The legacy of COINTELPRO

Elijah Robinson, Secretary

COINTELPRO, Counterintelligence Program, was a series of covert and illegal activities by the FBI to infiltrate political groups in the 1960s-1970s.

It was known to have begun around 1956. Those targeted by the FBI include Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, the Communist Party of USA, and even the Ku Klux Klan.

FBI tactics included illegal surveillance, harassment, the spread of rumors—all in an attempt to discredit and destabilize these groups and individuals.

The FBI instructed field agents to:

Create a negative public image for target groups

Break down internal organization by creating conflicts

Create dissension between groups

Restrict access to public resources

Restrict the ability to organize protest

Restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities

At the beginning of this program, its target was the Communist Party. The target was then extended to black civil rights leaders, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed they were infiltrated by communists. With the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, the FBI targeted civil rights leaders such as Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levinston and Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, terrorism by white supremacists were not taken as seriously by the FBI. This action comes one year after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, where the FBI devoted little effort to solve this act of terrorism.

After the “I Have A Dream” Speech given at the March on Washington, the FBI bugged his home and hotel rooms as this speech gave King and his message national attention. They recorded conversations and threatened to blackmail him with private recordings detailing his extramarital affairs. In 1964, an anonymous note was sent to King, urging him to commit suicide, or risk being defamed.

The Black Panthers drew strong ire from the FBI. Hoover was afraid of a “black messiah” and said they represented the greatest threat to the country.

Fred Hampton was an infamous victim of this program. Within a short lifespan, he used his voice and charisma to speak out against police violence, classism, and bridged a divide between Black people and White people by appealing to their nearly identical class struggles.

He, among other leaders at the time, organized a Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. Through Hampton’s leadership, he worked with local gangs to cut down on gang violence in the neighborhood.

The chapter also created a breakfast program, feeding hungry children before going to school. This chapter helped spawn a number of civil rights groups such The Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization, the Young Patriots and Students for a Democratic Society. In order to ward off police opposition, the Panthers sold their own newspaper.

As a response, a secret and illegal infiltration campaign was initiated by the FBI. The Chicago Race Matters Squad used “ghetto informants” to cause dissension among the Panthers and similar civil rights groups in the area, through preying on their ideological differences and quarrels.

Hampton and other members were constantly harassed by the police. There was an incident where Hampton was arrested for stealing $71 worth of ice cream, and sentenced to five years in prison, shortly released on bond after three months in prison.

One agent in particular, William O’Neil was instrumental in setting up the brutal murder of Fred Hampton. He gave the floor plans of Hampton’s apartment to the authorities, who would raid Hampton’s apartment.

On December 4, Hampton was drugged, then was shot repeatedly with a machine gun in his bed, and at close range. His bloodied corpse was dragged into the hallway. Soon afterwards, the raiders held a press conference detailing the massacre as being initiated by the Black Panthers.

The Black Panthers’ entire platform was peaceful, with an importance on gun ownership and self defense. A lot of the attention of the FBI and national media gravitated toward the pro-gun aspect of the Black Panthers and stoked fears of a potential uprising.

One agent provocateur, Gary Thomas Rowe, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. As part of the sting, he was among those behind the attack on the Freedom Riders and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.

He took part in the murder of civil rights activist and housewife, Viola Liuzzo. She was murdered in a drive-by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan, among the alleged shooters was Rowe.

In order to cover this up, lies were spread about her being a member of the Communist Party of the USA, being a heroin addict, and leaving her children to have affairs with Black men.

To this day, a disproportionate amount of surveillance is done to left leaning causes and organizations.

This carries over to the disproportionate amount of police brutality and arrests that happens to the members of left leaning causes and organizations. An empirical example would be the treatment of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 vs the 93% of peaceful protesters over the summer of 2020.

With language such as “Black Identity Extremists” created by the FBI as recently as 2017 as a response to criticism over disproportionate police brutality of Black people, the remnants of COINTELPRO are still with us, and resonate with a considerable amount of people.