antiwar speech “a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi” (as cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross 554). Carl T. Rowan wrote that the speech was a creation of King’s self-importance and communist influence (576). The Bureau welcomed such reactions and reportedly secretly offered to provide further sensitive information about King, fabricated or gained through wiretaps although these, according to the Bureau’s own regulations, could officially be used only to gather “important intelligence or evidence relating to matters connected with national security” (Halperin et al. 77). According to CORE activist James Farmer the disseminated rumors were usually centered around allegations of financial misconduct, communist ties or King’s secret extramarital sexual affairs (Kotz 240).
That overseeing political activities of King’s associates27 was not the only Hoover’s objective in ordering the surveillance was already clearly evident from a 1963 FBI memorandum, which besides briefly voicing the Bureau’s fear of Communist infiltration in the SCLC, according to Assistant General Attorney Burke Marshall, “was a personal attack without evidentiary support on the character, the moral character and person of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it was only peripherally related to anything substantive” (as cited in Halperin et al. 78). The director’s personal, always intense, antipathy towards King was reportedly further inflamed by the latter’s critical remarks regarding Bureau’s insufficient handling of violence perpetrated on the black population and civil rights activists in the South.28 Infuriated Hoover reacted by calling King “the most notorious liar” and “one of the lowest characters in the country” (as cited in Kinzer). According to sociologist Mike Forest Keen, another important aspect that significantly contributed to J. Edgar Hoover’s attitude towards King and the Civil Rights Movement as such was his natural fervent opposition to everything that might have challenged the established status quo in the United States, whether it be racial, social or cultural. Thus, what started as a matter of internal security in many instances gradually evolved into a purely personal crusade that did not end even after King’s death.29
Although Sullivan’s final report originally found no evidence of communist infiltration, his later memo, written in response to the director’s negative reaction, read:
“We greatly regret that the memorandum did not measure up to what the director has the right to expect from our analysis…We are stressing the urgent need for imaginative and aggressive tactics to be utilized through our Counterintelligence Program – these designed to neutralize or disrupt the Party’s activities in the Negro field.” (as cited in Powers) King and the SCLC were thus, paradoxically, to become subjects of the same methods that earlier helped to largely neutralize the party which they were suspected of being infiltrated by.
In December 1963, Bureau officials formulated a six-point strategic program that would provide “a complete analysis of the avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader and developing evidence concerning King’s continued dependence on communists for guidance and direction” (as cited in Brands 113). The program focused on monitoring SCLC employees, funds and main contributors as well as King’s personal activities in order to expose him “as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain” (113). As electronic surveillance was not successful in furnishing the desired information of any financial improprieties, secret communist leanings or political shortcomings but in fact rather contradicted the Bureau’s claims, the FBI had several informants infiltrate the SCLC. Although they did not manage to infiltrate the organization’s leadership, the informants nevertheless provided valuable insider information that was used to sabotage the Poor People’s Campaign and other planned initiatives (Kotz 388).
The agents soon discovered that unlike the other targeted areas, King’s private life offered a lot that could be exploited. The FBI therefore intensified its surveillance of his private phone calls and hotel rooms, using planted microphones in order to gain discrediting evidence of his illicit sexual affairs. The created recordings, which were immediately transcribed, contained sounds of King’s lively drunken parties, controversial remarks and numerous sexual affairs (Garrow, Bearing the Cross 310). In 1965 the FBI embarked on its most distressing operation to destroy King. William Sullivan had his agents prepare a composite tape of the most incriminating passages from the recording of King’s night at Willard Hotel in Washington. He himself then proceeded to write an accompanying anonymous poison pen letter in which he called the addressee among other things “a complete fraud” and “a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile,” (Kotz 247) and threatened to destroy King’s reputation by publicizing the material on the tape. The letter concluded: “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation” (247). The whole package was then sealed and sent to the SCLC headquarters where it was found by unsuspecting Coretta King. It served its purpose well. Such an overt manifestation of FBI’s complete unscrupulousness and power over his life left King devastated. “They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit,” he confided to his friends (Garrow, Bearing the Cross 374).
As he did not succumb to what was an obvious attempt to make him commit suicide, the Bureau used the collected material to blackmail him and try to further defame and discredit his name with the president, media, universities and public. According to Kotz, arrangements were made to prevent King from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and honorary degrees from several universities by supplying the committees with derogatory material (178). Efforts were also made by the FBI to forestall his Vatican meeting with Pope Paul VI. Although in most cases such initiatives were not successful, their outcomes were reflected in King’s growing feelings of personal guilt, distress and fear which accompanied him until his assassination (Garrow, Bearing the Cross 377). In spite of the scope of counterintelligence measures initiated against him, the FBI did not manage to prove King’s embracement of communism or discredit his legacy. The operations merely resulted in lots of wasted resources and one destroyed life.
One of the questions that need to be asked in a critical discussion of the Counterintelligence Program is whether under certain circumstances its methods could be justified or whether the use of such methods simply is not justifiable in a democratic society. Leaving the second option aside and for the sake of argument assuming the first one to be true, it is possible to discuss whether such circumstances were present in the cases of the FBI’s covert operations against the Black Panther Party and Martin Luther King, Jr.
For one to judge the adequacy of the FBI’s reaction to the rapid ascendancy of the Black Panther Party it is necessary to consider the immediate effect the Party’s military posturing and armed patrolling, albeit within the bounds of law, must have had on the police. The situation was further aggravated as it was becoming more and more obvious that the Black Panthers were not merely another black nationalist organization but were more than willing to use their arms and under the flag of revolution engage in occasional open confrontations with the police and in other criminal activities. However, that the FBI’s main goal was not simply to counter the Black Panther Party’s propensity for violence is evident from the fact that, as Ward Churchill points out, in the later years of its existence, the Bureau’s interest in the Party gradually subsided, in spite of the rising rate of murders, beatings and other crimes associated with Huey P. Newton’s squad (37). Furthermore, during the history of the COINTELPRO, the FBI in fact consistently provoked and encouraged internecine violence among the targeted groups.
By breaking the law the Panthers thus merely provided substantiation for the Bureau’s belief in the subversive nature of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that is apparent from its operations against other groups which did not show any criminal tendencies. In other words, it is reasonable to believe the Panthers would be subjected to repressive measures even if they were committed solely to legal community efforts. What the BPP did trigger was the extremity of the measures taken by the FBI towards its neutralization.
In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., in spite of his inclusion on the Black Nationalist Hate Groups list, claims of violent potential would not have any grounding. The Bureau’s attention was therefore concentrated in a different direction, namely on the danger of communist infiltration of the SCLC. Considering Stanley Levison’s past and his influence on King the authorization of electronic surveillance seems to have been justifiable. This, on the other hand, clearly was not the case with its continuation and further intensification as well the Bureau’s later ruthless efforts at character assassination despite no evidence supporting the original claims. The operation points to the danger represented by anti-communist hysteria and overt centralization of power within the FBI. David Cunningham writes that “while he was often prodded […] by William Sullivan, the Bureau’s choice of targets indelibly reflected Hoover’s view on subversiveness in America” (255). The counterintelligence operations initiated against Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplify the FBI’s abuse of power in order to neutralize legitimate political opposition and eradicate any challenge to the status quo regardless of any legal justification.
7. Works Used and Cited
Alkebulan, Paul. Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2008. Print.
Austin, Curtis J. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2008. Print.