COINTELPRO and the FBI’s Secret History of Racism

New FBI classifications reinforce patterns of racial suppression

by Robin Happel

Staff Freedom Fighter

Half a century ago, the FBI called Martin Luther King, Jr. “a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.” To J. Edgar’s men, Dr. King was “a slow thinker,” and they ironically sent him many typo-riddled letters telling him this, as well as urging him to give up, to surrender to Jim Crow, even to kill himself. The FBI later attempted to blackmail him into refusing the Nobel Peace Prize, using threats that, characteristic of the Bureau’s best and brightest, arrived in King’s mailbox after he had already accepted the award. The FBI’s initiative was brutal, belligerent, and often banal. Between breathlessly accusing Dr. King of “hidious [sic] abnormalities” and attempting to blackmail him using warrantless wiretaps, they barely had time to combat the Klan, if indeed they chose to at all. In one famous case, Viola Liuzzo, an activist in Selma, was fatally shot by one of the FBI’s own informants. The FBI launched a smear campaign against her even as her young children grieved.

           Admittedly, the line between fact and fiction in the early years of the FBI smear campaign COINTELPRO is necessarily blurred, as the FBI began to bury their blackmail once they saw King gaining ground, blacking out blocks of Liuzzo’s case files. The FBI slipped their libel against King anywhere they hoped it would never see the light of day, including the recently released JFK files. Some allegations, such as the King v. Jowers case arguing FBI involvement in King’s assassination, seem far-fetched, although Coretta Scott King firmly believed Hoover had her husband killed. Other lesser known stories, such as the FBI’s virulent homophobia in attacking civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, have sadly since been confirmed. Rustin organized the March on Washington and taught Dr. King himself how to protest peacefully. Yet he was largely erased from history by the efforts of the Bureau and social conservatives like Strom Thurmond, who pressured King to distance himself from Rustin, or risk being accused of a relationship with him.

Like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and other activists, Rustin was often silenced by his government, sidelined by a society that could not accept both his sexuality and the color of his skin. Rustin called this his “time on two crosses.” Such a struggle is often erased by simplistic portrayals of the civil rights movement, which show the state as sympathetic, rather than deeply afraid of anything besides stasis. This sugarcoating not only serves to erase men like Rustin, but also supports the view that the law is somehow always just, and thus always to be obeyed. The FBI, in short, has for decades attempted to suppress stories such as Rustin’s in order to uphold its own vision of social order, preferring instead to paint a picture of activists as aggressors, as un-American, anathema to peace and patriotism.

           Such stories are relevant not only because some of the FBI’s more salacious allegations were recently unearthed as noted, but also because the Bureau is once again targeting those it deems “black identity extremists.” While such a designation may seem far from the March on Washington, it is important to remember that our halcyon vision of Dr. King is far from how he appeared at the time, and polemics against groups like Black Lives Matter parallel polemics against King himself. In the 1960s, polls showed that over 60% of white Americans disapproved of the Freedom Riders, and the majority thought lunch counter sit-ins were actually counterproductive to the cause of integration. 55% of readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal thought Viola Liuzzo deserved to die. Cartoons in prominent papers showed Dr. King as looting and violent, and many white Americans believed he was taking things too far, and that civil rights had been adequately resolved during Reconstruction, much as some now see King himself as ending discrimination in America.

               While many arguments against Black Lives Matter are simply tied to the same tired claims, perhaps the problem is also partly how history is taught. When we first learn about Dr. King, he seems to many of us somehow separate from ourselves, cut out in black and white, part of another age, although he might be alive today had he not been assassinated. We place ourselves almost outside of history when we erase the work of men like Rustin, who saw the burgeoning gay rights movement towards the end of his life as equivalent to the civil rights movement. We see ourselves as having moved past struggles we are still very much a part of, and too often white Americans refuse to see the ways in which we are complicit in allowing men like Hoover free rein to restrict free speech. We like to imagine ourselves as heroes in history, but we forgot that someday we too will have to answer to the future

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