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How the FBI Undermined & Controlled Civil Rights Activists & Activities

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the FBI's negative response to the Civil Rights Movement. The FBI undermined and controlled Civil Rights activists and their efforts in many different ways.

The Federal Government and Civil Rights

Have you ever had a good and bad feeling about something at the same time? Or seen something that was both positive and negative, depending on how you looked at it?

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was an important push for equality in the United States, and it was supported, for the most part, by the federal government. There were lots of civil rights accomplishments at the national level, including two major laws (the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) that guaranteed legal equality for African-Americans throughout the country. But, like many things, the federal government's response to civil rights activism was more complicated than it looks on the surface.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government also worked to undermine and control Civil Rights Activists. They did this primarily through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (or FBI) under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI spied on civil rights activists and waged a campaign to discredit black leaders. Although some later thought that the FBI's behavior was an aberration, and that Hoover was simply a racist with an ax to grind, the reality was that the federal government sanctioned the FBI's activities to ''disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize'' Civil Rights activists and the broader movement as a whole.

Let's look closely at two examples of this effort.


COINTELPRO was the acronym for the FBI's ''Counterintelligence Program,'' a wide-ranging effort to discredit organizations that the government considered ''subversive.'' Many of these groups were considered to have Communist ties (during the Cold War, anti-Communism influenced every aspect of U.S. domestic and foreign policy). They included not just civil rights organizations, but also groups such as the Communist Party of the United States and the Ku Klux Klan.

COINTELPRO worked to discredit civil rights activists through both legal and extralegal means. A few of the tactics included:

  1. Using informants, infiltrators, and agent provocateurs to discredit civil rights organizations.
  2. Intense surveillance of subjects, including legal and illegal wiretaps
  3. Police harassment
  4. Using journalists to plant false stories in the press to discredit local activists
  5. Using private citizens (such as switchboard operators or mailmen) to spy on activists

Although COINTELPRO was directed at multiple groups, the Civil Rights Movement took most of its energy during its short-lived existence (the program began in 1956 and was shut down in 1971). In particular, COINTELPRO targeted the Black Panther Party, providing information to the Chicago Police Department that led to a 1969 raid that killed two black power activists, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Although the Black Panthers insisted at the time that the FBI and the Chicago police were conspiring together to limit their activities and right to protest, the full extent of the FBI's involvement was not known until the mid-1970s, after COINTELPRO had been disbanded. In 1971, activists stole documents confirming the existence of COINTELPRO efforts, and in 1976, the Church Committee (a Congressional committee investigating abuses by U.S. intelligence groups) released a report detailing the FBI's activities.

J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another example was the FBI's personal targeting of Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent civil rights leader. Hoover himself personally hated King, calling him the ''most notorious liar in the country.'' He directed the FBI not only to target King's civil rights activism, but also to examine and discredit his personal life.

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