The official functions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are extensive, but one of their most notable priorities is the protection of civil rights. Ironically, however, the FBI has violated the civil rights of African-Americans on numerous occasions. Here are a few times the FBI backpedaled on its stated mission.
Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI worked to suppress dissent across various social movements including the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. As Hoover’s largest targeted group, African-Americans neither had to exhibit violence nor be perceived as having liberal, radical, or subversive ideas to justify surveillance under Hoover’s FBI. Simply “being Black was enough.”
During the height of the civil rights movement, with a fear in the rise of communism and under the guise of “national security,” FBI agents were directed to surveil African-Americans in churches, classrooms, college campuses, bookstores, places of employment, and especially within Black student organizations.
And, even if Black people were not in the community in which an FBI agent was assigned, the agent would be expected to file a form communicating this or else risk being charged with failure to perform. Just being Black justified surveillance since “Hoover saw the civil rights movement…as presenting the greatest threats to the stability of the American government since the Civil War,”…”these people were enemies of the state.“
The FBI also targeted organizational leadership to stifle the movement’s progress. COINTELPRO (or, the Counterintelligence Program) targeted Black Americans that fought against segregation and racism in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1956 to 1971, COINTELPRO was constructed to spy on and infiltrate Black organizations, with a special focus towards systematically denigrating their leaders.
In 1963, the FBI ramped up its focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with then Assistant Director William Sullivan recommending for “increased coverage of communist influence on the Negro.” The FBI’s “goal in targeting Dr. King was clear: to find ‘avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader,’ [since] the FBI was concerned that he might become a ‘messiah.’” Through bugging hotel rooms as well as photographic and physical observation, the FBI used gained clues in an attempt to “blackmail him into suicide” and break up his marriage.
The FBI also targeted the Black Panther Party, primarily through informants playing dual roles as party members and FBI co-conspirators. “Agents sent anonymous letters encouraging violence between street gangs and the Panthers” which resulted in “the killings of four BPP members and numerous beatings and shootings.”
Working alongside local police departments, the FBI would call for raids and vehicle stops, and also had a hand in the raid and killing of Black Panter Party leader Fred Hampton. Though narrated as a shootout between Panthers and raiding police forces, “a federal investigation [later] showed that only one shot was fired by the Panthers….[and] police fired 82 to 99 shots.”
This surveillance and systematic targeting continue today. An investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California found that police departments used detailed consumer data and social media aggregators to track Black protestors. Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, co-founder of the policy platform Campaign Zero has explained that her surveillance manifested in at least two years worth of phone tapping and being followed home by police after protests. Not to mention, the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception.
The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department have an entangled history with the Black community. Our quest for rights are perceived as a threat to national security; and our attempts to mobilize are threatened by co-conspirators. However, these institutions have demonstrated what their response will be to Black political mobilization. Therefore, let’s be all the more steadfast and informed in our quest towards justice, equality, and empowerment of our community.