Congressman Bobby Rush Pushes For Bill To Open FBI Files On Espionage Program

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., takes part in a congressional round-table
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., takes part in a congressional roundtable on Nov. 1, 2011, in Washington. Rush is pushing for the release of documents related to the COINTELPRO program. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., takes part in a congressional round-table
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., takes part in a congressional roundtable on Nov. 1, 2011, in Washington. Rush is pushing for the release of documents related to the COINTELPRO program. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

Congressman Bobby Rush Pushes For Bill To Open FBI Files On Espionage Program

In the late 1960s, Blackstone Rangers leader Jeff Fort received an anonymous letter warning him that local Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton wanted to kill him. Curiously, Hampton received an anonymous letter that said Fort wanted him killed. Both letters were signed by a “concerned black brother.”

Fort found the letter amusing and doubted its authenticity. Conventional street wisdom back then was that street brothers didn’t write letters to each other about potential hits. Fort was right. Years later it was revealed that the FBI sent those anonymous missives.

Fort and Hampton had briefly met on Chicago’s South Side with Panther Bobby Rush in attendance. The Panthers desired to politicize the Stones in the struggle for Black liberation. A coalition between the two organizations never happened in part because in 1969 police and the FBI killed Hampton in his West Side home as he slept. But the letter speaks volumes about the degree to which the feds employed illegal tactics to sow dissension and chaos.

Fred Hampton speaks outside a rally outside the U.S. Courthouse in Chicago
In this Oct. 29, 1969, file photo, Fred Hampton, center, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party, speaks outside a rally outside the U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. ESK / Associated Press

I wrote about this along with Lance Williams in our 2011 book The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang. We obtained those FBI records that included the “concerned brother” letter because a pair of lawyers — Jeffrey Haas and Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office in Chicago — had already fought for their release. The documents fell under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious and clandestine COINTELPRO in which agents targeted liberation groups during the civil rights movement from 1956 to 1971.

Now, Congressman Rush is taking aim at the program and has introduced legislation that would require the release and public disclosure of all records related to COINTELPRO, which targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Malcolm X and groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

“The dark legacy of COINTELPRO remains a stain on our nation, and it is incumbent on those of us in positions of power to get the truth about this program out to the American people. It is also vital to the future of civil rights in our nation,” Rush said in a recent statement. “We must pull back the curtain on the FBI’s racially and politically motivated espionage on its own citizens. My bill would also remove the name of J. Edgar Hoover, who was the number one assailant on America’s constitutional guarantees for its citizens, from the FBI building in Washington, D.C.”

Haas, author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton, has defended Panthers and written extensively about COINTELPRO’s role in the revolutionary’s killing. Haas told me there’s still a lot to comb through with the case if Rush’s bill is passed and a flood of files come into public view.

“I think there’s a lot more particularly with regard to the Fred raid and the coverup,” Haas said. “There’s some pretty damning stuff. We know Hoover was afraid of everything that people of color did to the left. We could assume that there were many other people on whom there are many files.”

Bobby Rush in Chicago 1970
Bobby Rush, left, in fur hat, Illinois chairman of the Black Panthers, surrounded by unidentified aides, in Chicago, Jan. 6, 1970, after attending a Cook County Coroner’s inquest into the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. LO / Associated Press

I imagine releasing those files would keep journalists, lawyers and scholars busy for decades. Keeping a secret program cloaked in secrecy today is a disservice. It took Haas years to get some of the documentation Lance and I were able to get. Knowing about the letter incident continues to inform us today. Haas said Rush’s bill could also prove revelatory to current iterations today — from the standoff at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation over a pipeline being built to uprisings in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police and the longtime collusion between government and private security forces.

“Uncovering how far our government went is an indication of where it might be going or what it can do. We know that it monitored and tracked and arrested and worked with law enforcement against various Black Lives Matters protests,” Haas said.

Renewed interest around COINTELPRO is in part because of the recent movie Judas and the Black Messiah, which dramatizes the FBI-orchestrated killing of Hampton. Opening up the FBI records to the public would bring full circle a lot we don’t know about Hoover’s paranoia and tactics in trying to suppress activism and equal rights.

“We’re entitled to make sure that our government protects our right to speak and assemble and speak out and not inhibit or try to destroy whether clandestinely or otherwise legitimate movements,” Haas said. “Most of the progress in this country has come from people in the streets raising issues — whether it’s the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay movement, the anti-war movement around Vietnam.”

The government should never target people or infiltrate organizations that disagree with U.S. policies, Haas said. COINTELPRO leaves a stain on this nation but we can’t truly reckon with its devastation until every single file is out in the open.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her @natalieymoore.