Why We Should Teach About the FBI’s War on the Civil Rights Movement
by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Ursula Wolfe-Rocca has taught high school social studies since 2000. She is on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools and was the Zinn Education Project Organizer/Curriculum Writer for the 2018-2019 school year. (Originally published on March 1, 2016 by The Zinn Education Project)
[Suppressing the History of FBI violations of the Constitution Can Facilitate What Edward Snowden called “Turnkey Tyranny,” and It’s Almost Too Late
(Ray’s adds a few comments after the following text of Wolfe-Rocca’s excellent article.)]
Why We Should Teach About the FBI’s War on the Civil Rights Movement
This month marks the 45th anniversary of a dramatic moment in U.S. history. On March 8, 1971—while Muhammad Ali was fighting Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, and as millions sat glued to their TVs watching the bout unfold—a group of peace activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every document they could find.
Keith Forsyth, one of the people who broke in, explained on Democracy Now!:
I was spending as much time as I could with organizing against the war, but I had become very frustrated with legal protest. The war was escalating and not de-escalating. And I think what really pushed me over the edge was, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia, there were four students killed at Kent State and two more killed at Jackson State. And that really pushed me over the edge, that it was time to do more than just protest.
Delivered to the press, these documents revealed an FBI conspiracy—known as COINTELPRO—to disrupt and destroy a wide range of protest groups, including the Black freedom movement. The break-in, and the government treachery it revealed, is a chapter of our not-so-distant past that all high school students—and all the rest of us—should learn, yet one that history textbooks continue to ignore.
In recent years, current events discussions in my high school history and government classes have been dominated by names that have piled up with sickening frequency: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. In looking at the Black Lives Matter movement as a response to these injustices, my class came across a 2015 Oregonian article, “Black Lives Matter: Oregon Justice Department Searched Social Media Hashtags.” The article detailed the department’s digital surveillance of people solely on the basis of their use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
My students debated whether tying #BlackLivesMatter to potential threats to police (the premise of the surveillance program) was justifiable. Most thought it was not. But what the Oregonian did not note in the article, and what my students had no way of knowing, was the history of this story—the ugly, often illegal, treatment of Black activists by the U.S. justice system during the COINTELPRO era.
My students had little way of knowing about this story behind the story because mainstream textbooks almost entirely ignore COINTELPRO. Though COINTELPRO offers teachers a trove of opportunities to illustrate key concepts, including the rule of law, civil liberties, social protest, and due process, it is completely absent from my school’s government book, Magruder’s American Government (Pearson).
For U.S. history teachers investigating Black activism of the 1950s and 1960s, one district textbook is American Odyssey (McGraw Hill). In a section titled “The Movement Appraised,” the book sums up the end of the Civil Rights Movement:
Without strong leadership in the years following King’s death, the civil rights movement floundered. Middle-class Americans, both African American and white, tired of the violence and the struggle. The war in Vietnam and crime in the streets at home became the new issue at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
Here we find a slew of problematic assertions about the era, plus a notable absence. Nowhere does American Odyssey indicate that, in addition to King’s death and Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement also had to contend with a declaration of war made against it by its own government.
American Odyssey is not alone in its omission. American Journey (Pearson), another textbook used in my school, similarly makes no mention of the program.
The only textbook in my district to mention COINTELPRO is America: A Concise History (St. Martin’s), a college-level, Advanced Placement history text. Limited to a single sentence, its summary and analysis is wholly incomplete: “In the late 1960s SDS and other antiwar groups fell victim to police harassment, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and CIA agents infiltrated and disrupted radical organizations.”
Why do textbook writers and publishers leave out this crucial episode in U.S. history? Perhaps they take their cues from the FBI itself. According to the FBI website:
The FBI began COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program—in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party. All COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971. Although limited in scope (about two-tenths of 1 percent of the FBI’s workload over a 15-year period), COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights and for other reasons.
Apparently, mainstream textbooks have accepted—hook, line, and sinker—the FBI’s whitewash of COINTELPRO as “limited in scope” and applying to only a few organizations. But COINTELPRO was neither “limited in scope” nor applied only to the organizations listed in the FBI’s description.
Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover describes the goal of one arm of COINTELPRO—against the Black liberation movement—in a now-declassified 1967 document:
The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.
The plan to “neutralize” Black activists included legal harassment, intimidation, wiretapping, infiltration, smear campaigns, and blackmail, and resulted in countless prison sentences and, in the case of Black Panther Fred Hampton *** and others, murder. This scope of operations can hardly be described as “limited.” Moreover, these tactics were employed not just against every national civil rights organization, but also against the antiwar movement (particularly on college campuses), Students for a Democratic Society, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and others.
One way to appreciate the wide net cast by COINTELPRO is to look at the final report of the Church Committee. In the early 1970s, following a number of allegations in the press about over-reaching government intelligence operations, a Senate committee chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho began an investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies. Their 1976 report states: “The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau [FBI] has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order.”
In other words, anyone who challenged the status quo of racism, militarism, and capitalism in American society was fair game for surveillance and harassment. Rather than “limited,” the FBI’s scope potentially included all social and political activists, an alarming and outrageous revelation in a country purportedly governed by the protections of speech and assembly in the First Amendment.
Luckily, we do not need to rely on corporate textbook publishers and the FBI for our resources and curriculum. Thanks to the Media burglars ******, and their suitcases full of stolen documents, we now have access to memos from this FBI program of destruction. In my curriculum, I have pulled together documents from the FBI’s website and from the book The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, edited by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.
These documents reveal the FBI’s attempts to infiltrate and disrupt the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and others; they reveal an attempt to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. using illegally acquired recordings of purported marital infidelities, and a suggestion that he commit suicide. They reveal campaigns of misinformation, where FBI agents planted lies in newspaper and magazine coverage of activists.
I also use the fabulous episode “A Nation of Law?” from the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which details COINTELPRO’s 1969 murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago. Hampton—a leader of Chicago’s Black Panther Party—was a young and inspiring advocate of Black liberation attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” of groups across racial lines. After months of official harassment, he was shot and killed during an FBI-sponsored police raid on his home as he slept in his bed. He was 21 years old.
Together, these resources provide students an opportunity to understand the government-sponsored war against Black activists. And though the COINTELPRO documents have long been public, it is a story that history textbooks continue to ignore, leaving students to swallow the false assertion of books like American Odyssey that the movement simply “floundered” after King’s death.
Textbook publishers’ disregard for the history of COINTELPRO is one more example of the crucial importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that lays bare the systemic dangers faced by Black people in America while simultaneously affirming and celebrating Black life. What I attempt in my classroom is a Black Lives Matter treatment of COINTELPRO, where we reveal the injustice of the program while affirming and celebrating the promise of the activists it sought to silence.
Just as Black Lives Matter activists use video footage to convince a wider public of what African Americans have long known about police brutality, teachers can use our classrooms to shine a light on history that has long been available, but systematically ignored, by our textbooks. We need a curriculum that emphatically communicates: Black history matters.
Hat’s off to the Zinn Education Project!
© 2016 The Zinn Education Project
*** Fred Hampton: Please mark December 4, 2019 on your calendar — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton. Civil rights attorney Jeffrey Haas, a friend of Ray’s, “has written the book” on this: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.
Haas knows; he was there at the outset, and doggedly pursued the case. Here is a short blurb:
It’s around 7:00 a.m. on December 4, 1969, and attorney Jeff Haas is in a police lockup in Chicago, interviewing Fred Hampton’s fiancée. She is describing how the police pulled her from the room as Fred lay unconscious on their bed. She heard one officer say, “He’s still alive.” She then heard two shots. A second officer said, “He’s good and dead now.” She looks at Jeff and asks, “What can you do?” The Assassination of Fred Hampton is Haas’s personal account of how he and People’s Law Office partner Flint Taylor pursued Hampton’s assassins, ultimately prevailing over unlimited government resources and FBI conspiracy.
Order Jeff’s book for your local high school library. And here are two documentary films you might also recommend:
****** Media burglars: An exceptionally powerful resource is a film named “1971” by Johanna Hamilton, which is available via Netflix and in other outlets. Here’s one review:“An extraordinary film about one of the most important acts of civil disobedience in modern American history. “1971” offers much-needed historical context for understanding the urgent issues of surveillance and dissent in the United States.” – Professor Beverly Gage, Historian at Yale University
What follows is a short description of what the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” succeeded in doing 48 years ago.
On March 8, 1971 eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Philadelphia, took hundreds of secret files, and shared them with the public. In doing so, they uncovered the FBI’s vast and illegal regime of spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.
On the night of the “Fight of the Century” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the activists, calling themselves the “Citizens’ Commission” to Investigate the FBI, picked the lock on the door to the small FBI field office. They took every file in the office, loaded them into suitcases, and walked out the front door.
Mailed anonymously, the documents started to show up in newsrooms. The heist yielded a trove of damning evidence that proved the FBI was deliberately working to intimidate civil rights activists and Americans nonviolently protesting the Vietnam War. The most significant revelation was an illegal program overseen by lifelong FBI director J. Edgar Hoover known as COINTELPRO – the Counter Intelligence Program.
Despite searching for the people behind the heist in one of the largest investigations ever conducted, the FBI never solved the mystery of the break-in, and the identities of the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI remained a secret. … until a few years ago.
Here’s the trailer: https://www.1971film.com/trailer
Footnote: If you’re game for still more after watching “1971,” you may wish to view another edifying, encouraging film in the same genre: “The Camden 28.” This one is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcdWk74LQdw . It runs for 1 hour and 23 minutes.
“The Camden 28” is a 2007 documentary film about 28 members, mostly from the “Catholic Left” who were arrested on August 22, 1971 for attempting to break into a draft board in Camden, New Jersey. Because the Camden 28 were nonviolent and were altruistically motivated, they provided a much greater threat to the FBI and U.S. government: the growing religious opposition to the Vietnam war could not be written off easily as extremist, so they had to be brought down. But weren’t; there is quite a surprise ending.
“The Camden 28” was written, directed, and produced by Anthony Giacchino. In 2007, it was aired as part of PBS’s Point of View series. Critics gave the film high praise. It received an 88% “Fresh” rating on “Rotten Tomatoes” and a Writers Guild Award nomination for Best Documentary Screenplay.
Please raise your hand if you ever heard of the film. :-((
Keep your hand up if you think you know why.
Apparently, it only takes about four decades for a secret agency like the FBI to “rehabilitate” itself. And the process is greatly facilitated by the seemingly deliberate amnesia characteristic of the “liberal” media these days. Here, for example, is Eugene Robinson a regular columnist and an Associate Editor of the Washington Post and so-called “liberal political analyst” on MSNBC, gushing over the FBI in defending it from charges it committed crimes in the Russia-gate-now-become-deep-state-gate epic.
The title itself speaks volumes: “Trump has picked a fight with the FBI. He’ll be sorry.” Robinson begins:
“Presidents don’t win fights with the FBI. Donald Trump apparently wants to learn this lesson the hard way.
“Most presidents have had the sense not to bully the FBI by defaming its leaders … Most members of Congress have also understood how unwise it would be to pull such stunts. But Trump and his hapless henchmen on Capitol Hill, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), have chosen the wrong enemy. History strongly suggests they will be sorry. … The idea that the likes of Trump and Nunes are going to put a scratch on the FBI”!
Why All This?
Because we are indeed close to what Edward Snowden called “turnkey tyranny” and, as was the case 85 years ago in Germany, “liberal” commentators like Eugene Robinson are helping turn the key. The charitable explanation now, as then, is naiveté. I strain to be that charitable.
And now, with former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe joining fellow perjuror, the ineffable former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, on CNN the media/deep-state consortium, so to speak, are hell bent on lending a hand toward proving that Trump would be foolish to “pick a fight with the FBI.”
The denouement may come as early as this fall. And the outcome will go a long way toward showing who is actually running this country. In polite society, one is not supposed to utter the word “fascism,” but that’s where we seem headed.
If you’ve read down this far, you may wish to have a look at a relevant piece I wrote last May:
Keeping Black History Out of Schoolbooks
Why We Should Teach About the FBI’s War on the Civil Rights Movement