The FBI was (is?) serious about monitoring the activities of Black people in America. Among the groups they have spied on and infiltrated are what they label the Black Extremist Matters, Black Nationalist Movement, Black Panther Party, Congress of African Peoples (CAP), International Black Workers Congress aka Black Workers Congress, Junta of Militant Organizations, Republic of New Africa, Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Communist Influence of Black Extremist Groups, Key Black Extremist Program, Extremist Informants, Ghetto Informants, and Counterintelligence Program — Black Extremists. These names come from an FBI report classified “Secret” within the Domestic Intelligence Division, dated August 17 — September 9, 1971.
The FBI documented their apparent fear that Black extremists planned to overthrow the U.S. government. A passage from the report is below:
"There are numerous black extremist groups throughout the nation, the majority of which are local in nature and relatively small in membership. These groups, however, either directly or indirectly, advocate defiance of the law, hostility towards constituted authority and, in some instances, advocate outright destruction of Government and establishment of a Marxist-Leninist form of Government. The activities of these groups constitute a constant threat to the internal security of the country through their propensity for violence, hatred of, and outright opposition to our form of Government."
In 1971, when this report was issued, I was a member of an all-Black Boy Scout Troop. I attended a Black church that was active in community affairs, and three friends and I sometimes wore Australian bush hats from a military supply store because we thought they looked cool. It seems any of those things might have drawn the attention of the FBI and been reported up and down the chain to the White House and local police.
The Bible teaches, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” In Black America, a few gathered might have included an informant from the FBI who viewed you as a potential threat to the country.
I considered myself familiar with the COINTELPRO program that infiltrated Black organizations, spied on Black leaders, and monitored churches and mosques. The FBI did spend time on the Ku Klux Klan, for example, but fell short on the enforcement end when the membership turned out also to be the establishment of the community. I encourage readers to read the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth about an undercover operation in the KKK. The plug was pulled after a small level of success when the Klan members reached too high in society.
Reading the FBI report brought to mind Fred Hampton in Chicago. The FBI provided information to Chicago police, leading to Hampton being drugged and murdered in his bed while the FBI observed. I thought of the death of Malcolm X, where the misinformation by the FBI is still being unraveled. Despite all I thought I knew, I paused when I stumbled upon the Ghetto Informant Program, which to me was a new low.
The Ghetto Informant Program (GIP) was instituted on October 11, 1967, to meet an “urgent need for listening posts in the ghetto areas of our cities.” I’m curious to know how the FBI defines “ghetto area,” do they mean the Black side of town, which many cities have created through housing policies and municipal planning? I grew up in Minneapolis, which had poor areas of the city. Were they ghettoes, according to the FBI?
The FBI defined a ghetto informant as “an individual living or working in the ghetto area who can furnish information concerning conditions which may create civil unrest.” The program evolved between 1967 and 1971 to where the FBI didn’t want listening posts; they wanted their informants “actively seeking extremist information as well as information concerning violations of Federal and local statutes. I wonder how much the FBI contributed to the mass incarceration focus of the 1970s. Many ghetto informants were promoted to regular informants based on the quantity and quality of information provided.
Between 1967 and 1973, there were over 7,000 participants in the GIP. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, wrote a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in which he said:
“We have not heretofore had to deal with the possibility of an organized pattern of violence, constituting a violation of federal law, by a group of persons who make the urban ghetto their base of operation and whose activities may not have been regularly monitored by existing intelligence sources.
As a part of the broad investigation which must necessarily be conducted … sources or informants in black nationalist organizations, SNCC and other less publicized groups should be developed and expanded to determine the size and purpose of these groups and their relationship to other groups, and also to determine the whereabouts of persons who might be involved in instigating riot activity in violation of federal law.”
Among the inspirations for the program were the Watts Riots of 1965. The riots were deemed unacceptable, while the police violence that sparked the riots was ignored. Targeted snitches included owners of candy shops, record stores, or barber shops in the Black community. Informants were sent to African-American Bookstores in search of subversive literature. At least 67 members of the Black Panther Party were tasked not only with collecting information but also spreading misinformation.
After operating for six years without court or congressional oversight, the FBI says they shut down the Ghetto Informant Program in 1973, but did they? GIP overlapped similar programs like COINTELPRO, which says they shut down in 1971, but we know they have continued under new names. “Counterterrorism” guidelines implemented during the Reagan administration have been described as allowing a return to COINTELPRO tactics. As recently as 2017, the FBI was discovered to be targeting Black groups under the banner of Black Identity Extremists. Their definition seemed to include anyone upset about police brutality and killings, and that was before the George Floyd video sparked millions of protesters across cities worldwide.
I am forced to consider the organizations I’ve participated in since I was a Boy Scout in tenth grade. I went to an HBCU known for its activism. Fisk University students helped organize the Freedom Rides and gave us leaders like John Lewis, Diane Nash, and, very recently, Justin Jones. Were there FBI agents in class with me? I was an officer in an NAACP branch, a member of a Black fraternity, and a regular visitor to Black bookstores and barbershops. My children were in Jack & Jill, and I’m in some Black groups on Facebook. Have my writings made me a target for FBI surveillance?
The concept of seeking out presumably poor people to rat out their community is disturbing. What might someone do or say at the urging of their government to put food on their table? I wish there were more information about the locations of the 7,000 ghetto informants and the organizations targeted, but that remains secret.