'By Means Fair or Foul': America's Conspiracy to Assassinate Black Power

The body of Malcolm X is viewed by newsmen at the Unity Funeral Home, Eighth Avenue and 126th Street in New York City.
Photo: File (AP)

There is no such thing as “white people.”

While the concept of race has always been an unscientific axiom, whiteness is the most mutable of the social constructs we call “race.” Whiteness is a fence with portable borders, defined more aptly by who is not inside. The Irish weren’t considered white. Neither were the Italians. Or Eastern Europeans...until they were allowed to jump the fence and assume all the powers and protection of whiteness.

Throughout history, there were groups who peered inside the fence and decided that they didn’t want the things inside the fence. And in America, for some reason, this presented a threat to whiteness. After all, what good is a fence if the people on the outside have more power than the gatekeepers?

The fence is what gives them the power.

A recent revelation from a former NYPD officer connected with Malcolm X’s assassination—along with the movies Judas and the Black Messiah and One Night in Miami—has engendered new interest in the federal government’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and the assassinations of Fred Hampton and Malcolm X. But these political assassinations were not separate incidents. They were part of a singular plan by a singular entity. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s bureau surveilled nearly every significant Black movement in modern history; each of these leaders were “neutralized” by the FBI for their pursuit of the same goal.

Black power.

The plot to eradicate the threat of Black power is documented by evidence, testimony and government documents from federal, state and local agencies. It is a tale that involves the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies on the planet and one of the greatest rappers of all time.

This is not a conspiracy theory.

This is the true history of a conspiracy about a conspiracy theory.

Johnny got the job.

It was 1913, and Johnny, a recent high school graduate, secured his first employment assignment at the Library of Congress, a few blocks away from his childhood home. The position was also within walking distance from George Washington University, where Johnny had just enrolled as a freshman. Because of the stutter that earned him the nickname “Speed,” prospective employers had rebuffed Johnny, but this new gig didn’t require face-to-face communication. Instead, Johnny mostly sat at a desk, typing memos and learning the library’s filing system. By the time Johnny earned his Master of Laws in 1917, he had become one of the federal institution’s most diligent workers, impressing supervisors with his work ethic and his expertise in cataloging the institution’s massive book collections. Speed would later say that his time at the Library of Congress trained him in “the value of collating material” and gave him “an excellent foundation” for assembling information and evidence. After he graduated, Speed took his talents to his new gig at the Bureau of Investigation’s War Emergency Division, where he earned $900 a year.

Speed’s boss was Tom Wilson, a virulent segregationist who rose from academia’s ranks to become one of the country’s most respected white supremacists. In his previous job as president of a prestigious Princeton University, Wilson successfully ensured that his beloved institution would be the last Ivy League school to admit Black students. He had famously written one of the more popular American history books. In it, he argued that the racial terrorism of Reconstruction was caused by white supremacists’ “instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes ignorant negroes.”

Wilson got his new position by appealing to these white supremacist tendencies, but he was progressive in one aspect, however. In 1915, Wilson invited Speed’s frat brother Thomas Dixon Jr., the writer and “great-granddaddy of white nationalism” to the office to screen his adaptation of the novel, The Clansman. Wilson said it was “like writing history with lightning” and the movie is generally considered the first Hollywood blockbuster. Aside from Speed’s college fraternity friend, perhaps nothing is more responsible for the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s than when Speed’s boss organized a movie night for one of the most racist films in the history of American cinema.

That theatrical debut for Birth of a Nation took place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., when Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, held the White House’s first movie screening.

By 1917, the U.S. was embroiled in the “Great War,” and Congress had just authorized the Espionage Act. The legislation gave the Bureau of Investigation the authority to investigate, interrogate, and surveil Americans suspected of “disloyalty.” In a few months, Speed had compiled thousands of files on American citizens who were suspected of being “subversive.” His knack for meticulously collecting and storing information landed him a promotion to head of the “Radical Division”—the Bureau’s new General Intelligence Division. But in 1918, a few months after Speed’s promotion, the First World War ended.

At 24 years old, he was in charge of the most advanced non-military intelligence operation in the known universe. But with no war to build a reputation on, no formal experience in policing or detective work, and surrounded by war veterans and Secret Service officers, Speed found a way to keep his status as a rising star in the Bureau of Investigation by casting the response to white supremacy as “subversive.”

Soon, Speed began to adopt a more dignified persona and stopped using the nickname. Even the name John was too commonplace, so he condensed it down to an initial. What started with a job in the Library of Congress eventually evolved into a grand conspiracy that is still being uncovered to this day. Speed would use his knack to collect, process, and catalog detailed bits of information to stop every movement for freedom and equality for the next half-century.

In late 1921, the General Intelligence Division was moved to the Department of Justice and, on May 10, 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone appointed John Edgar “Speed” Hoover as acting director of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In January 1922, aided by an informant, federal agents arrested Marcus Josiah Garvey for mail fraud.

Although he was the most influential Black leader of his time, Garvey did not present a threat to white power. But by advocating for Black economic and political independence, his mere presence threatened the power dynamics of this country. Garvey was convicted with no evidence on the testimony of a paid informant. By the end of 1925, Garvey was serving a three-year sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Upon his release, Garvey was deported from the United States.

Marcus Garvey would not be the last Black revolutionary targeted by the American government for building a coalition of Black power.

“How Do They Be Knowing?”

On Wednesday, July 12, 1961, four defendants in a Little Rock, Ark., courtroom had a decision to make.

Standing in front of Municipal Court Judge Quinn Glover was 27-year-old pastor John C. Raines, 23-year-old teacher Bliss Anne Malone, 23-year-old housewife Janet Reinitz and 30-year-old minister Elton Cox. After lecturing the group for their “assault” on the city, Glover presented the four Freedom Riders with a proposition that seemed as if it was ripped from the pages of a dime-store novel: They could pay a fine of $500 and spend six months in jail or the local police could escort them to the edge of town.

Raines and Reinitz were white, while Malone and Cox were Black. They had been charged with breach of peace for participating in the “Freedom Rides,” the Congress of Racial Equality’s effort to test the Supreme Court ban against racial discrimination on interstate transportation. Glover’s offer seemed like a deal. The defendants had already been assaulted by a crowd of more than 300 people and spent two nights in jail. The group discussed the offer and Raines informed officials that he—along with the others—had made a decision.

They chose jail.

The fines and sentences were ultimately suspended after an apology to the city, but the experience left a bitter taste in Raines’ mouth.

The story was one of the biggest in the country that day, along with a story about roving “Negro youth gangs” attacking innocent white residents in Chicago.

Raines joined the Freedom Rides after reading about how Klansman attacked, beat and firebombed Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham, Ala. He was told to expect resistance from Klansmen even though he wondered how the white supremacists always seemed to pick the right bus. As one fellow Freedom Rider—some guy named John Lewis—asked: “How do they be knowing?”

Two years later, on Sept. 15, 1963, Raines lent his support after Klansmen bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, along with 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair.

On June 13, 1964, Raines and hundreds of civil rights activists converged on Oxford, Ohio, to train for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer. Six of them would be murdered that summer, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Thirty-five more would be shot, 80 would be beaten and more than 1,000 would be arrested. Almost 90 percent who showed up for the registration were white.

In 1965, Raines participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March, when the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo, made her the first and only white woman killed in the civil rights movement (unless you count Jean Seberg). Both white women were accused of having “relations” with Black men.

By 1971, Raines had settled down, married, had children and was a professor at Temple University. Raines rarely talked about his time in the civil rights movement because he always ended up sounding like a conspiracy nut. Raines had come to believe the FBI and the CIA were using “dirty tricks” to derail the movement for equality and were responsible for the deaths of Black leaders.

John Raines was going to tear down the fence.

“The Handwriting on the Wall”

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam to start his own Black nationalist movement. In April, he left for a pilgrimage to Mecca and, on May 8, the New York Times published a letter explaining Malcolm’s new position.

“If white Americans would accept the religion of Islam, if they would accept the Oneness of God (Allah), then they could also sincerely accept the Oneness of Man, and they would cease to measure others always in terms of their ‘differences in color,’” he wrote. “I do believe that whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, through their own young, less hampered intellect, will see the ‘handwriting on the wall’ and turn for spiritual salvation to the religion of Islam and force the older generation of American whites to turn with them.”

One month later, on April 17, the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) hired a Black undercover agent to infiltrate Black organizations. Days before Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, journalists across the country reported a crazy story about “a small group of negro extremists” and their plan to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and the crazy plotters.

Time reports:

According to charges brought by New York police last week, the mastermind—if that is the word—of the plot was one Robert Steele Collier, 28, a library clerk who visited Cuba early last summer and returned to organize the Black Liberation Front. Also charged were Walter Augustus Bowe, 32, a onetime trumpet player who used to lead a combo called “The Angry Black Men,” but more recently has worked as a $50-a-week New York settlement-house youth leader, and boyish-looking Khaleel Sul-tarn Sayyed, 22, son of an Arab-descended Negro who runs a Brooklyn delicatessen. And then there was husky (6 ft. 1 in., 201 lbs.) Raymond A. Wood, 31, a former Chester, S.C., high school football star.

The plotters were seeking to create a spectacular sort of disturbance that would dramatize the troubles of U.S. Negroes. Bowe, Sayyed and Wood started scouting around last month, visited the 300-ft.-high, 225-ton Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Obviously, blowing up the Statue of Liberty would be as spectacular an event as anyone could wish for.

According to the letter revealed by attorney Ben Crump on Saturday, Bowe and Sayyed were “key players” in Malcolm X’s crowd control security detail.

On Feb. 21, 1965, three armed men charged the Audubon Ballroom stage and released a barrage of bullets from two semi-automatic handguns and a sawed-off shotgun. People at the scene recounted that one of the Statue of Liberty bombers, Raymond A. Woods, was in the crowd. Woods quickly left the scene and the iconic leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) was rushed to a nearby hospital.

Raymond A. Wood was an undercover police officer.

Malcolm X was dead.

On November 18, 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover held a press conference shortly after an international committee recognized an American patriot for fighting outside the fence. A year earlier, Hoover excoriated the award recipient as a communist and “the most notorious liar in the country.” A few days after the presser, FBI agent William Sullivan penned an “anonymous” letter imploring the communist liar to commit suicide. Sullivan dispatched an agent to Miami to mail the letter to the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, a lone rifleman fired a bullet into Martin Luther King Jr.’s face as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Trusted King photographer Ernest Withers arrived on the scene. While everyone present was too disturbed by the assassination to function, Withers calmly developed the now-iconic photographs of the death of King.

Ernest Withers was an FBI informant.

Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

On April 4, 1969, Fred Hampton Jr., along with William “Preacherman” Fesperman of the mostly white Young Patriots and Jose “Cha Cha Jimenéz of the Young Lords founded the “Rainbow Coalition.” Based on the principles of the Black Panther Party, the group fought against police brutality and gentrification and fought for better housing. They didn’t just demand better healthcare for their communities; they opened their own free clinics. They didn’t just protest poverty, they modeled their free breakfast program after the Panthers’.

They were building a coalition of power outside the fence.

On December 4, 1969, aided by a floor plan from FBI informant William O’Neal, police stormed into a Chicago apartment at 2337 W. Monroe St. and released a barrage of bullets at the bed where O’Neal had pointed out that Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party, would be sleeping. Finding their initial target still alive, the assault team reportedly fired two more shots. The informant had left the scene but Hampton, the iconic leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was dead.

He was building a coalition of Black Power outside the fence.

From July 18 to 21, 1969 the Black Panther Power organized the United Front against Fascism Conference. Formed around the 10 principles of the Black Panther Party, the conference aimed to develop a political strategy representing the “poor, Black, oppressed workers and people of America.” Around 5,000 people responded to the call, including members of the Communist Party USA, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Third World Liberation Front, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Young Patriots Organization and various groups associated with the women’s liberation movement.

On December 9, 1969, aided by a map drawn by government informant Melvin Cotton Smith, the Los Angeles Police Department’s brand new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team released a barrage of bullets at a bed. Smith had informed officials that Geronimo Pratt, the Los Angeles Black Panther Party’s Deputy Minister of Defense, would be sleeping there. Pratt was asleep on the floor. After a furious gun battle, Pratt and other Panthers were arrested.

Three years later, Pratt would be in prison for a murder that would be eventually overturned 27 years later.

It is possible that more Panthers would have been targeted if not for Alice Faye Williams, a section leader in the Panthers’ Harlem Chapter who successfully led a disinformation campaign to fool the FBI that the Panthers’ influence was fading. Her close ties to Pratt eventually made her a target.

On April 2, 1969, Williams, along with Richard Earl Moore, Lumumba Shakur, Ali Bey Hassan, Michael Tabor, Eddie Joseph, Abayama Katara, Baba Odinga, Joan Bird, Robert Collier, Sundiata Acoli, Lonnie Epps, Curtis Powell, Kuwasi Balagoon, Richard Harris, Lee Berry, Lee Roper, and Kwando Kinshasa were indicted for a Panther plot terrorist plot to bomb two New York City police stations and government building.

Facing 300 years in prison and pregnant, Williams decided to represent herself. During the longest political trial in New York history, she got FBI informant Ralph White and Raymond A. Wood to admit, in court, that law enforcement officials had created the entire plot. In May 1971, Williams and the rest of the “Panther 21” were acquitted of all charges less than a month before she gave birth to her son Lesane Parish Crooks. A year later, she changed his name...

To Tupac Amaru Shakur.

Panther leader Huey Newton would face four trials for two different murders. None of the accusations would stick. Officials would charge Panther founder Bobby Seale with a murder because he happened to be in town for a few hours when the murder took place. Seale would beat the case, but not before he faced conspiracy charges for organizing an anti-war protest. Seale was found not guilty but served four years in prison for contempt of court. The conviction was later reversed. During his murder trial, Seale was bound and gagged. The offenses were so egregious that a young attorney organized law school students to document the violations of Seale’s civil liberties. The law student’s name doesn’t matter...

It was some lady named Hillary Rodham.

Days before the Panther 21 trial ended, the world was enraptured with the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. On the night of the fight, a group of anonymous white activists broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa., and stole a treasure trove of documents. As they left to look through the pile of papers, one of the burglars stopped by a pay phone and delivered the following statement to a journalist at Reuters:

On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society. Two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate. Instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs. Finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers...

As long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a small clique not subject to democratic scrutiny and control. Then repression, intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected. We do not believe that this destruction of democracy and democratic society results simply from the evilness, egoism or senility of some leaders. Rather, this destruction is the result of certain undemocratic social, economic, and political institutions.

The documents would reveal that John Edgar Hoover had used his skills to create a 50-year intelligence-gathering and surveillance project. Nicknamed COINTELPRO, the Counterintelligence Program had targeted every Black leader during the civil rights struggle. Its stated goals were to:

  • Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups because “in unity there is strength.
  • Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify ... the militant black nationalist movement
  • Pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence [against authorities]
  • Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to ... both the responsible community and to liberals who have vestiges of sympathy...
  • Prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth
Image for article titled 'By Means Fair or Foul': America's Conspiracy to Assassinate Black Power
Image: FBI Vault

This is how we know that William O’Neal, Hampton’s bodyguard, was an FBI informant. This is how we know that the FBI believed Stokely Carmichael had “the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way” because, during the Freedom Rides, he began using the phrase “Black Power.” This is how we know that the FBI sent a “suicide package” to Martin Luther King Jr. after Hoover told agents, “We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.”

And this is how we know about Gary Rowe.

In 1960, 27-year-old Gary Rowe joined the Eastview Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, the most violent chapter in Klan history. In 1961, after receiving a call from Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor and Sgt. Tom Cook promising his Klansmen 15 minutes of uninterrupted violence with the Freedom Riders, Rowe grabbed a baseball bat and organized the attack in Anniston. When he put the attack together in Birmingham, he used an iron pipe. Two years later, Rowe helped plan the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Rowe was in the car with the Klansmen who shot Viola Liuzzo in Selma and helped spread the rumor that she was involved with Black men.

But in April 1960, Rowe was just a regular citizen when Barrett G. Kemp offered Rowe money if he would join the Ku Klux Klan.

Barrett G. Kemp was a special agent for the FBI.

In the book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Betty Medsger writes:

More than anything, the Media files offered “the public and Congress an unprecedented glimpse of how the U.S. government watches its citizens—particularly black citizens,” wrote Washington Post journalist William Greider in an analysis of all the files the summer after the burglary. Despite the fact that the files had been removed from a very small bureau office in a predominantly white area, they revealed details of the bureau’s policies and actions that made it clear the FBI conducted massive spying on African Americans, most of it unjustified.

The overall impression in the Media files of how the FBI regarded black people was that they were dangerous and must be watched continuously. To become targets of the FBI, it wasn’t necessary for African Americans to engage in violent behavior. It wasn’t necessary for them to be radical or subversive. Being black was enough.

Not all of this information was in the files recovered by the Citizens’ Commission but the break-in caused a congressional investigation that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO. For years, Hoover kept all of these files sealed and refused to participate in any investigations with state and local agencies, except one.

While searching through the document, the Citizens’ Commission found a copy of a floor plan for a Chicago apartment. Like many of the painstakingly detailed papers, the floor plan contained the words “COINTELPRO.” One of the burglars wondered what it meant.

His name was John C. Raines.

That’s how they be knowing.

DISCUSSION

By
FeministOnFire

I love how Harriot is able to weave disparate bits of info we know into a bigger picture! I have known about most of these people and that vague entity ‘the feds’ doing dirty my whole life. And J. Edgar’s singular level of evil with regard to Black leaders. It may seem reductive but, I wonder how successful any of The Gubmint’s efforts might have been, if not for the willing complicity and participation of Black men.

Here so many brave Black men are highlighted for their stalwart works (and badass Madam Shakur) but many others were so willing to be used to bring down their brethren! Why? How? It doesn’t seem like they were even threatened with jail or tortured or disappeared for a while and returned with these new assignments. They seem like regular dudes: MLK’s photog, Malcolm’s bodyguard, even the NJ NOI dude alleged to have killed him didn’t emerge from their betrayals as millionaires for their work. Hell, even for the work-a-day cops’ exploits: none of them became Top Cops or HNIC. So, if not for money or career elevation, thrn whuh?

Even when you consider they may not have understood their true assignment in the beginning, descendants of slaves have always known how to disseminate critical information to each other secretly. When they started having suspicions and inklings, why not turn double-agent, warning folks, setting up counter measures against the feds, sabotaging shit?

I don’t know. Maybe hindsight is 20/20 and makes things seem simpler but I was enraged for weeks after watching Netflix’s Who Killed Malcolm doc. I was pissed knowing that even if it was only a few who conspired beforehand, all the NJ folks who knew AFTER the fact, stayed silent, hid the killer and were mad that anyone was trying to reveal the truth!

THAT can’t be blamed on the gubmint or white men. That was us.

I don't know.