Inconvenient Fact Of the Day. The FBI's COINTELPRO Set the Stage For MLK's Success

Every narrative needs a bogeyman. For years the bogeyman in the Civil Rights struggle was less the Bull Connor and Byron De La Beckwith and the Freedom Riders murderers than was J. Edgar Hoover. While the individuals who used violence to suppress the Civil Right movement actually succeeded in creating public sympathy for the movement and making it inevitable, it was J. Edgar Hoover who was the éminence grise who acted to discredit Civil Rights leaders and through them their movement.

The actual history is a bit more complicated.

COINTELPRO, COunter INTELligence PROgram, was an FBI operation that targeted domestic organizations that were deemed subversive. It was led by a senior FBI official named William C. Sullivan. The first target was the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). The methods were many. Divisions within groups were fanned. Provocateurs joined. Negative information on leaders and prominent persons associated with the groups were leaked. When necessary, people were framed for crimes and imprisoned. The Civil Rights movement popped onto COINTELPRO’s radar around 1957 and by 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a clearly defined target of the program.

Most of the focus on COINTELPRO has been on its operations directed against black nationalist groups and left wing terror organizations like the SDS and Weather Underground. But that is only part of the story. At the same time the FBI had started to see the Civil Rights movement as a potential Communist front, it also began to treat the KKK as a subversive organization, too. Not only was it violent, it was making the FBI look foolish and complicit in its violence. FBI agents were seen standing by as Civil Rights protesters were brutalized and did nothing. Hoover’s quite accurate protests that his agents could not intervene because of jurisdictional issues was not taken serious. The lack of success the FBI had in cracking some high profile murders resulted in the FBI being accused of being involved in a cover up… this was something the PR conscious Hoover did not like.

By 1964, the FBI had effectively declared war on the KKK. The attacked the Klan with gusto and in much the same way as they had mostly destroyed the CPUSA. By 1968, most Klan organizations were actually run by FBI assets and where at one time in order to be elected to any office in the South you had to have a relationship of some sort with the KKK, by 1968 politicians who were current KKK members were a distinct outlying group.

The next quotes will be from Dr. David Cunningham’s examination of COINTELPRO, Understanding State Responses to Left- versus Right-Wing Threats: The FBI’s Repression of the New Left and the Ku Klux Klan. (Yes, it is 44 pages but it is worth the reading.)

I have examined the patterning of actions within the FBI’s COINTELPROs against white hate groups and the New Left as a vehicle to disentangle the complex relationship between the Bureau and right- and left-wing political activity between 1964 and 1971. During this time, the FBI—given its massive campaigns to discredit the leadership of the civil rights movement and its active harassment of any organization or individual deemed sympathetic to the Communist Party—was commonly seen as hostile to the goals of the civil rights movement in particular and the American left generally. I reach similar conclusions here, but for different, and largely unexpected, reasons. The FBI did indeed oppose the emergence of a strong civil rights movement, and Director J. Edgar Hoover had a great fear that a ‘‘black messiah’’ would rise to threaten the very fabric of American life (FBI memo from director to 41 field offices, 4 March 1968). However, the Bureau’s reluctance to protect civil rights workers in the South and its enthusiastic harassment of black activists did not prevent the initiation of a counterintelligence program against the very white hate groups that shared its fear and dislike of the civil rights movement.

Contrary to expectations, COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups, in terms of its scope or seriousness of purpose, was not a token program existing to create an illusory sense of concern about the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan against civil rights workers and African Americans in general. Instead, when looking at its range and frequency of actions, the Bureau’s repression of the Klan was overwhelmingly similar to that employed in COINTELPRO-New Left, which constituted the most fully developed program of repression against the American left. … Recognizing this equivalence is not in any way a refutation of Hoover’s much publicized disdain (at the least) for Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and other civil rights and black power leaders—his attitudes toward them, as toward various leaders of the New Left, were clearly and unambiguously negative. However, it does significantly challenge the view that the Bureau’s opposition to civil rights–related political change extended to the active support of, or even a laissez-faire attitude toward, the Klan. Reading through thousands of pages of COINTELPRO-White Hate Group documents, one is struck by the Bureau’s dogged efforts to hinder Klan attempts to violently act to protect the status quo. In Cunningham 2000 (ch. 3), I argue that there is an organizational explanation for this—that similar organizational structures (across COINTELPROs) will lead to similar outputs that are sometimes insensitive to the preferences of individuals within the organization in question. But a deeper examination of the Bureau’s actions allows for the uncovering of small differences in the patterning of actions across COINTELPROs that hint at differing overall strategies against their targets.

Not to take away anything from the people who were on the front line during the Civil Rights movement, but non-violence only works if both sides adhere to the rules. It worked for Ghandi because he knew the British would simply not make a practice of firing into crowds. For a while that mutually understood rule set did not exist in the Civil Rights movement. Where local police might be constrained in the use of deadly force, the KKK was under no such restriction. Had the FBI not targeted the KKK for suppression through  COINTELPRO, the Civil Rights struggle would have been much longer and much more bloody. By discrediting the Klan and its leaders throughout the South, the FBI played a significant role in ensuring that the Civil Rights struggle was able to keep non-violence its strategy when, by 1965, violent resistance was beginning to gain a great deal of support with in the movement.