COINTELPRO & the Black Panther Party
By Eryn-Ashlei Bailey | February 6, 2010
Will Smith’s movie Enemy of the State, and Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory are fascinating films depicting government intelligence used unlawfully. With twists and turns throughout the script, viewers are left on the edge of their seats for the entire 90 minutes or more. Though these films are captivating and plant seeds of curiosity and a certain level of fear, government operatives in regards to black liberation, civil rights, and specifically the Black Panther Party prove to be even stranger than these fictional films.
FBI files hold specific notes on a counter-orientation meeting held by black liberation movement leaders at the beginning of the university year in Durham, NC in the late 1960’s. This counter-orientation meeting was held to discuss the shift of the black liberation movement from a uni-dimensional purpose focused on race, to a wider context of focus on capitalism, workers’ rights, and quality of education for blacks at the time. Interestingly, this FBI document has blank spaces throughout where important and relevant information brought about by the discussion are now lost forever. Ordinary citizens can look at these Freedom of Information Act (FOA) documents, but the names of FBI agents and their informants are blacked out.
From what is legible in the counter-orientation week document, is the discussion lead by individuals such as Adolph Reed, Chuck Hopkins, and Howard Fuller. Chuck Hopkins sheds light on the nuanced system that was black education at the time. Because the overseers of education were the same group that imposed oppression on young black learners, men like Hopkins demanded that blacks be able to take complete control of their education. He questioned how the system in place for education prepared young black intellectuals to deal with issues pertinent to them at the time. In his delivery, Hopkins discussed the motivations for establishing the Malcolm X Liberation University which would “represent an independent effort on the part of some black people to establish a real, relevant, educational program to deal with real problems that face black people in society.”
At the time that this counter-orientation meeting was held, riot and arms holding laws were changing. Hence solid plans to oppose unfair treatment could not be made. The black liberation movement was also in quasi-limbo. Howard Fuller, a speaker at the meeting, picked up with specific and enlightening comments about the necessary shift within the Civil Rights Movement towards more aggressive tactics. Petitions, legislation, and non-violence weren’t yielding the change deemed appropriate. There indeed needed to be armed resistance in order to demonstrate that black liberals were incredibly serious about effectuating and mandating change.
Fuller began by explaining that the meeting was not counter-orientation as it sounds similar to counter-revolution and other terms that do not qualify the mission of black liberation. Fuller asserted that this particular meeting of blacks was a “disorientation” from what attendees would be learning at nearby UNC in Durham, NC that academic year. Fuller further explained the unique status of black students and workers at UNC campus specifically as their position was integral to black liberation at the time.
Fullers’ comments added an incredible element to the meeting when he said: “I don’t know anybody…that can represent all black people”. This commentary by Fuller captures an element of the black community that was at danger of being lost at the time. As the Civil Rights Movement carried on, there existed student, militant, and non-violent groups that people not part of the movement would lump together. This distinction made by Fuller is quite profound in that it separates blacks not just in terms of group affiliation, but also speaks to the variety of blacks in terms of thought, decision, action, and lifestyle.
Meetings like the counter-orientation meeting may have the hint of fundamentalism to the average American. But with reports of FBI activities unlawful and covert operatives to undermine the Black Panther Party and other black liberation groups offers a credence to and new understanding of the events that took place during the socially volatile 60’s in America.
COINTELPRO was a counterintelligence program launched by the FBI. Reports about COINTELPRO state that “covert actions have been used to disrupt the lawful political activities of individual Americans and groups and to discredit them, using dangerous and degrading tactics which are abhorrent in a free and decent society”. In a supposed effort to protect America from harm by militant groups seen as a threat, COINTELPRO launched an entire operative to undermine the black liberation movement. COINTELPRO violated first amendment rights and attacked members of the Klu Klux Klan, Black Panther Party members, and even members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which directly effected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The campaign to dethrone Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began in December of 1963, which was four months after his historical March on Washington. The section of the FBI report detailing this account reads: “the sustained use of such tactics by FBI in an attempt to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. violated the law and fundamental human decency.” A nine hour meeting at FBI headquarters took place to discuss “various avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader”. The danger of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was his immense popularity within the black community. King influenced droves of blacks and unified them in a cause. This was scary to the FBI. In the COINTELPRO document, it lists the privacy and ethical violations on Dr. King. Two weeks after the initial 9 hour meeting, the FBI planted microphones in King’s hotel room and proceeded to do so in whatever hotel room that King stayed in while traveling across the country. The FBI attempted to inhibit King from meeting with world leaders, receiving honorary awards and degrees from universities, and gaining financial support. In August of 1964, Dr. King was scheduled to meet with the Pope, and records show that FBI agents tried to encourage Cardinal Spellman to have this meeting canceled.
In September of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover added the Black Panther to the group of alleged “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” that would need to be brought down using counter-intelligence. The direct aim of the FBI was to cripple and destroy the Black Panther Party. The FBI used forged letters to spouses to create distrust in marriages, forged letters to rival gangs to incite gang violence with the Black Panther Party and other groups, and even created dissension within the Black Panther Party by falsely labeling BPP members as informants which would inevitably lead to their loss of life.
In July of 1969, the Black Panther Party became the focus of the COINTELPRO program. 233 members were authorized as “Black Nationalist” and hence open for covert, illegal, and unethical manipulation of their lives. Aside from launching assassinations that directly involved FBI agents, COINTELPRO doctored caricatures and sent letters with said caricatures to BPP members in order to cause anger, frustration, and mistrust between these black groups. The fulfilled hopes of the FBI were to pit these groups against each other and “with violence let nature take its course”. Although FBI employees were not holding hand guns and shooting direct bullets during this time period, their ruthless exploitation of psychological distress and manipulation lead to the murder of BPP and other gang members specifically in southeast San Diego and Chicago as well. It is sometimes hard to distinguish from the documents where some BPP violence was a result of their interference. Meaning that because the FBI was so involved in forging letters and inciting gang wars, it’s not possible to determine what acts of violence took place because the Panthers were inherently violent. One can suppose that blood shed, shots fired, and wars waged wouldn’t be as many without such intense FBI involvement.
In order to ensure that the black groups would eventually extinguish each other, FBI members made rival gangs aware of Black Panther Party activities, locations, and time of events. This was coupled with forged letters sent to BPP members planting seeds of anger about rival gangs such as the United Slaves and Black Rangers having hits out on BPP members lives and questioning the BPP’s authority or credibility. August of 1970 saw an entirely new counterintelligence program launch at the prison release of Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party.
With the threat of exposure, the COINTELPRO was done away with in 1971. Unfortunately, this doing away with COINTELPRO was unnecessary by then because their mission was achieved. The Black Panther Party split up in 1971 as a direct result of forged letters from the FBI to Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver who lived in Exile in Algeria. Cleaver spearheaded the formation of the Black Liberation Army, another militant black liberation group. At the effective crippling of the Black Panther Party, one sees the unfortunate deterioration of BPP leader Huey P. Newton who was known to be dealing with drugs at the end of his career. Again, this chemical warfare was launched by COINTELPRO and other military operatives.
I encourage readers to read more into this topic as it can be translated to so many social and political activities within the United States. As technology has only been improved, the potential and power of intelligence agencies to launch these operatives is enhanced. The links embedded in this article are crucial for substantiating all points presented. Ironically, when reading the COINTELPRO document, the font is incredibly small. This is because they are copies of the original documents.
To see the original FBI documents about their investigation of the Black Panther Party click here.
Please stay tuned for more updates on Black History Month. Articles will include Marcus Garvey, the Black Liberation Army and more.