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The Historically Fraught Relations Between the FBI and Black Activists
Newly uncovered government documents about MLK provide a deeper glimpse into a history that is still unfolding
In late 2017, two news stories emerged on the topic of the FBI and Black political activists. The first story involved just-released government documents from 1968 containing allegations about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ties to communist influences, as well as insinuations about his personal life. The second one focused on a meeting between the Congressional Black Caucus and current FBI Director Christopher Wray about an internal report on “Black Identity Extremists.”
We’ll explore these stories within the historical context of the fraught relationship between the FBI and Black freedom activists, following the thread back to the First World War.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., A Current Analysis”
In fall 2017, the National Archives declassified a slew of previously unreleased government documents associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These files included an unrelated clandestine analysis of King depicting the civil rights leader in a derogatory light with accusations of communist ties and sexual indiscretions.
According to the CNN Wire Service, this 20-page report “makes clear the FBI’s focus on digging up dirt about a man who had become an icon.”
Dated March 12, 1968 – three weeks before King’s assassination – this report alleges the civil rights leader, along with the organization he founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC,) were heavily influenced by the Communist Party USA. Describing him as “a whole-hearted communist,” the document delves into speculations about King’s relationship with lawyer and businessman Stanley Levison, who had worked as a financier for the Communist Party in the 1950s. (See link below for a related blog post.)
For the most part, these allegations are neither true nor new, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Garrow told The Washington Post. However, such findings do underscore what was already known about then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal animosity toward King and illuminate the FBI’s persistent preoccupation with the Communist Party USA.
“The number one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of doing this,” added Garrow, who has studied and written extensively about King, “is just because you see it in a top-secret government document, just because someone had said it to the FBI, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.”
The FBI’s surveillance of King was part of a broader program of surveillance known as COINTELPRO, short for counterintelligence program, one of which targeted Black nationalist groups as well as other civil rights organizations. (These COINTELPRO files on Black nationalist groups can be found in ProQuest History Vault). While the King files and the COINTELPRO files have been declassified for decades, it is not immediately clear why this particular report on King was released later than the others, as part of the larger opening of John F. Kennedy files.
The damage wrought by the FBI’s counterintelligence activity in the 1960s unfolded before the eyes of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee of California. As a student, Lee volunteered with the Black Panther Party, which the FBI aggressively targeted along with the likes of King and SCLC. In a recent statement published by the San Francisco Sun Reporter, Lee said, “For 15 years, at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO harassed and intimidated African Americans who were fighting for social justice.”
When an FBI report on “Black Identity Extremists” was leaked in October 2017, it raised a red flag for Lee and other members of the Congressional Black Congress (CBC), who met with FBI Director Christopher Wray to question him about recent surveillance of Black political activists.
According to The Afro-American Red Star, “law enforcement agencies around the country were sent a document entitled ‘Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers.’” When interviewed by the CBC on this report, Wray assured them “that there was no investigation or targeting of Black political activists by his agency.”
Representative Lee did not seem satisfied by the FBI director’s explanations. In a statement following the meeting, she called the FBI report “COINTELPRO 2.0,” adding:
Let me be clear, Black Identity Extremism does not exist. This misguided term developed by the FBI will only allow local law enforcement to make unsubstantiated accusations against African Americans fighting for justice and equality. This chilling designation has devastating implications for African Americans across the country…Racism and discrimination have no place in our society, especially at the highest levels of government. I will continue to fight against any and all attempts to unjustly target African Americans for exercising their constitutionally-granted rights.
“Final Report on Negro Subversion”
A recent New Yorker article, “A History of Paranoia,” follows the thread between this latest FBI report and one that came out in 1919 summarizing the impact of World War I on African Americans. The document, called “Final Report on Negro Subversion” (available along with related documents from ProQuest History Vault, “portrayed the civil-rights movement as potentially Bolshevik-inspired, and suggested that Black discontent might easily turn into support for Communism.”
The author of the “Final Report,” Major W.H. Loving observed that “young Negros of high intellectual attainments abandoned the beaten path of the older conservative Negro leaders and boldly took up the torch of Communism.” Loving went on to list and describe a list of potentially dangerous organizations, “Radical Negro Publications” and “Individual Agitators and Propagandists” who might influence the “steady growing movement in which Negros are interested.”
One of the names that appears repeatedly in the report is that of A. Philip Randolph, the “forceful and convincing speaker and excellent writer” who co-founded The National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Among Negroes. Loving’s description notes the object of this organization was to “create and develop a spirit of harmony, good will and brotherhood between Black and white workers” – a threatening proposition considering that the group’s advisory board consisted of “radical white labor leaders and prominent Socialists.”
As evidence of the wide-ranging nature of the government’s surveillance of Black political actors, the NAACP (documents available from ProQuest History Vault) also appeared on the list of suspicious groups, notable as well for its biracial make-up: “While organized for the benefit of Negroes…its founders and members are some of the most prominent white men of America.”
While the government deemed groups such as the NAACP and the SCLC dangerous for promoting cooperation and equality between Blacks and whites, the current FBI report focuses on those who, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also questioned by the CBC, “have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity” and “have transformed themselves even into violent activists.” According to the New Yorker, when pressed to provide an example of such an African American organization, Sessions declined to name any.
As the 1919 “Final Report on Negro Subversion” and the COINTELPRO indicate, African Americans found themselves under government surveillance for much of the 20th century. What does this new FBI report in the 21st century tell us about the state of race and relations in America in 2018? How might a researcher compare 1919 to 1968 to 2018? What are the similarities and differences? How has government surveillance changed in that time? How has the fight for civil rights changed over the last 100 years and the last 50 years? These are just some of the questions raised by the newly released King document and the 2017 FBI “Black Identity Extremists” report.
Download the Black Freedom Essays and explore resources on the civil rights movement.
See Dr. King’s thesis, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global
From ProQuest History Vault:
Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records, Folder: 001360-021-0613, Casefile 10218-361: Major W.H. Loving, Final Report on Negro Subversion, with Related Correspondence, 1919
From ProQuest Central:
Bradner, E. (2017, Nov 04). “Secret Martin Luther King Document Included in JFK File Release.” CNN Wire Service.
Cobb, W. (2017, Dec 04). “A History of Paranoia.” The New Yorker, 93, 19.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee Condemns COINTELPRO 2.0, Demands Answers from FBI Director. (2017, Nov 30). Sun Reporter.
Phillips, K. (2017). “In the Latest JFK files: The FBI’s Ugly Analysis on Martin Luther King Jr., Filled with Falsehoods.” Washington: WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.
Wright, J. (2017, Dec). “Black Caucus Quizzes FBI Director on 'Black Identity Extremists'.” Afro - American Red Star.