When the black justice movement got too powerful, the FBI got scared and got ugly
In the 1970s, the surveillance and intimidation was no joke
Ona sunny January day in 1969, a gun battle broke out during a meeting of the Black Student Union in Campbell Hall on the campus of UCLA. There was disagreement among student union members — some affiliated with the Black Panthers and others with US Organization, a rival group — about the leadership of the nascent Afro American Studies Department. Two Black Panthers members, 23-year-old John Huggins and 26-year-old Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, were allegedly making snide remarks about the head of US, Ron Karenga, when both were shot dead.
What none of them knew at the time was the FBI had all but orchestrated the event, which kicked off a year of retaliatory shootings that would claim the lives of two more Panthers.
In a 1968 memorandum to 14 field offices, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had instructed recipients to “submit imaginative and hard-hitting counter-intelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP” within a context of “gang warfare” and “attendant threats of murder and reprisal.” In the subsequent year, the agency sent forged letters, including insulting cartoons and death threats, to leaders of both movements, instigating the dispute that erupted on UCLA’s campus.
The Black Panthers, founded in 1966, had grown to national prominence quickly. Their mission stood in stark distinction to the peaceful civil rights movement commandeered by Martin Luther King, Jr., and both their comportment and their tactics made for salacious press coverage: “Panthers emerged through the press in those days as a group of armed blacks with militant attitudes and loaded guns — something only slightly more sophisticated than a street gang,” wrote Tim Findley in Rolling Stone in 1972.
Of course, the group was far more varied and nuanced than the press was likely to report. But their diversity scarcely mattered anyway. J. Edgar Hoover had labeled BPP a “hate group” and by 1968 was convinced that they represented “ without question…the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” He launched a thorough, targeted campaign of surveillance, intimidation, exploitation, harassment, and in some cases violence, to destroy the organization.
Hoover and other rabid defenders of the status quo were right to be afraid of the Black Panther Party, which was in many ways uniquely positioned to improve the material reality of black Americans. At the core of the Black Panther ethos was a sophisticated critique not just of the American political machine but of capitalism — the engine that drove it, according to party doctrine. They opened community health clinics and introduced the Free Breakfast for Children program — initiatives that served to highlight the lack of adequate social services in black neighborhoods. The group’s socialist sympathies were a chief reason why they were deemed so threatening to national security, and programs targeting them were developed alongside those — like Operation Hoodwink — designed to gut the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of the United States.
The group posed a further threat because they were militant, armed, and sought to police the police by patrolling their own communities with guns, monitoring cops’ activities. “We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our black community,” read the organization’s “Ten-Point Program.” “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.”
In a transcript of an FBI interview with Black Panther Bobby Lee, Lee describes the party’s power to lay bare government corruption and racism: “see, it’s all over the country, wherever they have Black Panthers breakfast children [sic] program, wherever they have the Young Patriots program, it don’t make no difference where the alderman is, the mayor still looks like an ass, or the governor looks like an ass, see? That’s why the political machine is coming down on us. Because we heighten the contradictions.”
The backbone of the FBI’s counterintelligence programs has always been good old fashioned surveillance: wiretapping, “tailing,” mail tampering. But in their attempts to “divide, conquer, weaken” leftist organizations, in the words of Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, an architect of COINTELPRO, the FBI introduced a broader array of aggressive and creative tactics. To eradicate the Panthers, they recruited informants among the general public: postal workers, switchboard officers, police chief, and campus security guards. They circulated documents authorizing negative media coverage of the Panthers, specifically “highlighting friction between east and west coast BPP leadership personnel.” There were also federal raids of BPP offices throughout the country, sometimes justified by warrants claiming there were illegal weapons in the offices, and sometimes warrantless.
Former party members who later filed FOIA requests for access to their FBI files discovered just how extreme the surveillance and scrutiny of their daily lives was: one, Rodney Barnette, a founder of the Compton chapter of the Panthers, received his massive file and discovered, according to his daughter, 500 pages “documenting [his] whereabouts, interviewing every employer he’s ever had, interviewing his high school teacher, his neighbors, all of his siblings, and observing him getting on airplanes.”
But perhaps even more sinister were the agency’s attempts to discredit the group and create factions and rifts among its members.
Of the many Black Panther deaths the FBI had a hand in, none was more dramatic than the murder of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of BPP and deputy chairman of the national party. J. Edgar Hoover was particularly concerned about the “rise of a messiah” within the black power movement, and Hampton had all the makings of one. Young, handsome, charismatic and hyperarticulate, he was a vocal and vibrant activist, known for his rousing oratory at rallies and protests. Hampton was seen as particularly dangerous because he was focused on education and sought to foment a cross-racial movement, extending his message to poor whites.
In 1969, Chicago police, working in conjunction with the FBI, broke into the 21-year-old’s apartment and shot and killed him as he lay in his bed. Deborah Johnson, his fiancée, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and asleep beside him when the cops began shooting. In all, the cops fired 90 shots into Hampton’s apartment. “He’s good and dead now,” Johnson remembers hearing one of the police officers say. The police described the event as a “shoot-out,” but the Panthers countered that it was a “shoot-in.” Hampton’s murder was ruled a “justifiable homicide” by an inquest, though a 1970 civil suit resulted in a settlement in 1982. Noam Chomsky called the murder “the gravest domestic crime of the Nixon administration.”
Hoover had wanted 1969 to be the year he eradicated BPP, but he wasn’t successful. Despite massive setbacks, by 1970, there were Black Panther offices in 68 cities. The group was aiming to expand its influence, with leaders traveling to visit with communist government officials in North Vietnam, North Korea, and China. Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver also attended the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria. But there were significant rifts within the party.
In 1971, members of a leftist group calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole over 1000 documents. They planned the break-in for the night of the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, hoping guards and cops would be distracted. Though the FBI worked hard to keep the press from printing the contents of the stolen material, The Washington Post chose to publish.
The documents the Commission stole revealed among other things, the agency’s desire to “enhance paranoia” in members of the new left. They wanted those under to surveillance to think there was “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Revelations about the extent to which the FBI was actively working to destroy the Black Panthers and other left-wing political organizations rocked the country. In response, Congress issued reforms limiting the scope of the FBI’s intelligence gathering. They also introduced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which forced intelligence agencies to procure warrants before spying on U.S. citizens.
That didn’t change the fact many members of the Black Panthers had spent years living in terror, their relationships and their lives torn apart by the anxiety of surveillance, the torment of harassment, and in some cases the deaths of their friends—which is exactly what the FBI wanted.