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Shining a light on COINTELPRO’s dangerous legacy

FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Greg Nash

Shaka King’s new, Academy Award-winning film “Judas and the Black Messiah” is introducing a new generation to an especially dark chapter of American history — the FBI’s secretive COINTELPRO program that spied on and harassed Americans exercising their Constitutional rights to dissent and seek justice.

It dramatizes FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, a charismatic Black political leader. It is now clear that the FBI orchestrated the predawn Chicago police raid that killed Hampton and Mark Clark and wounded four others.

This wasn’t a random incident. These tactics and deadly manipulation were FBI policy. I plan to examine the COINTELPRO programs at a virtual forum on Monday with my congressional colleagues, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party and a close friend of Hampton, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Long before I became the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, I had studied this misuse of government authority by COINTELPRO and have worked hard to prevent such abuses from happening again.

We now know that the FBI coordinated a series of assassinations as part of its covert domestic programs. The COINTELPRO was set up to surveil and disrupt groups and movements that the FBI found threatening. Though many groups, including anti-war, student, and environmental activists, and the New Left were harassed, infiltrated, falsely accused of criminal activity, the Black community — and particularly the Black Panther Party — bore the brunt of the abuse. The attack on the Black Panthers was one element of the bureau’s efforts, as Hoover himself described it, to “disrupt, misdirect and otherwise neutralize” African American organizations and prevent the possible rise of an influential Black leader — a Black messiah.

In addition to the killings of Hampton and Clark, the FBI’s harassment and surveillance of Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad, are now part of a history we must repair. So are Hoover’s exaggerated fears of, and obsession with, the threat posed by intellectuals, political dissidents and anti-war and contraception activists. His FBI targeted Billie Holiday, Emma Goldman, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Felix Frankfurther, John Lennon, and hundreds more for exercising their Constitutional rights. His antipathy toward homosexuals led to the FBI’s investigation of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, and kept prominent closeted individuals compromised and in fear.

Our planned forum will look at the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the impacts that still linger today, and how policymakers can learn from this period to protect every American’s right to dissent. Our witness panel will include victims of the FBI’s lawless programs, including Akua Njeri, Fred Hampton Jr., Ericka Huggins, and Bobby Seale. We will also hear from crusading Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger, who brought the program into the light. We will also look at lessons for policymakers and how with former FBI Special Agent Mike German, now with the Brennan Center for Justice and Nkechi Taifa a lawyer and criminal justice reform leader.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to push our nation to wrestle with the symbols of America’s racist past, including statues and military bases honoring slave-holding Confederate generals, many are being removed or reconsidered. Removing the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the architect of COINTELPREO, from its place of prominence on the headquarters of the FBI in Washington, is a parallel effort.

Hoover, who served as FBI director from 1924 to 1972, was a notorious bigot who sought to disrupt the civil rights movement, attack Black and anti-war activists, and out LGBTQ federal employees. Under his leadership, the FBI engaged in a variety of questionably legal practices. He may be best remembered for his campaign to discredit Dr. King through the use of wiretaps and other tools.

In March, I introduced a bill to remove Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters building, and was joined by Reps. Lee, Rush and Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr. (D-Ga.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), André Carson (D-Ind.), Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), and Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

For Rep. Rush, removing Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters building is not just the right thing to do; it’s also personal: “Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI was directly involved in the state-sanctioned assassination of my friend and Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton,” he said when we introduced our bill. “He does not deserve a place of honor in our history, and his name should be stripped from the building that now bears it.”

We must reckon with Hoover and his actions, not honor them. As a recent Chicago Sun-Times editorial noted in the context of new documents linking FBI leadership to Hampton’s death and its coverup, we can correct our history, but we need to be aware of it. It quoted the young poet Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration:

“Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

COINTELPRO is a stain on America’s commitment to the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties. We can and should stop honoring this tainted legacy, and call attention to the poisoning legacy of Hoover and COINTELPRO.

These recent films are shining light on a significant and historically important aspect of COINTELPRO’s wrong-headed and dangerous perspective, which is reminiscent of recent official tolerance of right-wing activism and helps to warn those who might fail to confront it. I hope many will also pay attention to what our forum on Monday reestablishes and brings to light. Our forum is a good way to step into our past and try to repair it.

Congressman Cohen is the Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. He represents Tennessee’s 9th District.

Tags Barbara Lee Bobby Rush Gwen Moore Joe Biden Karen Bass

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