Members of the Black Panthers lined up at a Free Huey (Newton) rally in DeFremery Park in Oakland.
“The status quo — hallowed by hate, sanctioned by Jim Crow — was beginning to crack. Behind the scenes, J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was keeping watch. In 1967, the FBI quietly unleashed a covert surveillance operation targeting “subversive” civil rights groups and Black leaders, including the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and many others. The objective, according to an FBI memo: to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’ the radical fight for Black rights — and Black power. Details of that sabotage plaster internal FBI records, with thousands of pages scattered across a medley of databases. Now, the UC Berkeley Library is working to put those pieces together. In May, just before the movement for Black lives cascaded over the planet, the library acquired a digital database of FBI records on the surveillance of African Americans throughout the 20th century, expanding the trove of federal records the Library has assembled over the years. Today, the materials provide not only a window into the FBI’s past abuse, but also an unplanned guide for the Black activists demanding racial justice again, now 50 years later. ‘These documents … reveal and confirm the kind of root investment in anti-Blackness and quelling dissent that has long been part of our government structure,’ says Leigh Raiford, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley. ‘We can only imagine the extent to which the current administration, and the current FBI, is working to discredit, disrupt, and destroy Black Lives Matter and other movements. I’m hoping that a new generation of researchers will learn new lessons for how to outmaneuver these attempts.’ One of the biggest lessons contained in the documents is abundantly clear: Whatever you do, don’t let them think you’re a communist. For Hoover, an Ahab-type character in pursuit of his cursed whale, the mere whiff of such leanings could trigger the dirtiest of tricks in the FBI’s arsenal. … The FBI’s surveillance of African Americans and Black rights organizations — whom the FBI called ‘Black Extremists’ or ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups’ — grew out of the bureau’s larger espionage operation known as COINTELPRO, the now-infamous program launched in 1956 to snuff out communism in the United States. …”