How State Surveillance Undermines Black Freedom Movements

A protestor speaks with officers during the George Floyd protests in Seattle, WA (Derek Simeone, Flickr)

Ray Wood was known to me only in family lore I’d forgotten. CORE scholar L. E. J. Rachell and James Farmer’s autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, reminded me. He convinced my uncle Makaza Kumanyika (then Herb Callender), Bronx Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader, to make a citizen’s arrest of the mayor. It turns out that Ray Wood would become the center of infiltration efforts by the FBI and New York Police Department, which eventually led to the assassination of Malcolm X. Ray Wood was a Judas among many, and his story is a complicated morass soon to reveal itself in the biography written by his cousin Reginald Wood.

Informants make for easy targets. They are traitors to the race, and their condemnation is reflected in terminology like “Judas,” a word seen most recently in the film Judas and the Messiah. And yet, these tropes do more to hide than reveal. While Black informants become scapegoats, we miss the true devil behind the curtain – state surveillance power.

The federal government, particularly the FBI, has a long history of undermining Black freedom  movements and not without reason. The FBI’s mission is to “Protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Problematically, embedded in the constitution it seeks to protect are sections given over to the control of enslaved persons, including “provide for calling forth the Militia to…suppress Insurrections and repel Invasion.” To be sure its early application included circumstances like the Whiskey Rebellion, but it (and its expansion in the 1807 Insurrection Act) directed much of its attention against domestic insurrection by enslaved Black people. That this section undoubtedly referred to Black people is also supported by its appearance in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson alters the original document condemning the King for slavery to the phrase, “he has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”

In short, fear of Black rebellion is built into the founding documents which the FBI proports to protect. Inculcated in the FBI’s structure then, is a recurring tendency to view Black protests as a threat to American stability and security. The FBI historically and, in many ways, remains guided by the distorted vision of Blackness as a peril to the American body politic. As a result, the FBI approach to Black protest has been the same from Marcus Garvey to Black Lives Matter. Only its tools, in line with technological transformation, has changed.

In the post-WWI period, the FBI precursor, Bureau of Investigation worried itself with fears of the Garvey movement. The young J Edgar Hoover earned his chops targeting Garvey in what Historian Theodore Kornweibel referred to as a “vendetta.” The FBI successfully removed Garvey through deportation. However Black resistance remained under scrutiny. Historian Robert Hill’s work, The FBI’s Racon: Racial Conditions in the United States during World War II examines J. Edgar Hoover’s order to investigate if Negro individuals or organizations demonstrated any sympathy for the darker races – with particular emphasis on the Japanese “darker race.” The Nation of Islam came under examination in this period long before the arrival of Malcolm X.

And though much is known about the FBI and Black power organizations, little has been said of how it harassed groups post-WWII through the 1950s. In fact, the FBI not only had its own operation, but also joined city and state entities to investigate civil rights activists. In Harambee City, I document how Cleveland’s Subversive Squad monitored and reported the activities of multiple social justice groups, including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) during the 1940s. Soon thereafter, Hoover began a rabid attack against civil rights organizations, particularly targeting Martin Luther King, Jr.

For over fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover was a bane to Black people’s existence – attacking and building the strategies that defined the function of the FBI. His legacy remains embedded in both the spirit of the FBI and in the name of its Washington, DC headquarters –signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972, and formally dedicated by Gerald Ford in 1975.

COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971 and its methods of disrupting freedom movements were mendacious and varied. Surveillance was the least of the offenses. Cursory review of liberated COINTELPRO documents reveal an agency actively destroying Black freedom movements with the intent to incite murder, disrupt interpersonal relationships, create public discord, sow confusion, and instigate internal organizational strife. As Branko Marcetic noted, by the 1960s, the FBI’s “bread and butter of COINTELPRO operations was the use of wiretaps, anonymous letters, informants, and other means of subterfuge to, in the Bureau’s own words, foster factionalism and create suspicion within groups, bring individuals into disrepute before the American public…” It also included police harassment and arrest on low-level charges; letters to spouses alleging affairs, media disinformation, misinformation campaigns with politicians and the American public, prodding activists to engage in violent attack of persons and property, threats against individuals, planting false evidence, and an incalculable toolbox of strategies and tactics yet to be identified.

Fred Hampton (1948-1969) was deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Photo: Wikimedia.
Fred Hampton (1948-1969) Photo: Wikimedia.

During the 1970s, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities investigated and condemned the FBI’s extralegal activities, including the use of informers. The newly released movie Judas and the Messiah, dramatized the role of informants in the most infamous of publicly known cases, the killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The feature film demonstrated how bureau tactics constantly centered on ways to kill Fred Hampton and obliterate the Chicago Black Panthers. It bares noting that the FBI first tried to incite Hampton’s murder by turning Blackstone Rangers gang leader, Jeff Fort, against Hampton until the Chicago police took matters into their own hands.

In sum, the whole of the FBI’s history and operation depended on liars lying for the intentional purpose of destroying Black freedom efforts.

What seems like an obvious observation however, has not made its way into how the public deals with the FBI and the individuals associated with its misinformation apparatus. The FBI relied on a bevy of persons who provided information, though it was not always clear how these participants were attained. Some, to be sure, were hired law enforcement, others paid sources, and undoubtedly a few were forced contributors. The Ray Wood and William O’Neal stories expose a far more nuanced process where the categories informers, informants, or infiltrators heavily depend on state decision and pressure. Not all information participants were the same nor were these positions static.

Some individuals provided information short term or communicated public news. Rarely did informers contribute long term knowledge sharing. Informants, however, operated differently. These individuals regularly supplied data, that likely varied from unharmful extraneous details to more damaging information impacting the safety and security of individuals or organizations. Informants might receive payment or be coerced. This is a key point. If we recognize that the FBI has participated in assassinations, it’s not implausible that they utilized strategies of a lower octave like threatening individuals or the associates/family of potential participants. In some cases, the vulnerable status of the individual inherently situated them as coerced. For example, youth or imprisonment inhibited “choice” and precluded these individuals from assignment to the highest category, infiltrator.

Infiltrators in Black movements were not a new phenomenon of 1960s COINTELPRO. The FBI cooed about its first Black agents, all of whom worked for the agency during the 1920s. Four (James Wormley Jones, James Amos, Earl Titus, and Thomas Leon Jefferson) previously worked in law enforcement, while one (Arthur Lowell Brent) operated as a “special employee.” All were assigned to work against Marcus Garvey. In fact, the first Black agent, James “Jack” Wormley Jones was exclusively hired to bring down the Garvey movement as white agents had “difficulties” with infiltration. Thus, infiltrators are never coerced – at least initially. They were long term sources who were fully informed of the FBI’s intent. Although infiltrators may wish to cease their activities, rarely is this possible – a circumstance demonstrated in both the cases of Ray Wood and William O’Neal.

While these distinctions might seem irrelevant, these categories are useful for pinpointing how state power operated on and/or against individuals. Before we assign blame, questions abound regarding how the FBI determined what was “subversive” behavior? Who within the institution participated in this decision making? And once they received information on their target, what they did with it? Focus on the “Judas” operates to obscure the FBI’s active role as instigator. It also erroneously places onus on the individual over the entity with the greatest power, the state.

Certainly, the behavior of Ray Wood and William O’Neal were abhorrent. They themselves knew it and were dogged by it until their very deaths. However, they are not the ones most worthy of our contempt. When we discuss the history of a struggling people, we should preserve the strength of our focus on the real powers at work. We do well to remember that the FBI and law enforcement agents have often acted as the source of our oppression, and information participants serve a minor (though not unimportant) role in suppression of Black freedom movements. The true infiltrators and oppressors are law enforcement agencies and the FBI. They- who have the money, institutional backing, intent, and a vicious power -have yet to reveal all they are and all they’ve done. But, what we do know is – Ray Wood and William O’Neal are simply puppets hiding the true hand of power.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Nishani Frazier

Nishani Frazier is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. History, African-American History, Black internationalism and Women and feminist history. She is the author of Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism (University of Arkansas Press, 2017).

Comments on “How State Surveillance Undermines Black Freedom Movements

  • Avatar

    Excellent Article. We have always been used against each other, and been the scapegoat at the end.

  • Avatar

    Thanks much! And exactly… Add in new technologies like AI, and it’s best we get to telling how they did it before to prepare for how they do it now and will do it later.

Comments are closed.