The Federal Bureau of Investigation, previously known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), was formed on July 26th, 1908 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The organization was primarily created to protect ‘America and the international community from a world of dangers’.1 The FBI concentrates its investigation on terrorism, public corruption and cybercrime.2 The FBI’s work holds the fundamental foundation to America’s national security as it operates under the Department of Justice, acting in the citizen’s interest. However, the archives which belong to the FBI seem to suggest that the activities of the FBI impeded the development of the Civil Rights Movements and the goals of the Black Power Movement. The extent to which this is true is going to be discussed as it is imperative to distinguish how the FBI did impede the Civil Rights Movement and how this is going to be judged and measured. The way this will be analyzed is by looking at whether these civil rights organizations progressed or were weakened due to the FBI activities. Much of this evidence is held within the FBI archives, some of which are still not available for public viewing, however, from these we can still establish the extent to which the FBI did impede the development and goals of the Civil Rights Movement, with a particular focus on the Black Power Movement.
A key figure who catalysed the Civil Rights Movement through the activities of the Black Power Movement was Martin Luther King Jr. King’s work was imperative to the progression of African American civil rights as he founded, maintained and led many organisations that aided the African American population throughout the process of developing their economic, social and political rights which became limited by many within the United States, such as the Supreme Court, Congress and anti-civil rights group which involved the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen’s Councils. King’s most highlighted moments included forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, becoming a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the influential ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963, the march on Washington in 1965, the march from Selma to Montgomery which also took place in 1965, as well as many other protests.3 King’s non-violent and peaceful approach to protest came into use as he co-operated with powerful white leaders, such as the Presidents of the United States at the time. Although many within his organisations disagreed with this, claiming King to be turning his back on his own by working with the white man, King was able to achieve legislative change in the aid of African Americans.
However, the credit King gained from his work put him in the centre of the attention when it came to the public eye, meaning King also received attention from the authorities. Much of this concentration on King by establishments, such as the FBI, were often unwanted, as it repeatedly adversely impacted the activities of the Black Power Movement, whether that was through delaying their actions or stopping them altogether. Because of this, there has been much speculation as to ‘the possibility that the Bureau may have had some responsibility in Dr. King’s death’, 4 which came as a result of King being fatally shot in Memphis in April 1968. This supports the argument that the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, as the organisation had been accused of being involved with the murder of one of their most influential leaders. To many, King’s death was symbolic of defeat when it came to protesting for African American civil rights and scared many other potential powerful leaders to stand up. Some view King’s assassination as a deterrent to being involved with the Black Power Movement, viewing the violence as too dangerous. However, to others, hearing of King’s death raised emotions which resulted in violent outbursts. This caused more than ’40 deaths nationwide and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities’5 just from this one event. The conspiracy behind the FBI having connections to King’s assassination, thus impeding the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, is further supported by the fact that until King as assassinated, King ‘was the target of an intensive campaign by the F.B.I to neutralize him as an effective civil rights leader’.6 The FBI used wiretapping and surveillance as techniques to decrease the efficiency of King as a leader by remaining one step ahead of the movement if they were to disrupt the orderly day-to-day life of society. To support this, William C. Sullivan, who was the former Assistant Director of the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI stated ‘that in the war against King “no holds were barred”‘7 during the time King led the Black Power Movement. As there was also a ‘counterintelligence campaign against King’,8 this severely impeded the development of the Civil Rights movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement as King became restricted in his ability to further his aptitudes. The suspicion around the FBI’s interference with King is also emphasised in archives where it is discussed that there may not have been an ‘impartial and thorough investigation of the assassination’.9 This does not give confidence to those who believe that the FBI aided the progression of African American civil rights by supporting the Black Power Movement.
What is important to consider with evidence that is used to decide whether the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement is that much of this information is held in archives belonging to the FBI. What is interesting about these sources is that at the time when the reports and memos were written, they were not made for public viewing. When these sources were made the FBI did not expect people to read them, purely because American citizens did not have access to them during this period. This issue has been published itself in FBI archives as seen in a report about Martin Luther King Jr. that ‘no decision has been made on whether this report will be released to the public’.10 This strengthens the authenticity of the archive as it is less likely that the material written in the files were changed to cater towards public opinion, as it was not expected that any else apart from the sender and the recipient would read them. Furthermore, the fact that these archives were now only released recently, as opposed to the time that they were made, generates further suspicion around the argument that the FBI did in actuality impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, as the organisation did not want the national and international population to view the FBI in a way that would suggest they were not supporting the progression of African American civil rights, hence not publishing any material that could suggest they were impeding Martin Luther King Jr.’s work within the Black Power Movement.
Additionally, further evidence found within FBI files reveal more examples to show that the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement. This is because many files show an invasion of privacy in King’s life, revealing how he was watching in both his political and personal life. This gives the impression that the FBI was attempting to change the image King had made for himself by tarnishing it through revealing his intimate affairs, which would harmfully impact his role. On one occasion, the FBI went against orders first initiated by the Attorney General and instead launched an ‘illegal counter-intelligence program directed to discredit and neutralize the civil rights leader’11 because of suspicions that King was ‘under the influence of the Communist Party’.12 This is evidence that the FBI focused much of their attention on to King and would not stop even when they were given opposing orders. This became clearly evident in later-released FBI files which revealed much of King’s personal life. The files explained that ‘King engaged in another, two-day, drunken sex orgy in Washington, D.C’,13 which contrasted significantly to the honourable image King had created for himself as leader of the African American Civil Rights Movement, as the public at this time still had the perception of King as a ‘moral leader of religious conviction’.14 The FBI can also be held responsible for causing even more controversy around King, publicly publishing his ‘illicit love affair with the wife of a prominent Negro dentist in Los Angeles, California, since 1962’15 which questioned King’s moral values to many. It was these investigations into King’s private affairs which can be argued to be the reason how the FBI impeded the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power movement, as King lost some of his following due to the revelation of his personal life, even though these matters had not been proved true.
The FBI have been criticised for their decisions revolving around King’s surveillance, especially as many were illegal and went against their orders. From a historian’s perspective, it is crucial to respect that this evidence on King’s personal life is simply a study on him as an individual as opposed to his political role. However, this information was only released in October 2017 by the current US President Donald Trump through files containing information about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This highlights how the FBI not only kept a very close eye on King but also other people in high positions of power, such as presidents at the time. Although the files containing King’s personal life were not released until recently it shows that during this time King was under such extreme surveillance. Therefore, King may have also felt pressure to not act as noble or as bold as he would have done because he knew he was being watched by the authorities. This would have restricted his capabilities when working within the Black Power Movement and thus confirming that the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite what many FBI archives entail, which suggest that the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, the FBI themselves believe the opposite. They proclaim that they excelled the ambition of the African American Civil Rights Movement as ‘since its earliest days, the FBI has helped to protect the civil rights of the American people’.16 The FBI states they achieved this by ‘battling the KKK as early as 1918’17 which was crucial as The Ku Klux Klan was the most famous anti-civil rights group against the progression of African American civil rights. The KKK ‘peaked with 6 million members in 1924’18 which impeded the Black Power Movement significantly. This is because the group targeted African Americans and used violence to intimidate and threaten them, even using extreme methods such as lynching to stop the progression and goals of the African American Civil Rights Movement. However, what is important to remember is that with this evidence, which suggests that the FBI did not impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement or the goals of the Black Power Movement, is that it originates from the FBI website that was created and is maintained today by the organisation itself. A weakness of this evidence is that because it comes from a website that is made for the public and for their convenience, this means that the information will be favoured towards the organisation and thus, would not publicly acknowledge if they had previously impeded the African American Civil Rights Movement. This is because the purpose of their website is to positively promote their activities as an organisation which was first created to protect all citizens of the United States as well as internationally. As well as this, as the FBI is such an influential power globally, any disputes or extreme criticism against them, such accusations that the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, could very quickly and easily be removed before it severely impacted the reputation of the FBI.
When investigating the extent to which the FBI had impeded the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement, discussing the nature of the evidence the FBI has is extremely important when deciphering this. Much of the FBI’s material which is available for public access is stored in archives on their website, ‘The Vault’.19 However, not all files that the FBI have in their possession has been released for the public to see, hence increasing suspicions on what the FBI could be hiding. Even when records that are not released at the time of publication are later released, that does not guarantee that it will include all of the files. This was seen when US President Trump recently published FBI files on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but only did so to comply with legislation. However, 300 files were still ‘classified out of concern for US national security, law enforcement and foreign relations’,20 emphasising the distrust surrounding using the FBI. Nonetheless, the material that is available online is not always suitable as evidence. For example, as seen in Appendix 1, all of the information has been redacted out. So, although the FBI has technically released a document to the public, it does not mean all the information is visible. This makes it incredibly difficult for historians to gather evidence on an event/individual without all the information being available. As well as this, other pages in a document may be partially blacked out, as seen in Appendix 2. This is common across many archives dealing with a sensitive topic. For example, the reports shown in the appendices revolve around John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As most of these files have been processed by many departments, there are also handwritten comments on some pages. However, the advantage of this is often wasted as the writing can be illegible, as seen in Appendix 3, again furthering the difficulty of how much the file could be used as evidence. The way the FBI dealt with the distribution of their evidence can be argued to have impeded the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement. This is because the FBI could have had a positive role in raising awareness of the activities of the African American Civil Rights Movement by publishing information on their marches and other non-violent protests, but instead, they did not. If the FBI was to publish anything on the matter it would often be a criticism against the movement’s leaders, as seen with the Martin Luther King Jr. reports.
Overall, the extent to which the FBI did impede the development of the Civil Rights Movement and the goals of the Black Power Movement is significant as the FBI had impacted and published detailed descriptions of one of most influential leaders of the movement in terms of their personal life. The FBI has been exposed to conducting their own illegal orders on King, hence arousing more suspicion with the FBI in connection with King’s assassination. However, in the FBI’s defence, their aim may not have been to impede the African American Civil Rights Movement but to maintain national security. This is because King was linked to Communism and due to the Red Scare, which took place in America after the Cold War, the fear of a Communist threat was understandable. As well as this, the FBI cannot be wholly responsible for all reasons that impeded the Civil Rights Movements, as this may have been due to other reasons. For example, the conflict between African American civil right leaders delaying the movement itself or disorganisation between members when it came to protests. Furthermore, it is also important to remember that King is not representative of the entirety of the Black Power Movement and so to fully understand the extent to which the FBI is responsible for impeding the Civil Rights Movement, files on other Black Power leaders, such as Malcolm X, would need to be investigated also. But, it is also important to consider whether the African American population was fairly represented in the FBI, or if they were unfairly embodied, hence their Black Power Movement being impeded.