From 1956 to 1971, the FBI actively tried to subvert civil rights and New Left movements through often illegal means. Among its many targets were activist groups in North Texas.
The name of the project was the Counter Intelligence Program, which was syllabically abbreviated to COINTELPRO.
Most of the FBI’s publicly documented COINTELPRO activity in North Texas happened specifically in 1968, an election year punctuated by international unrest stemming from the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles. The recent protests triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have drawn comparisons to the massive wave of demonstrations that happened in 1968. But what’s less widely known is the lengths that federal law enforcement has taken to thwart such activism.
Under the authority of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO operations were conducted during four presidential administrations. The tactics at the FBI's disposal ranged from undercover infiltration and blackmail to wrongful imprisonment and even assassination.
“I wrote about COINTELPRO when the information first started to leak out, in a [Socialist Workers Party] publication. Later version published in New Political Science,” said Noam Chomsky, political activist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an email to Dallas Observer. “Tried hard to arouse some interest. There was very little. It was swamped by Watergate, which was trivial by comparison.”
Under COINTELPRO, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave the FBI permission to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. In one of the FBI's most egregious abuses of power, it worked with the Chicago Police Department in bringing about the death of Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton while he was asleep in his bedroom in the early morning of December 4, 1969.
According to documents released by the FBI decades later, one Dallas organization of particular interest was a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter formed by Southern Methodist University students in April 1967. The SDS movement was vague in its aims, but it nonetheless became one of the most popular organized groups of the New Left.
In January 1968, one key member of its SMU chapter, a 26-year-old faculty member whose name was redacted from FBI documents, hosted a party in his house at 4915 Swiss Ave., which he and his friends called “The Peace and Love House.” FBI informants were present, and they were tasked with passing on as much damning information against SDS members as possible. The only dirt they had on the Peace and Love House was that partygoers were smoking marijuana, but it was nonetheless documented in a memo’s “Immorality” section.
The same memo also reports that the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Dallas chapter, whose name was also redacted, lived with women “out of wedlock” in his apartment and once got arrested for “using abusive language.”
“Although there have been no student-police encounters, riots, uprisings, or insurgencies on college campuses within the Dallas Division, it appears necessary for college officials and administrators to take a firm stand in resisting militant minority elements attempting to disrupt or take over campuses,” the June 1968 document said.
Informants also infiltrated the committee’s Dallas chapter as it staged a July 1968 protest/boycott against the now-defunct OK Supermarket. The store was owned by white people who, the activist claimed, took advantage of their placement in a lower-income black neighborhood by selling often-expired food at exorbitant prices. Activists asked the owners to sell the business to a black buyer, but they refused.
About two months later, the FBI sent an anonymous letter to an SMU student’s parents, informing them that their son was a member of SDS. Later, they interviewed the student’s mother to determine if he was in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, where police tear gassed SDS members who staged a protest. The student was in Dallas at that moment, but his mother still expressed disappointment in his political activities.
What is arguably the FBI's most unlawful COINTELPRO operation to ever take place in Dallas followed only weeks later.
In October 1968, the FBI and the Dallas Police Department raided the office of the leftist newspaper Dallas Notes. They furnished a warrant that alleged evidence of the editors having “pornographic” material, a charge which a local judge promptly dismissed, as a pretext for confiscating typewriters and credit cards belonging to the newspaper, then ripping the electrical wiring out of the walls before leaving. The paper’s editor, Stoney Burns, was later charged with inciting a riot unrelated to the raid, for which he served a three-year prison sentence.
More COINTELPRO activity took place in Dallas before and after these episodes, but thanks to eight activists who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, these details are most readily available to the public.
This burglary intentionally coincided with a boxing match dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” where heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The activists successfully predicted that the unprecedented hype surrounding this event would provide a distraction and make the office’s security more vulnerable. Ali himself was a COINTELPRO target for his opposition to the Vietnam War and affiliation with the Nation of Islam.
The FBI officially terminated the program in April 1971, one month after its leak, but the FBI’s subversion of activist groups continued even after the dissolution and Hoover’s subsequent death in 1972. In 1983, for example, Special Agent Dan Flanagan paid members of messiah claimant Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church to gather intelligence on an SMU student organization that opposed U.S. intervention in El Salvador.
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Public information on more recent FBI activities against activist groups is considerably more scarce, but according to leaked documents published last year by online news show The Young Turks, the agency’s focus on counterterrorism measures includes a certain cohort they labeled “black identity extremists.” In a press release concerning this report, Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program, said, “These documents show the FBI wasted resources to target black people because of protected First Amendment activities.”
These revelations have prompted some to argue that the FBI is still engaging in COINTELPRO-like activity, but there is insufficient evidence to suggest that a federal law enforcement operation of its scale currently exists. Despite that, it is one of the many events of 1968 that have drawn comparisons to 2020.
But not everyone is convinced the comparison holds water. In a June 11 op-ed in The Washington Post, historian Thomas Sugrue argued it was “tempting but problematic” to draw comparisons between this year and 1968.
“Glib comparisons obscure what persists from the 1960s, reducing a long movement for racial justice to a comparison of presidential rhetoric,” Sugrue wrote. “Seeing 1968 and 2020 as flash points in law and order, as moments of ‘culture war,’ makes it difficult to see what has changed over more than a half-century. The who, the where and the why of 2020 cannot be boiled down to a reprise of 1968, nor can we predict political responses by catching a glimpse of the past through our rearview mirrors.”