Congressman Bobby Rush recently introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would require the government to release its decades-old records from COINTELPRO, an FBI-run covert surveillance program that monitored the Black Panthers, as well as civil rights and anti-war activists, among others.
Under the bill, within six months of enactment, the name of J. Edgar Hoover—who oversaw the FBI during the program – will be removed from the FBI headquarters in Washington.
“I want to shine a bright light on this dark chapter of our nation’s history,” Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois said in a statement introducing his proposal on May 4. “And I think it is very timely and very important that we do it at this moment.”
Rush, who co-founded the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter, was close friends with Fred Hampton.
In 1969, Hampton was the party chapter’s chairman who created the first Rainbow Coalition before he was killed in a predawn raid by Chicago police.
Rush, who blames the FBI for Hampton’s death, called for a full reporting of the domestic spying on civil rights activists and others.
“As a victim of COINTELPRO, I want to know, with honesty, with clarity, and with no redactions, the full extent of the FBI’s nefarious operations,” the congressman said.
“I want to know the breadth and depth of the conspiracy to assassinate Fred Hampton and how taxpayer dollars were spent on his assassination. I want to know why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a focus of the FBI, why Billie Holiday was a focus of the FBI—I want to know why so many young activists were harassed by the FBI. What was the justification for the impact that it had on their lives?”
The Black Panther Party emerged from the Black Power era that succeeded the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Inspired by Malcolm X’s revolutionary Black nationalism, it demanded decent housing for Blacks and an end to police brutality. Members patrolled Black neighborhoods to protect residents.
COINTELPRO was founded as part of the FBI’s efforts to stymie communism within the United States. It soon expanded to include counterintelligence efforts on Americans in ethnic activist groups and other domestic groups like the Socialist Workers Party. The program sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” Black nationalist groups in cities across the country, according to documents from 1967.
During a recent forum on COINTELPRO, Rush said, “the program was a criminal counterintelligence program that targeted African American citizens, particularly Black political activists, during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and the ‘70s. The dark legacy of COINTELPRO remains a stain on our nation.
“Government officials including, and led by, the odious J. Edgar Hoover, utilized the full arm of the federal government, and the federal budget, to target, arrest, and even murder American citizens who were carrying out their constitutional right to protest injustices conducted by the American government. These individuals who were targeted by the FBI and other governmental agencies were no threat to the safety and security of this nation. They were protesting under their constitutional authorities and rights as American citizens.
“It is incumbent upon those of us who are in positions of power to get the truth about this program to the American people. And this is vital to the future of civil rights in our nation.
“Even as we speak, I reflect upon, in Chicago, I think that there was more outrage by the Chicago Police Department and the political establishment in Chicago — and probably throughout the nation — to the fact that members of the Black Panther Party were feeding hungry children breakfast before they went to school, testing for sickle cell anemia among Black students, organizing free health clinics, organizing free buses to prisons programs.
“These programs enflamed the FBI more than any other aspect of the programs of the Black Panther Party because they showed a real consternation between what humane policy should be, and the inhumaneness of the federal government and policing across the nation.”
Hampton’s story was dramatized in the critically acclaimed “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The film paints a biographical portrait of Hampton and tells the story of his activism in Chicago as FBI informant William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, reports his movements to the FBI. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Daniel Kaluuya won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hampton.
A grand jury found Hampton had been shot in the head twice and that police had found two guns next to him.
Initially, seven Panthers were charged with attempted murder and other counts; the charges were later dropped.
No one was brought to justice in the raid that killed the 21-year-old Hampton and his defense captain, Mark Clark, in December of 1969. A prosecutor and 13 others were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice and were acquitted in 1972.
A decade later, the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government agreed to a $1.85 million settlement with the raid’s survivors and Clark’s and Hampton’s families.
The Black Panthers maintain the men were targeted and murdered by Chicago police serving a warrant for illegal weapons.