The F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO and The “Subversive” Black Freedom Struggle (by Abigail Ball)

Standards:

History/Social Science Content Standard:

  1. Explain how the federal, state, and local governments have responded to demographic and social changes such as population shifts to the suburbs, racial concentrations, Frostbelt-to-Sunbelt migration, international migrations, decline of family farms, increases in out-of-wedlock births, and drug abuse.

Reading Standards (Grades 11-12):

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationship among the key details and ideas.
  3. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Overview:

This purpose of this lesson is to explore in depth the government repression of Black Freedom Struggle organizations in the 1960s. More specifically, students will analyse the counterintelligence programs of the F.B.I. that targeted and subdued various civil rights organizations, in particular the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California and quickly became an integral element of the greater Black Freedom Struggle. The Party was known for challenging police brutality and promoting self-defence by “whatever means necessary”, organizing important community service functions like a Free Breakfast Program, and embodying Black Power 1. Law enforcement agencies like the police and the F.B.I. were particularly threatened by the Black Panthers due to their militancy and widespread influence. As a result, law enforcement stifled the Party as best they could through an F.B.I. counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO operated for more than a decade on the basis that civil rights organizations were “subversive” and thus needed to be discredited and dismantled at every opportunity through covert and often times illegal tactics 2.

In this lesson students will study primary and secondary sources in order to learn more about the Black Panther Party and the related operations of COINTELPRO. They will review F.B.I. documents that describe the mission of COINTELPRO. They will consider questions about Black Panther ideology and whether or not the F.B.I. was justified legally and/or morally in their fight against the Black Panthers. Ultimately, this lesson seeks to achieve three main goals for the individual student’s learning:

  1. Learn about specific historical events and figures within the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s.
  2. Encourage a broader understanding of the complex relationship between the U.S. government and the path to civil rights.
  3. Improve the ability to understand and analyse primary and secondary sources.

The activities of this lesson as explicated in detail below will serve to achieve these three goals and provide a fun and interesting day in your history classroom.

Essential Understanding:

Students will understand how the F.B.I. participated in active repression of Black Freedom Struggle organizations like the Black Panther Party, and thus question the broader legal and moral prerogatives of government.

Questions:

  1. What were the ideologies, strategies and tactics of the Black Panther Party?
  2. Who was J. Edgar Hoover? What is COINTELPRO?
  3. What tactics did the F.B.I. employ in their efforts to repress Black Freedom Struggle organizations and leaders?
  4. What did the F.B.I. mean by the classification of subversive? Did the Black Panther Party fit this characterization?
  5. To what extent was the F.B.I justified legally and/or morally in their repression of Black Freedom Struggle organizations?

Glossary:

  1. Repression: The action of subduing someone or something by force.
  2. Pigs: A term used by members of the Black Panther Party to describe police officers and greater law enforcement.
  3. Black Power: the political and economic power of black Americans in solidarity, especially such power used for achieving social equality.3
  4. Ideology: A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.
  5. Strategy: A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
  6. Tactics: The art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end; a system or mode of procedure.4

Introduction:

The early Black Freedom Struggle is largely characterized by well-known leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X; and of course, their philosophies of integration, non-violence and/or black nationalism. These leaders and their initiatives demonstrate important ideologies, though do not by any means reflect all of the viewpoints or tactics within the Black Freedom Struggle as a whole. To understand the progression of the Black Freedom Struggle, we must learn about the rise of Black Power ideology. At its core, Black Power emphasizes black political and social empowerment through self-determination. Becoming popular in the 1960s, Black Power encouraged black people to form a community of racial pride separate from white norms. For example, Black Power advocates emphasized the physical beauty of blackness by growing large afros or wearing cultural dress without trying to conform to white beauty standards 5. In 1966, members of the black youth in Oakland, California founded the Black Panther Party on these ideals. The Black Panthers were different from prominent existing civil rights organizations in a number of ways, including their ideology, strategies and tactics. The organization quickly became an integral element of the greater Black Freedom Struggle by challenging police brutality against African Americans, advocating for self-defence by “whatever means necessary”, organizing important community service functions like a Free Breakfast Program, and more 1.

Law enforcement agencies like the police and the F.B.I. were particularly threatened by the emergence of this new militant and highly popular organization, and so engaged in thorough counterintelligence measures against the Black Panther Party. In fact, throughout the entirety of the Black Freedom Struggle, the F.B.I. had always paid close attention to civil rights organizations and their leaders through a program known as COINTELPRO. In 1956, the leader of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, created this counterintelligence program to monitor and ultimately discredit various black nationalist and civil rights organizations2. COINTELPRO operated for more than a decade on the basis that black rights organizations were “subversive” and thus needed to be neutralized. Methods of neutralization included but were not limited to: police harassment and arrests of known activists, the infiltration of various organizations by informants, and the publishing of fake and inflammatory propaganda. Some of the most notable examples of COINTELPRO operations were the blackmailing of Martin Luther King Jr. with information on his extramarital affairs and the wiretapping of the Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton6. COINTELPRO operations were always covert and at times illegal; until in 1971 the operation was exposed through leaked documents and eventually brought before the Senate for investigation.

In this lesson we will analyse the relationship between the government and black rights organizations by examining COINTELPRO and its impact on the Black Panther Party. This topic will force us to investigate the complex history of the U.S. government and civil rights, and confront important questions regarding the legal and moral prerogatives of government agencies like the F.B.I.

Materials:

  1. “The Vanguard of the Revolution” Documentary5
  2. “The Legacy of the Black Panther Party” Article7
  3. Definition of Subversive8
  4. “Counterintelligence Program: Black Nationalist Hate Groups” Primary Source9
  5. COINTELPRO Video: “Secret COINTELPRO Is Alive Today—A Brief History”10

Activities:

Before class the students should be assigned the following homework assignment: Watch the documentary “The Vanguard of the Revolution” and read the article entitled “The Legacy of the Black Panther Party”. These two sources are provided as numbers 1 and 2 of the Materials section. The students should take notes on both sources, specifically seeking to identify the ideology, strategies, and tactics of the Black Panther Party.

The Lesson:

  • What does it mean to be subversive?

Have the students free-write for three-five minutes answering the question, “what does it mean to be subversive?” Encourage students to write anything that comes to mind. For example, word associations, examples of subversive things, etc. Once the time is up, have the students turn to the person next to them and share their ideas. Then, as a class discuss the various ideas students came up with. Make sure to write these down on a chalkboard or on the computer, as we will return to the ideas later in the lesson. Finally, show the students the actual definition of subversive, as provided as number 3 of the Materials section.

  • Recap of the Black Panther Party:

Next, have a brief discussion on what the students learned in their homework; for example, what they found most interesting about the documentary and the reading on the Black Panther Party. Establish general answers to the questions: Who were the Black Panthers? What did they stand for? What were their main actions? You should write notes about the answers to these questions on the chalkboard and leave them up throughout the lesson as a reference for students.

  • Primary Source Analysis:

Distribute a copy of the primary source entitled “Counterintelligence Program: Black Nationalist Hate Groups” to each student, provided as number 4 of the Materials section (only pages 3 & 4 of the linked document). Instruct them to skim the entire source without taking notes or marking it up. The purpose of this is to simply gain context of the document as a whole. Then, instruct the students to re-read the bottom paragraph of page 3. Tell the students to read this excerpt carefully, marking up important words or phrases. Then allow them a few minutes to jot down what they think are the most significant take-aways from the excerpt. Lead a class discussion in which students share what they thought was most significant. You can further prompt the students’ discussion with questions like, “did anything shock you when reading the source?” or “do you think this source was intended to be published to the general public?”

  • Lecture about COINTELPRO:

Show the students the brief video describing COINTELPRO, provided as number 6 of the Materials section. This will provide a good overview to prime them for the following lecture. Then proceed with a lecture on COINTELPRO. This lecture should include information targeted to answer the following content questions: What were the main tactics of COINTELPRO (i.e. wiretapping, infiltration, false propaganda, etc.)? How did COINTELPRO impact the Black Panther Party (i.e. the conflicts between leaders of the BPP, harassment of members, etc.)? How and why did COINTELPRO end? There are various sources provided in the Additional Sources section that contain information relevant to this lecture.

  • Discussion Connecting Subversive with the Black Panther Party with COINTELPRO:

The students will have a final discussion connecting the various topics they have explored in this lesson. Going back to their initial ideas of subversive, pose the question “Is the Black Panther Party subversive?” Discuss why or why not. Discuss the tactics of COINTELPRO and the drastic consequences they had on the Black Panther Party. Have students consider if these tactics were justified even if the Black Panther Party was subversive or not.  

  • Final Take-Away:

If there is extra time in the class period, have the students begin their reflections on what they have learned today. Whatever they do not finish in class, they will finish for homework. The reflection should be a one to two paragraph analysis of the relationship between the F.B.I. and Black Freedom Struggle organizations that uses information and evidence gained from at least two of the sources that the students encountered in this lesson.

Additional Sources:

Drabble, John. 2008. “Fighting Black Power-New Left Coalitions: Covert FBI Media Campaigns and American Cultural Discourse, 1967-1971.” European Journal of American Culture 27 (2): 65-91. doi:10.1386/ejac.27.2.65_1

Chalmers, David. 1990. “The Security State in America: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.” Reviews in American History 18 (1): 118-23. doi:10.2307/2702736.R

Harris, J. (2001). Revolutionary Black Nationalism: The Black Panther Party. The Journal of Negro History, 86(3), 409-421. doi:10.2307/1562458

Jones, C. (1988). The Political Repression of the Black Panther Party 1966-1971: The Case of the Oakland Bay Area. Journal of Black Studies, 18(4), 415-434. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/2784371

Williams, Yohuru. 1998. “In the Name of Law: The 1967 Shooting of Huey Newton and Law Enforcement’s Permissive Environment.” Negro History Bulletin. Black Studies Center.

Williams, Yohuru. 2008. “Some Abstract Thing Called Freedom: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party.” OAH Magazine of History 22 (3): 16-21. doi:10.1093/maghis/22.3.16.


1 Harris, J. (2001). Revolutionary Black Nationalism: The Black Panther Party. The Journal of Negro History, 86(3), 409-421. doi:10.2307/1562458

2 Chalmers, David. 1990. “The Security State in America: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.” Reviews in American History 18 (1): 118-23. doi:10.2307/2702736.

3 Black power. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/black-power

4 Tactics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tactics

5 Firelight Films. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Arlington, Virginia: PBS. Distribution, 2016.

6 Jones, C. (1988). The Political Repression of the Black Panther Party 1966-1971: The Case of the Oakland Bay Area. Journal of Black Studies, 18(4), 415-434. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/2784371

7 Abron, J. (1986). The Legacy of the Black Panther Party. The Black Scholar, 17(6), 33-37. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/41067327

8 Subversive. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/subversive

9 Hoover, J. E. (n.d.). Counterintelligence Program: Black Nationalist Hate Groups (Rep.).

10 AJ. (2015, June 22). Retrieved May 06, 2019.

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