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Civil rights movement

COINTELPRO

Within one year of the formation of the Black Panther Party, the FBI had established a special counter-intelligence programme called COINTELPRO.

The ‘Counter Intelligence Program’ was a series of initiatives launched by the FBI between 1956 and 1971, aimed at undermining and eradicating groups, movements, and individuals — almost all on the Left — that it viewed as threats to national security and social order.

By the time the FBI formally shut down the programme, it had torn apart many of these groups and movements and destroyed the reputations, and in some cases lives, of many American citizens.

This was not just a project of the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover. Officials at the highest levels of government were aware of COINTELPRO and approved it.

According to COINTELPRO documents, five groups were singled out for investigation: the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party, White Hate Groups, Black Nationalist Hate Groups and the New Left. Its targets also encompassed the Puerto Rican independence movement, and the American Indian Movement.

Under what the Bureau termed “militant black nationalist groups”, it targeted groups as diverse as the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King Jr.,  as well as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Dirty tricks

The bread and butter of COINTELPRO operations was the use of wiretaps, anonymous letters, informants, and other means of subterfuge to, in the Bureau’s own words, “foster factionalism” and create suspicion within groups, bring individuals “into disrepute before the American public,” and create “disruption and discord” among such groups and movements.

Paid informants would infiltrate a group and bring up “controversial issues” or raise “acrimonious debates” in order to spark conflict. Other times, the Bureau would plant falsified evidence suggesting that a particular individual was a CIA informant.

Of all the movements of this period, the FBI viewed civil rights organisers as the greatest threat. According to an internal FBI document produced in 1963, civil rights protests were a threat to the established order, and Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous radical who had to be stopped.

Two days after being announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Bureau sent a a compilation tape of the most damning secret recordings of Dr King, including his affairs, along with a letter, written supposedly from a Black member of the civil rights movement, calling him a “filthy, abnormal beast” who engaged in “sexual orgies,” and threatening to release the tape if he didn’t kill himself.

Black Panthers

One of its memos noted that one of the goals of COINTELPRO was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” And it was the Black Panther Party that was specifically targeted and bore the brunt of the FBI’s efforts.

On 4 December 1969 Chicago police raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old charismatic chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, killing him in the process. The police fired ninety bullets using submachine guns, shotguns, a rifle, and a pistol, mostly aimed at Hampton’s bed. Although police claimed the Panthers had opened fire first, later evidence showed this to be false.

The FBI played a key role in what was essentially an assassination of a popular, rising Black leader. Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an FBI informant who provided the Bureau with the floor plan for Hampton’s apartment, who then passed it on to the Chicago Police Department.

Of the 295 COINTELPRO operations launched against the FBI’s broad definition of Black nationalist groups, 233 targeted the Panthers.

According to the Panthers’ attorney, between 1967 and 1969 the party spent over $200,000 at the time on bail bond premiums alone. By the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party had effectively ceased to be.

And while it dropped the name after 1971, when the programme was supposedly shut down after being exposed to the public, the FBI continued to engage in COINTELPRO-style activities long after.