Just Being Black Was Enough to Get Yourself Spied on by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI
J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on people in many political movements—the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. They also were harassed, sometimes violently.
Until unknown people burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, the night of March 8, 1971, there was only suspicion, not evidence, that the FBI actively worked to suppress dissent. When some of those burglars stepped forward recently and identified themselves for the first time, they were widely praised for having exposed Hoover’s secret FBI, a step that ignited the first national debate on the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society and, along with other developments, led, by 1975, to the first congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies and bureau reforms.
Searching for evidence of whether dissent was being suppressed was William Davidon’s goal. Given the lack of any official oversight of intelligence agencies, the Haverford College physics professor thought burglary would be the only way to get documentary evidence of whether the FBI was repressing activists. Under his leadership, the eight-member Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, the name the burglars gave themselves, found and gave the public abundant evidence that such suppression was taking place.
One of the Media files was a policy statement so brazen that, as some editorial writers stated at the time, it seemed more like what might be found in the files of the Soviet KGB or the East German Stasi rather than in the files of an intelligence or law enforcement agency in a democratic society. In it, FBI agents were urged to “enhance the paranoia……get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The files revealed that even people who expressed mild liberal opposition to the war or support for civil rights in letters to newspaper editors or in correspondence to their congressional representative acquired dossiers that were added to FBI files. Most of these targets came to the FBI’s attention because of ideas they expressed, or ideas informers surmised they held.
But the Media files revealed that African-Americans, Hoover’s largest targeted group, didn’t have to be perceived as having liberal, or even radical or subversive, ideas to merit being spied on. Nor was it necessary for them to engage in violent behavior to become a watched person. Being black was enough.
The Media files revealed directives that required FBI field offices to watch African-Americans wherever they went—in churches, in classrooms, on college campuses, in bars, in restaurants, in bookstores, in their places of employment, in stores, in any social setting, in their neighborhoods and even at the front doors of their homes. Probably few of them realized that the bill collector at their door might be an FBI informer.
In an analysis of the Media files in summer 1971, then–Washington Post reporter William Greider wrote that the files offered “the public and Congress an unprecedented glimpse of how the U.S. government watches its citizens—particularly black citizens.” It conducted such spying, he wrote, in ways that were as unreasonable as it would have been for the bureau to have spied on all lawyers who engaged in politics because, “as everyone knows, some lawyers in politics turn out to be crooks.”
Consider the requirements discovered in the Media files: every agent had to have at least one informer who reported to him regularly on the activities of black people. In Washington, DC, every agent was required to assign six informers to spy on black people. This requirement was so important in the bureau that exemption from it was an elaborate bureaucratic process. Agents in an FBI office in a community where no black people lived were required to “specify by memorandum form 170-6 with a copy for the RA (Resident Agency, what small FBI offices like Media were called) error folder, so that he will not be charged with failure to perform.”
An assignment to build a large network of informers throughout the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia included these recommendations on who should be recruited: men honorably discharged from the armed services and members of veterans organizations; friends, relatives and acquaintances of bureau employees; “employees and owners of businesses in ghetto areas which might include taverns, liquor stores, drug stores, pawn shops, gun ships, barber shops, janitors of apartment buildings, etc.” Bureau officials also suggested that agents establish contact with “persons who frequent ghetto areas on a regular basis such as taxi drivers, salesmen and distributors of newspapers, food and beverages. Installment collectors might also be considered in this regard.”
In other words, at that time, anybody a black person encountered might have been an FBI informer.
The agent in charge of the Philadelphia office wrote in a memorandum that some restaurants and lounges were places where “militant Negroes were known to congregate.”
As Greider noted, the Media files prescribing racial surveillance “sound like instructions for agents being sent to a foreign country.”
The director regarded the need for black informers on campuses as urgent. He required agents to investigate and infiltrate every black student organization at two-year colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities, and to do so without regard for whether there had been disturbances on those campuses. “We must develop network of discreet quality sources in a position to furnish required information,” he wrote. All black students at Swarthmore College were under surveillance. The Black Student Union at Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Pennsylvania, was described in a file as peaceful and loosely knit, a “basically dormant” group. Nevertheless, the bureau concluded it would “open cases” on the leaders of this group that had “possibly as few as a half dozen” members.
When the nature of COINTELPRO—counterintelligence programs Hoover operated since 1956—was revealed in December 1973 on orders of a judge in a lawsuit brought by NBC journalist Carl Stern, the public learned that efforts in these programs to destroy individuals and organizations ranged from crude to cruel. Antiwar activists’ oranges were injected with powerful laxatives. Prostitutes known to have STDs were hired in an effort to entrap leaders of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
But in these, the most vicious of Hoover’s operations, the worst operations seem to have been reserved for black people. For example, a bureau informer provided an apartment diagram that guided a Chicago police shooter to “Fred’s bed” to kill Black Panther Fred Hampton as he slept. In internal documents, the FBI proudly took credit for the killing of Hampton and Mark Clark, another Black Panther, that night. The informer was given a bonus for his role in what the bureau called a successful raid. False testimony by an FBI informer sent Geronimo Pratt, a Los Angeles Black Panther, to prison for twenty-seven years for a murder conviction that was overturned in 1997 by a judge who ruled the bureau had concealed evidence that would have acquitted Pratt.
Surely the most egregious among all the Hoover political operations were the ones conducted against the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Top FBI officials sat in their offices a few blocks from where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, listening to the speech on radios. As 250,000 people on the Washington Mall cherished King’s call for racial justice and racial harmony, FBI officials decided it was the speech of a demagogue who should be toppled by the bureau. The following year, just days before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the bureau sent him tapes intended as blackmail to convince him to commit suicide.
When the head of the bureau’s Racial Intelligence Section, George Moore, testified before the Church Committee, the Senate committee that investigated all intelligence committees in 1975, he was asked if, during the execution of COINTELPRO operations, anybody at the FBI had discussed the operations’ constitutionality or legality. He responded: “No, we never gave it a thought.”
Revelations about the blanket surveillance and extreme treatment of African-Americans by the FBI suggest that African-Americans’ efforts to claim their most basic rights as citizens may have been delayed for decades, in part, by an FBI director who cautioned presidents against supporting their efforts. Their demands for equality, he said, were inspired by communists and, as such, should be ignored.
These injustices against black people and ones against countless other Americans came to light only because eight people, who seemed as ordinary as most next-door neighbors, found extraordinary courage and, willing to risk spending many years in prison, stole FBI files in 1971 that revealed this scandalous situation that had by then existed near the top of the federal government for nearly a half-century.
Read Next: US intelligence agencies have long used scandal and surveillance as tactics of control.