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EJAC-27-2-02-Drabble

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Page 65

European Journal of American Culture Volume 27 Number 2. © Intellect Ltd 2008.
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/ejac.27.2.65/1

Fighting Black Power-New Left
coalitions: Covert FBI media
campaigns and American cultural
discourse, 1967–1971
John Drabble Kadir Has University, Istanbul
Abstract

Keywords

Between 1967 and 1971, the FBI launched covert action programs against
Black Nationalist and New Left organisations. FBI agents used surreptitious entry,
electronic surveillance, and informants to acquire and covertly distribute material
to police, Congress, the media, elected officials and the Internal Revenue Service.
These operations thwarted fund raising, recruiting, organising, and favourable
publicity, prevented coalition building, and harassed movement leaders. To capitalise on ideological, organisational and personal conflicts, create factionalism, and
provoke conflict between organisations, FBI agents made anonymous telephone
calls and created counterfeit movement literature, cartoons and other notional
communications. This caused activists to lose respectability among white liberals,
Black moderates, and other movement activists. Since FBI agents were well
schooled in the historical legacy of American racist discourse, the Bureau’s covert
operations drew upon deeply rooted countersubversive anxieties concerning miscegenation in American culture, in order to prevent stable or effective Black
Nationalist-New Left coalitions from forming.

Federal Bureau of
Investigation
covert action
mass media
Black Nationalism
Black Panther Party
New Left

Internal dissent against dominant national ideologies peaked during the
late 1960s, a turbulent period when the rising civil rights movement and
opposition to the Vietnam War saw radical expression bloom and new
social networks and political alliances form.1 In particular the New Left and
Black Power surges saw organisations such as the Students for a Democratic
Society and the Black Panther Party achieve dramatic gains. The Federal
Bureau of Investigation sought to limit the influence of radical discourse
by launching covert, ‘COINTELPRO’ operations, which worked to expose,
disrupt and neutralise ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups’ (1967–1971) and
the ‘New Left’ (1968–1971).2 This article analyses how the Bureau
exploited divisions between organisations seeking common cause, by
leaking scurrilous information to allies in the mass media, and discrediting
movement leaders before their constituencies through the use of notional
communications. It considers both the rhetorical content and discursive
consequences of these strategies.

1

EJAC 27 (2) 65–91 © Intellect Ltd 2008

65

On these movements
see Doug Rosinow, The
Politics of Authenticity:
Liberalism, Christianity
and the New Left in
America, New York:
Columbia University
Press, 1998; William
Van Deburg, New Day in
Babylon: The Black Power
Movement and American
Culture, 1965–1975,
Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1992;
John T. McCartney,
Black Power Ideologies:
An Essay in
African-American Political
Thought, Philadelphia:
Temple University Press,
1992. As discussed
below, the FBI’s
definition of the

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“New Left” included
non-Marxist antiwar
activists and
COINTELPRO aimed to
repress the
counterculture as
well as communist-,
socialist- and
pacifist-influenced
antiwar ideology. The
Bureau’s definition of
“Black Nationalist Hate
Groups” included any
black organization that
engaged in direct action
as well as those which
advocated either
cultural and political
separatism or a
revolution in alliance
with white leftists.
2

The COINTELPRO
file, released by the FBI
in 1977, is available on
microfilm as Athan
Theoharis ed.,
COINTELPRO:
The Counterintelligence
Program of the FBI,
Wilmington DE:
Scholarly Resources,
1978. All FBI
documents cited in this
paper are from this file,
unless otherwise
indicated. In this article,
“NL” denotes
COINTELPRO-New Left,
and “BNHG” denotes
COINTELPRO-BlackNationalist Hate Groups.

3

Brett Gary, The Nervous
Liberals: Propaganda
Anxieties from World
War I to the Cold War,
New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999,
1–7.

4

William Keller, The
Liberals and J. Edgar
Hoover, Rise and Fall of a
Domestic Intelligence
State, Princeton:
Princeton University
Press, 1989; Kenneth
O’Reilly, Hoover and the
Un-Americans: The FBI,
HUAC, and the Red
Menace, Philadelphia:
Temple University Press,
1983; Athan Theoharis,
Spying on Americans,
Political Surveillance from
Hoover to the Huston
Plan, Philadelphia:
Temple University Press,
1978; idem, ed., Beyond
the Hiss Case: The FBI,
Congress, and the Cold
War, Philadelphia:

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To put in context the contest for discursive influence that took place
during the Cold War, it is helpful to consider the development of government thinking about communication and control that emerged during the
twentieth century. After World War I, assumptions about the power of
modern communications and public incompetence led liberal scholars and
federal bureaucrats to call for opinion management in the United States.
In the 1930s, heightened concerns about the power of Nazi propaganda
informed a ‘collaborative effort by the nation’s premier educational, philanthropic and cultural institutions, in eventual collaboration with the
state’ to foster implementation of a propaganda ‘prophylaxis’. By the onset
of the Cold War, according to Brett Gary, ‘expert-centered national security liberalism [had] triumphed, and public-centered free speech liberals
had few platforms in the academy, the press, or the state . . .’3 FBI executives erected domestic security state apparatus within the executive
branch of the federal government, coordinating countersubversive efforts
to nurture anti-communism in public discourse.4 Of particular note was a
mass media campaign launched in February 1946, which attempted to
influence public opinion by releasing ‘educational materials’ through friendly
reporters and legislators. Five years later, an expanded ‘Responsibilities
Program’ encompassed state governors and Congressional Committees as
well as institutions such as the Red Cross, the Library of Congress, and
police departments. Although leaks forced the FBI to close down the
program in 1955, the Bureau incorporated similar strategies into a series
of covert action programs, the first of which was launched the following
year.5 These programs (COINTELPROs) endeavoured to discredit, disrupt
and vitiate the Communist Party-USA (1956), the Socialist Worker’s Party
(1961), ‘White Hate Groups’ (1964), ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups’
(1967) and the ‘New Left’ (1968) until April 1971.6
FBI agents used surreptitious entry, electronic surveillance, and informants to acquire intelligence, and proceeded to covertly distribute derogatory and scurrilous material to police, Congress, elected officials, other
federal agencies, and the mass media. They created counterfeit literature,
cartoons and other notional communications, to capitalise on ideological,
organisational and personal conflicts, create factionalism, and provoke
internecine conflict.7 Simultaneously, the FBI and local police suppressed
independent Underground Presses.8 As Sociologist David Cunningham
has pointed out, COINTELPRO exposure operations
attacked the framing processes that allow social movement to draw upon,
develop and diffuse the shared meanings and cultural understandings necessary to facilitate collective action. By engineering negative public images
and surreptitiously advancing alternative arguments to create confusion
around key issues, FBI agents disrupted targets’ ability to frame issues and
sustain collective identity, demobilizing constituents by closing off short term
opportunities to act, and generating a repressive climate that increased the
costs of activity.9

66

John Drabble

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Paternalistic racism and repressive moralism permeated the Bureau’s institutional culture, influencing targeting decisions and tactics of political
repression under COINTELPRO.10 This article focuses on media operations
that discredited Black Power and New Left organisations, and disrupted
radical interracial coalitions by drawing upon countersubversive anxieties
concerning miscegenation that were deeply rooted in American culture.

Temple University Press,
1982; Frank J. Donner,
The Age of Surveillance,
New York: Random
House, 1980.
5

Athan Theoharis, “The
FBI and the American
Legion Contact
Program, 1940–1966,
Political Science Quarterly,
100:2, Summer 1985,
284–5; Athan
Theoharis and John
Stuart Cox, The Boss: J.
Edgar Hoover and the
Great American
Inquisition, Philadelphia:
Temple University Press,
1988, 217–219;
Cathleen Thom and
Patrick Jung, ‘The
Responsibilities Program
of the FBI, 1951–1955’,
Historian, 59:2, Winter,
1997; O’Reilly, Hoover
and the Un-Americans,
Chapters 3–8; Kenneth
O’Reilly, Racial Matters:
The FBI’s Secret File
on Black America,
1960–1972, New York:
Free Press, 1989,
137–140. See example
the use of the Catholic
War veterans to
disseminate anti-black
nationalist material in
Brennan to Sullivan,
10/13/67, Director to
Albany et. al.,
10/16/67, BNHG.

6

FBI executives shut down
COINTELPRO after a
group of antiwar activists
stole documents from an
FBI office and published
them in the
Underground Press.
Keller, Liberals and
J. Edgar Hoover;
Nelson Blackstock,
COINTELPRO, The FBI’s
Secret War on Political
Freedom, New York:
Pathfinder, 1975;
Margaret Jayko, ed., FBI
on Trial, The Victory in the
Socialist Workers Party
Suit Against Government
Spying, New York:
Pathfinder, 1988;
O’Reilly, Racial Matters,
Chapters 8–10; Ward
Churchill and Jim Vander
Wall, Agents of Repression:
The FBI’s Secret Wars
Against the Black Panther
Party and the American
Indian Movement (Boston:
South End Press, 1988),
Ch. 3; idem, The

COINTELPRO-New Left: targeting and tactics
Richard Gid Powers has explained how, by increasing the jurisdiction of the
federal police over the course of the twentieth century, US public officials
‘mobilized law in a pageant of popular politics’. They ‘expressed symbolic
concern and promoted mass quiescence by opposing vice, crime and subversion in whatever symbolic form the popular mind imagined it’.11 Testifying
in defence of Federal anti-radical raids in 1919, for example, Attorney
General A. Mitchell Palmer argued that the radical ‘approaches our
American institutions and seeks to rape our ideals under cover of darkness’.
Such subversives, he said, were making ‘well-considered attempts . . . [to]
debauch labour unions’. One BI supervisor warned a group of female
critics that if not for not for federal detectives, ‘good women would not be
safe in their virtue’. Federal agents, he asserted, had made foreign born
‘believe in GOD’.12 In 1910, a moral panic over white slavery led to a significant expansion of federal law enforcement power. While organised
prostitution existed, newspapers convinced their readers that a gigantic
conspiracy ‘worked its will over almost every aspect of American life’. If
public officials knew better, they ‘risked making light of real public fears’
about traditional morality. The Bureau of Investigation, in turn, ‘selected
for arrest individuals’, such as black heavyweight boxing champion Jack
Johnson, ‘who would generate maximum publicity’. Indeed, the Bureau’s
White Slavery investigations focused on proscribing non-commercial extramarital and interracial sex. Launching ‘highly publicized dragnet raids’
against Slackers, Reds, and Gangsters, the Bureau of Investigation ‘expressed
opposition to unpopular behavior or opinions’ and thus ‘encouraged
conformity and strengthened social solidarity, between 1919 and the mid1930s.13 A Progressive reformer, (F)BI Director J. Edgar Hoover endeavoured to use social institutions and the law to maintain rituals of social
deference that under-girded middle-class gender mores and Jim Crow
laws.14 Incessantly preoccupied with the sex life of Martin Luther King Jr.
for example, Hoover attempted to neutralise King by sending microphone
recordings of sexual liaisons to journalists, and to his wife.15
Given this institutional culture, FBI agents defined a New Left threat in
cultural terms: COINTELPRO-NEW LEFT memoranda dwelled upon such
subjects as activists engaged in ‘balling radical chicks’, a general availability
of ‘grass and ass’ at New Left communes, and descriptions of ‘faggot’ whiteLeft activists and Black Nationalist ‘studs’.16 FBI agents in Newark, NJ
viewed COINTELPRO-NEW LEFT to be a ‘unique task’ given the New Left’s
‘nonconformity in dress and speech, neglect of personal cleanliness, use of
Fighting Black Power-New Left coalitions: Covert FBI media campaigns and . . .

67

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COINTELPRO Papers:
Documents from the FBI’s
Secret Wars Against
Domestic Dissent, Boston:
South End Press, 1990,
Ch. 5; James Kirkpatrick
Davis, Spying on America:
the FBI’s Domestic
Counterintelligence
Program, New York:
Praeger, 1992; idem,
Assault on the Left: The
FBI and the Sixties
Antiwar Movement,
Westport: Praeger, 1997.
7

Davis, Spying on America,
34, 39–40, 44–45,
46–47, 59–63, 65,
67–68, 108–121,
136–137, 143–149,
152–156; Churchill and
Vanderwall,
COINTELPRO Papers,
108–111 116,
118–119, 127, 136–7,
146, 154–5, 161–3,
183, 185, 191–198,
211, 216–219; Davis,
Assault, 46–52, 93–98,
117, 120–123,
126–127, 163–164,
178–183, 200–201;
David Cunningham,
There’s Something
Happening Here: the New
Left, the Klan, and FBI
Counterintelligence,
Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2004,
133–136.

8

Anne Janowitz and
Nancy J. Peters eds., The
Campaign Against the
Underground Press, San
Francisco: City Lights
Books,1981; Ken
Wachsberger
ed., Voices From the
Underground: -Volume 1,
Insider Histories of the
Vietnam Era Underground
Press, Tempe: Mica
Press, 1993.

9

Cunningham, There’s
Something Happening,
151–152,
315–316n23.

10 Ibid, 113–122, 140,
142–143, 168, 174.
11 Richard Gid Powers,
“J. Edgar Hoover and
the Detective Hero,”
in Larry N. Landrum,
Pat Browne and
Ray B. Browne, (eds),
Dimensions of Detective
Fiction, Bowling Green:
Popular Press, 1976,
208–210.

8:30 AM

Page 68

obscenities, publicised sexual promiscuity, shaggy hair, and wearing of
sandals, beads, and unusual jewelry’.17 The Boston Special Agent in
Charge (SAC) decried nudity and promiscuous sex.18 The Albany SAC
noted that ‘male and female students are living in cohabitation’ in ‘slovenly
hovels’.19
In addition to remaining alert to ‘specific data depicting the depraved
nature and moral looseness of the New Left’, FBI executives instructed
their field office agents to send anonymous letters to parents if a student’s
‘participation in a demonstration is accompanied by the use or engagement in an obscene display’.20
They suggested that field office agents make use of
. . . articles from student newspapers and/or the ‘underground press’ to
show the depravity of New Left leaders and members. In this connection,
articles showing advocacy of the use of narcotics and free sex are ideal to
send to university officials, wealthy donors, members of the legislature and
parents of students who are active in New Left matters.

Agents sent articles or composed notional letters expressing outrage over
New Left activities, obscenity in underground newspapers, and immoral
activity to state legislators, newspapers, popular magazines, parents and
potential employers, resulting in significant disruption or neutralisation of
activity.21 Upset over the distribution of Screw magazine at the Rutgers
campus in Newark, New Jersey, ‘by hippie types in unkempt clothes,
with wild beards, shoulder length hair and other examples of their nonconformity’, for example, local FBI agents sent a letter signed ‘a concerned
student’ to State Senator William T. Hiering.22 Forty per cent of all COINTELPRO – New Left operations involved such fictitious or anonymous
mailings.23 FBI agents in Washington DC developed a close liaison with
several local real estate companies, which kept them informed about dissidents living in commune-type dwellings, many of which were then broken
up in joint FBI-police operations.24
In June, 1968 FBI executives initiated a sustained covert-action campaign that endeavoured to ‘force Antioch [College] to defend itself as an educational institution’. They decried College President Dixon’s libertine attitude
towards marijuana, citing the fact that ‘as a medical doctor, he attacked narcotics control laws in general, and challenged the idea that use of marijuana
was harmful’. They drew attention to the ‘dirty anti-social appearance and
behaviour of a large number of students [who] can be seen to have the fullest
“beatnik image”’, and an ‘overabundance of self-declared “intellectuals”,
whose morals and habits are also anti-social’.25 The counter-cultural atmosphere at Antioch, for the FBI, posed a threat to proper socialisation processes,
to be inculcated at ‘legitimate’ educational institutions.26
‘Proper morals and habits’ also implied adherence to the traditional
gender codes that had been articulated by conservative, middle-class
white-Protestants since the late-19th Century. FBI intelligence reports on
68

John Drabble

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the Women’s Liberation Movement for example, reveal the type of information which FBI executives deemed important enough to forward to the
Justice Department and to the 109th Military Intelligence Group. After
describing that the Movement’s purpose was ‘to free women from the
humdrum existence of being only a wife and mother’, the Baltimore field
office SAC reported,
They wanted equal opportunities that men have in work and society. They
wanted their husbands to share in the housework and in rearing children.
They also wanted to go out and work in whatever kind of jobs they wanted
and not be discriminated against as women.27

The Seattle field office reported that women who had attended a July 1970
conference
. . . in general , appeared to be hippies, lesbians, or from other far-out groups . . .
Most of them wear faded blue jeans. Most seemed to be making a real attempt
to be unattractive.28

The New York City office submitted a list of 3,200 women to FBI
Headquarters in August 1970, and the Bureau investigated the Women’s
Liberation Movement for four years, amassing at least 1,377 pages of
intelligence files.29
COINTELPRO operations against the New Left used homophobia to rearticulate traditional discourses of masculinity. New York agents sent out
fake teletypes that associated the Venceremos Brigade with the Gay
Liberation Front, and worked with the New York Daily News to publicise
the 1949 arrest of peace activist David Dellinger for homosexual activity.
They created a notional newsletter entitled ‘Desperate Dave Dangles
Dingus’, to ridicule the National Mobilization Committee Chair. It described
Dellinger as having a ‘fairy-like’ appearance, a high voice ‘sounding like
glass bells in a soft summer breeze’, and a ‘cute mouth’, and alleged that
in response to a reporter’s question about committee finances, the activist
‘put a finger in his mouth and sucked it reflectively’. In a subsequent operation, agents mailed forty entries with Dellinger’s name to a notional ‘Pick
the Fag Contest’ which they had created.30 Notional communications
equated Socialist Workers Party advocacy of pacifism and adherence to
legality with homosexuality, and advocated violent confrontations with
the police.31 One August 1968 ‘newsletter’ declared that the Young
Socialist Alliance (the SWP youth group), had ‘stuffed their platform up
our collective asses smiling all the while’ by using ‘committee packing and
other high-handed crap’.32 To minimise the growing influence of the SWP
in the antiwar movement, this 1970 cartoon presented the New MOBE as
a passive recipient of SWP ‘balling’.33
Agents mailed 307 copies of a brochure expressing the same sentiments to New Left activists, causing friction between the two groups.34
Fighting Black Power-New Left coalitions: Covert FBI media campaigns and . . .

69

12 United States Senate,
Subcommittee of the
Committee on the
Judiciary, Charges of
Illegal Practices of the
United States Department
of Justice, 66th Cong.,
3rd Sess., January
19–March 3 1921,
618, 666; United States
House, Committee on
Rules, Hearings,
Attorney General A.
Mitchell Palmer on
Charges Made against
Department of Justice by
Louis F. Post and Others,
66th Cong., 2nd Sess.,
1920, Vol. I, 26.
13 Powers, ‘J. Edgar
Hoover’, 208–210.
14 John Drabble, ‘From
Pinkerton to G-Man:
The Transition from
Private to State Political
Repression,
1873–1956’, Journal of
American Studies of
Turkey, 20:3, (Fall
2004), 57–82; ‘“A
Negative and Unwise
Approach”: Private
Detectives, Vigilantes
and the FBI
Counterintelligence,
1917–1971,’ in Clive
Helmsey and Haia
Shpayer-Makov (eds.),
Detectives in History,
Ashgate, 2006.
15 David J. Garrow, The FBI
and Martin Luther King,
Jr.: from “Solo” to
Memphis, New York:
W. W. Norton, 1981,
Ch. 4; Athan Theoharis,
J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and
Crime: An Historical
Antidote, Chicago: Ivan
R. Dee, 1995, 96–100;
O’Reilly, Racial Matters,
136, 141–145,
332–334; U. S.
Congress. Senate. Select
Committee to Study
Governmental
Operations with Respect
to Intelligence,
Intelligence Activities and
the Rights of Americans,
[‘Church Committee’],
Final Report, 94th Cong.,
2nd Sess., (1976), Book
III, 131–162.
16 Donner, Age, 232–237.
17 Newark to Director
5/27/68, NL. See also,
Donner Age; 232–237;
Director to Field Offices,

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10/28/68; New York to
Director, 5/28/68; San
Francisco to Director
5/27/68, NL.
18 Boston to Director,
6/13/68, NL.
19 Albany to Director
6/3/6, NL.
20 Director to Albany,
7/16/68, 10/9/68, NL.
21 Director to Cincinnati,
6/18/68, Director to
Newark, 6/21/68, New
York to Director,
5/28/68, 10/16/68,
12/31/68, Director to
New York, 8/5/69,
Houston to Director
5/22/68, 6/25/68,
Director to numerous
field offices 5/2/68,
7/6/68, 10/9/68,
Director to San Antonio,
8/27/68, Philadelphia
to Director, 9/6/68, San
Francisco to Director,
8/2/68; San Diego to
Director, 10/31/68,
Oklahoma City to
Director, 12/18/68,
4/8/69, Director to
Oklahoma City,
12/31/68, Detroit to
Director, 2/28/69,
12/10/68, 4/18/69,
Director to Detroit,
12/20/68, 3/27/69,
Denver to Director,
11/12/69, 4/29/69,
5/27/69, Director to
Denver, 5/27/69,
Director to Baltimore,
6/16/69, Director to
Boston, 2/25/70,
Boston to Director,
2/26/70, Director to
Charlotte, 3/3/70, NL;
Church Committee,
Final Report, 94th Cong.,
2nd Sess., (1976),
Book III, 31.
22 Newark to Director,
5/23/69, Director
to Newark, 6/4/69,
NL; Church Committee,
Final Report, Book II,
242.
23 Davis, Assault, 208. See
also U.S. Senate. Select
Committee to Study
Governmental
Operations with respect
to Intelligence Activities
[Church Committee],
Hearings, Vol. 6 Federal
Bureau of Investigation,
94th Cong., First Sess.,
(1976), 370–371.

Figure 1: For source see footnote number 33.
When the SWP/YSA changed its membership policy to allow homosexuals
to join, San Diego agents mailed and posted leaflets publicising the arrest
of a YSA member for ‘committing an abnormal act with a negro male in a
public place’ and inviting the ‘gay set’ to join the YSA.35
Similarly, a notional letter sent under the COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist
Hate Group program protested Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton’s
support for Women’s and Men’s Gay Liberation Leagues.36 One notional
communication designed to disrupt the April 24 1971 antiwar demonstrations in Washington DC, and San Francisco incorporated virtually
all of these themes. It attacked ‘Chief White Fag Dave McReynolds of the
lily-white War Resisters League and the sickening pale Nat’l Peace Action
Committee’ and other ‘Queer Cats’ because they had urged ‘every Jew
landlord in . . . Harlem and Bed-Sty to take their hands out of BLACK
pockets for just one day. . . . every lesbian collection of cuckoos, [and]
70

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every ranting pervert’, to attend an antiwar demonstration featuring ‘Uncle
Tom Abernathy’, but had neglected to invite ‘BLACKS’ or ‘NORMAL
PEOPLE’.37
FBI counterintelligence operations that aimed to expose immorality
within the counterculture and portray pacifists as homosexual perverts,
constituted something more than mere political repression. The FBI’s
concern with race, gender, sex, and morality compelled covert operations
that attempted to maintain social hierarchies. New Left activists were
targeted because their behaviour posed a threat to the FBI’s moralistic
conception of propriety. COINTELPRO-New Left operations can thus be
characterised as acts of ideological re-traditionalisation, part of the
Bureau’s larger campaign to reform American society in the twentieth
century.38 As historian Richard Gid Powers put it, FBI targets were targeted not only for what they did, ‘but for what they have meant’. If they
committed crimes, ‘such acts functioned merely as illustrations of the evil
they symbolically represented’.39

COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist Hate Groups:
targeting and tactics
Powers argued that FBI targets ‘had little control over whether or not they
became symbols’, and that they ‘could not fully determine their own symbolic significance’. Targets of FBI operations ‘became symbols of dangerous
cultural tendencies’, and cultural meaning was ‘controlled by the audience and its manipulators’, such as politicians, journalists, and police.40
With regard to Black Power, the main bone of symbolic contention was
whether African Americans had full rights to self-defence: the main issue
for the media became whether rhetorical violence expressed by Black
Power activists was essentially defensive, or offensive.41 According to white
supremacist discourse, Black self-defence was inherently aggressive and
thus illegitimate.
The regime of white supremacy in the American South had been maintained through the use of violence against black communities, as legitimated
by the notion that such violence was necessary to defend ‘white civilization’
against black savagery. Born in response to this terror, Black self-defence
discourse spread north and west with Black migration, influencing the
advocates of Black Power who emerged to protest police brutality and economic subjugation in the ghettos of the 1960s. Between 1964 and 1966,
idealistic civil rights workers who had embraced the tactics of non-violent
struggle became increasingly frustrated and angered by the federal government’s refusal to protect them from police violence and vigilante terror.42
In summer 1966, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and
the Congress of Racial Equality openly abandoned the tactic, and embraced
local traditions of self-defence.43 Given the lack of commitment by middle
and working class white beneficiaries of the New Deal to extend protections and support to Black Americans, the popularity of Black Power grew
most rapidly in the northern ghettos. Despite virulent opposition from
Fighting Black Power-New Left coalitions: Covert FBI media campaigns and . . .

71

24 Richmond to Director,
4/22/69, WFO to
Director, 12/15/70,
NL; Paul W. Valentine,
“15 Years of Dirty
Tricks Bared by F.B.I.”
New York Times, 2
November, 1977.
25 Cincinnati to Director,
June 3, 1968, NL.
26 Cincinnati to Director,
FBI, 6/3/68, NL. See
also, Cunningham,
There’s Something
Happening Here,
99–101.
27 FBI Report, cc. to OSI,
Baltimore, NISO,
Baltimore, and 109th
MI GP, Baltimore, May
11, 1970, WOMEN’S
LIBERATION
MOVEMENT, INTERNAL
SECURITYMISCELLANEOUS.
28 Norman Kempster, ‘FBI
admits spying on
feminists for years’,
Chicago Daily News,
7 February, 1977.
29 Ibid. See also Exhibits
54:1–3 in Church
Committee, Hearings,
576–601; Donner.
Age, 151.
30 New York to Director,
1/21/69, attached
“newsletter” (quote);
New York to Director,
6/18/69; Director to
New York, 6/24/69 NL;
Cunningham, There’s
Something Happening
Here, 120–121.
31 New York to Director,
4/24/69 and attached
newsletter,
COINTELPRO-Socialist
Worker’s Party. On SWP
influence in the
anti-war movement
during 1969–1970 and
infighting with antiwar
activists who embraced
anarchism and the
counterculture, see
Rosinow, The Politics
of Authenticity,
234–238.
32 New York to
Director, 9/26/68
COINTELPRO-Socialist
Worker’s Party. See also
Director to New York,
8/8/68; New York to
Director, 8/13/68, NL.

EJAC-27-2-02-Drabble

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33 New York to
Director, 2/13/70,
COINTELPRO-SWP and
attached cartoon. See
also, Director to New
York, 1/20/70 NL. For
context see Churchill,
COINTELPRO Papers,
57–60; Simon Hall,
Peace and Freedom:
The Civil Rights and
Antiwar Movements of the
1960s, (Philadelphia:
University of
Pennsylvania Press,
2005), 163, 169–172.
34 Director to New York,
1/20/70, New York to
Director, 11/31/70, NL.
35 San Diego to Director,
1/28/71; Director to
San Diego, 2/8/71, NL.
36 San Francisco to
Director, 8/31/70;
Director to San
Francisco, 9/9/70,
BNHG.
37 New York to Director,
4/2/71, NL.
38 On re-traditionalization,
see Clifford Geertz
“Ideology as a Cultural
System” in The
Interpretation of Culture,
New York, 1971.
39 Powers, “J. Edgar Hoover
and the Detective Hero,”
210–211.
40 Ibid.
41 Van Deburg, New Day in
Babylon, Chapters 1–2;
Christopher Strain, Pure
Fire: Self-Defense as
Activism in the Civil
Rights Era, Athens:
University of Georgia
Press, 2005, Chapters
1–6, 145–151.
42 Akinyele Omowale
Umoja, ‘The
Natchez Model and
Paramilitary
Organization in the
Mississippi Freedom
Movement’, Journal of
Black Studies, 32:3,
(January 2002),
271–294; idem, ‘1964:
The Beginning of the
End of
Non-violence in the
Mississippi Freedom
Movement’, Radical
History Review, 85
(Winter 2003),
201–226; Lance Hill,
The Deacons of Defense:

8:30 AM

Page 72

mainstream Black leaders as well as government attempts to demonise
advocates of Black Power, Black moderates were forced to reassess their
positions.44
Because of the pressures of de-colonisation during the Cold War and
concern about Black self-defence groups such as the Deacons of Defense,
the FBI secretly helped to discredit, disrupt and vitiate the Ku Klux Klans,
suppressing vigilante violence. As overt biological racism and vigilante violence of the white supremacist regime was replaced with neoconservative
discourses, the FBI coordinated less visible forms of covert political repression against the Black Freedom movement.45 In keeping with the symbolic
nature of the FBI’s other counter-subversive operations however, the
FBI only focused on nationally visible targets under COINTELPRO-BNHG.
Political sociologist David Cunningham has observed that of the seven
Black groups that actually did engage in violence between 1967 and 1968
three were not targeted because the violence in question was spontaneous,
in reaction to particular grievances on Black campuses. In each case, FBI
administrators did not perceive a general threat to American values and
institutions.46 Instead, Black Power activists and their supporters were targeted for covert action because of a vaguely defined ‘propensity for violence’, or due to ‘radical or revolutionary rhetoric . . . [and] actions’.47
Consider each of these rhetorical constructions: First, the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee’s propensity for violence, according to the
Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Albany field office, ‘is based on the
fact that members have been in the forefront of anti-Vietnam protests and
anti-draft protests in Nashville, Tennessee. Various leaders and members of
this SNCC chapter have advocated violence in various statements made
by them during the past year’.48 Secondly, the New Orleans SAC asserted
that the Bogalusa Voter’s League projected a ‘militant attitude’, because
members of the group had picketed a jail in support of H. Rap Brown.49
Third, the supervisor of the Black Nationalist operation later defined
‘radical’ as a ‘loose term’ that included advocating ‘formation of a separate
black nation’.50 Fourth, by summer 1968 criteria for opening investigations included advocating scholarships for black students, the hiring of
more black professors and the creation of Black Studies departments. By
the 1970 school year, all Black Student Unions were automatically investigated, whether or not they had engaged in disorders. Under COINTELPRO,
FBI executives even attempted to spur colleges to cut off BSU funding.51
Finally, COINTELPRO also attempted to discredit the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, and the Poor People’s Campaign, both led by
Martin Luther King Jr., who remained the leading spokesman for the tactic
of militant non-violence until his assassination in April 1968.52 The FBI
also targeted the separatist Nation of Islam, an organisation that did not
engage in civil disobedience or advocate leftist radicalism.
Although the FBI had found no evidence of support for the Japanese in
World War II, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and an associate had been
incarcerated in federal prison during the Fifth Column Scare, for seditious
speech.53 Nevertheless, black newspapers expressed little bias against
72

John Drabble

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Page 73

the group at the time.54 Within months after CBS news reporter Mike
Wallace featured the Nation of Islam in a five part series entitled ‘The Hate
that Hate Produced’ in 1959, however, membership in the organisation
doubled.55 The FBI became concerned that doctrines that ‘inflame and
incite hatred of the white race’ promoted by leaders who ‘restrain and
repress’ followers into ‘doing nothing to violate the laws of the United
States Government . . . produce frustrations’ that ‘very easily can express
themselves through acts of violence’.56 The NOI became the largest Black
Nationalist group of the 1960s with membership probably exceeding that
of all other groups combined.57
Given the militant rhetoric of NOI organisers such as Malcolm X, the
mutual admiration shared with more activist groups such as CORE, and
the sheer mobilisation potential of the NOI, FBI executives worried that if
NOI leaders ever embraced violent activism, urban insurrection could
result.58 One FBI executive explained that domestic security investigations
of the NOI were launched
because of the potential, they did represent a potential . . . they were a paramilitary type. They had drills, the Fruit of Islam, they had the capability
because they were a force to be reckoned with, with the snap of his finger
Elijah Muhammad could bring them to any situation. So that there was a
very definite potential, very definite potential.59

In 1968, the Charlotte SAC declared that the NOI had ‘not been known to
engage in acts of violence or possession of weapons or instruments of
destruction’ but because they had ‘uttered violent statements at meetings’,
he recommended,
This division feels that the Bureau must strive to eliminate the facade of civil
rights and show the American public the true revolutionary plans and spirit
of the Black Nationalist movement and its leaders, expose and discredit them
in the eyes of responsible individuals and organizations who contribute
financially to their activities as well as pay honorariums for personal appearances. It is felt that by educating state and local officials as well as the
general public who are not privy to the knowledge in possession of the
Bureau, these leaders could be isolated to influencing the small hard core
group of revolutionaries.60

The Richmond SAC reported that members of the NOI were ‘constantly
taught to avoid all forms of violence, and to use force only to defend
oneself, and then only when absolutely necessary’. Although ‘any infraction of this teaching results in suspension’, he recommended that the
Bureau provide derogatory material prior to public appearances by NOI
spokesmen.61 Boston agents furnished derogatory information about the
NOI to a source at radio Station WEAN, Providence, Rhode Island, for an
exposé which would emphasise ‘predilection for violence, preaching of
race hatred, and hypocrisy’.62 Phoenix agents asserted that the local
Fighting Black Power-New Left coalitions: Covert FBI media campaigns and . . .

73

Armed Resistance and the
Civil Rights Movement,
Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press,
2004; Simon Wendt,
‘God, Gandhi and Guns:
The African American
Freedom Struggle in
Tuscaloosa, Alabama,
1964–1965’, Journal of
African American History,
89:1 (Winter 2004):
36–47.
43 Ibid., Herbert H. Haines,
Black Radicals and the
Civil Rights Mainstream,
1954–1970 (Knoxville:
University of Tennessee
Press, 1988), 155;
Manning Marable, Race,
Reform and Rebellion: The
Second Reconstruction in
Black America,
1945–1982, 2nd
Revised edition, Jackson:
University Press of
Mississippi, 1991,
Chapter 5; O’Reilly,
Racial Matters, pp.
64–69, 115–119,
122–123, 176–177;
Carson, In Struggle, 94,
108–109, 123–129,
157–162, 185–186;
David Lewis, King, A
Critical Biography, New
York: Praeger, 1970,
171–209, 375–381;
Martin Luther King,
Why We Can’t Wait, New
York: Signet, 1964;
Stanley B. Greenberg,
Race and State in
Capitalist Development,
New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1980,
235–242; Aldon D.
Morris, The Origins of the
Civil Rights Movement:
Black Communities
Organizing for Change,
New York: Free Press,
1984, 229–274; Omi
and Winant, Racial
Formation, 90–95,
99, 101.
44 Robert O. Self, American
Babylon: Race and the
Struggle for Postwar
Oakland, Princeton:
Princeton University
Press, 2003, 328–334;
Jeffrey Ogbonne Green
Ogbar, From the Bottom
Up: Popular Black
Reactions to the Nation of
Islam and the Black
Panther Party,
1955–1975, PhD.
Thesis (Indiana
University, 1997),
42–44, 54; idem, Black


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