The FBI’s War on Civil Rights Leaders

tags: civil rights, FBI

Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar is Professor of History and the founding Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of "Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and editor of "Civil Rights: Problems in American Civilization" (Houghton Mifflin 2003). His book, "Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap" (University Press of Kansas), was published in fall 2007. His most recent book, "The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts and Letters," an edited volume, was published in 2010 by the Johns Hopkins University Press. 

On March 8, 1971 an anti-war activist group, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania where they discovered a cache of classified documents, many bearing the cryptic code “COINTELPRO.”

They leaked the documents to the press and on March 24, 1971, TheWashington Post ran a cover story on the vast program initiated by the FBI in 1956 to neutralize suspicious persons and organizations. Although initially formed to target the Communist Party U.S.A., it was quickly expanded to include a wide range of groups considered “subversive.” No segment had been as central to COINTELPRO operations as civil rights activists. A wider scope of the FBI’s actions, however, was not known until Congressional hearings five years later. What came to light was exceptionally chilling—seeped in its own racism, without any checks or balances, the FBI devoted more resources to harming the Civil Rights movement than any other task in its purview.

Fourteen years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Dr. T.R.M. Howard founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in Mississippi. An advocate of civil rights, Howard provided resources and assistance for Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old kidnapped and murdered in that state in August 1955. Since Till’s family had received death threats, Howard secured them with a safe haven during the trial. When an all-white jury acquitted two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in September, Howard denounced the verdict and widespread racial oppression and terror. Howard then traveled to other cities, including Montgomery, Alabama, where he spoke at the church of a 26-year-old new pastor, Dr. Martin L. King Jr. on Nov. 27, 1955. Like at other meetings, Howard detailed the great abuses, corruption and indignities regularly experienced by black people. And Howard openly criticized the FBI for doing nothing to protect black citizens in Mississippi. Local newspapers reported on these speeches and FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, incensed, wrote a rare open letter to Howard in 1956 denouncing him. Hoover also opened a file on Howard, putting him and the RCNL under COINTELPRO surveillance, along with communists groups (Howard was, however, virulently anti-communist). The FBI then recruited local black citizens to spy on Howard and others. One of these included Ernest C. Withers, a celebrated photographer of the black freedom movement who was granted access into intimate meetings and gatherings of civil rights leadership. He dutifully reported his observation back to the Bureau, where it developed schemes for disruption.

Hoover despised T.R.M. Howard, but the director’s contempt for the young minister whom Howard met in Montgomery would far surpass the contempt he held for almost any other public figure. Hoover’s special attention to King has been depicted in numerous movies, documentaries, books, and a wide array of articles—journalistic and scholarly. Hoover infamously claimed that the most prominent civil rights leader was the “most notorious liar in the country.” FBI agents were directed to spy on King’s personal life and professional life and disrupt both. Ultimately, the FBI, over the course of more than a decade, collected hundreds of pages of surveillance on King, hours of secret recordings, and a trove of his public work—writings, and speeches alike. It even attempted to tarnish his reputation months after he was assassinated. Under Hoover’s direction, in the months after the 1963 March on Washington and King’s most famous speech, FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan, head of the Intelligence Division, reported to Hoover that effective exploitation of the information gathered on King, “if handled properly, [could] take him off his pedestal… the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction.” 

King was not alone. Every major advocate for black people in the country had been targeted by the Bureau. In fact, there was little differentiation between ideological lines and black leadership. In a meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Hoover said in reference to black nationalist Malcolm X and integrationist King, “we wouldn’t have any problem if we could get those two guys fighting, if we could get them to kill one another off…” ...

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