HOW THE FBI WEAPONIZED HOMOPHOBIA IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
By Darius Spearman (African Elements)
INTRODUCTION: THE PRICE OF “ACCEPTANCE”
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a pivotal moment in American history, as activists fought for equal rights and an end to racial discrimination. However, while the movement focused on issues of race, it often overlooked and marginalized the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. However, many LGBTQ+ individuals were active in the Civil Rights Movement and fought alongside their allies for equality. However, they faced discrimination and magrginalization within the movement. Some LGBTQ+ activists were even rejected or expelled from civil rights organizations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
That is true mainly because the Civil Rights Movement focused mainly on gaining acceptance in mainstream society. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, in 2015, 60% of Americans said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to just 11% in 1977. The FBI used this fact to undermine the movement for racial justice.
The FBI used accusations of homosexuality as a tactic for discrediting activists and dividing the movement. The FBI often opposed the nonviolent civil rights movement. The perceived threat of armed revolution by African Americans during the Black Power era. (Leighton 152)
The FBI tried to disrupt civil rights activities because they viewed the movement as a threat to the country’s stability. Ostensibly, the FBI feared that the civil rights movement would lead to an armed revolution by African Americans, which could potentially overthrow the government. More likely, the bureau was leery of the social upheaval that went along with the prospect of a civil rights revolution. Additionally, the FBI used accusations of homosexuality to discredit activists and divide the movement since, at the time, homosexuality was still primarily seen as taboo in the mainstream.
THE FBI AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
For example, in the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man and key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., was kept out of the public eye because of his sexuality. Rustin was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and is credited with helping to shape many of the strategies used by civil rights activists during this time. As an organizer and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin was crucial to the movement. However, as an openly gay man, in public other leaders, including King, kept Rustin at arm’s length due to fear of how white people would react.
The FBI fully understood that publicizing the sexual orientation of gay activists could create a negative image at a time when gay people faced demonization. Additionally, the FBI used accusations of homosexuality to discredit activists and divide movements. Taking full advantage, there is significant evidence in Rustin’s FBI file that the bureau sought to use accusations of homosexuality throughout the 1960s to undermine him. The bureau hoped to discredit Bayard Rustin as homosexual to undermine their efforts to advance the civil rights movement. The bureau continued to believe the civil rights movement was under Communist influence. (Leighton 153-154)
The FBI unleashed an arsenal of tactics against movements and movement leaders. At the core of this effort, COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) was a secret FBI program used to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic political organizations. It was created in 1956 and ran until 1971. The program targeted groups such as the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Socialist Workers Party, and other civil rights activists. The goal of COINTELPRO was to undermine these groups by any means necessary, including spreading false information about them and using tactics such as blackmail and entrapment.
Some more heavy-handed techniques included orchestrating imprisonment through trumped-up charges and even orchestrating the assassination of movement leaders. For example, the bureau had heavy involvement in the assassination of Fred Hampton, a prominent Black Panther leader. In December 1969, the FBI’s Chicago office sent an informant to infiltrate the Black Panthers and report back on their activities. The informant, William O’Neal, provided information that led to a raid on Hampton’s apartment by 14 police officers. During the raid, Hampton and another Panther were shot and killed by police. The FBI had also provided false information about weapons in the apartment to justify the raid.
Perhaps even more nefarious than outright assassination was the FBI’s propaganda and misinformation campaigns that the bureau concocted to engineer target groups’ self-destruction.
Soft tactics offered more desirable alternatives for the bureau than violent ones did. Agents could create dissension between groups or within organizations without feeling responsible for the loss of life. Furthermore, deploying homosexuality in this manner did not require the bureau to become involved with other agencies or local police forces that might compromise the secret nature of COINTELPRO. (Leighton 152)
The FBI spread misinformation through anonymous letters or leaflets accusing activists of being homosexual. They did so to cause dissension and neutralize activists without making the bureau or its informants vulnerable to exposure. Understanding the FBI’s use of propaganda techniques is crucial to understanding the nature of COINTELPRO. The bureau took full advantage of the added constraints that LGBT activists and their allies faced to advance racial and sexual-orientation equality.
THE FBI AND THE BLACK POWER MOVEMENT
In 1968, a Chicago coalition of students, including Black Students for Defense and the Black Students Association, organized, seeking fundamental changes, such as more Black educators and a more culturally inclusive curriculum. One of the movement leaders, Jim Harvey, helped organize a walkout on a Monday in October 1968 that saw thirty-five thousand students empty out of Chicago schools. Eight thousand students participated despite increasingly harsh penalties from school administrators. Growing concerned over the movement and Harvey’s growing influence, the FBI’s Chicago office sent an anonymous letter to the press to discredit him.
[P]eople close to the boycott problem feel his interest in these young kids is no accident. . . . If the public knew who and what some of these people were, maybe it would help. …I know why he likes the young Black Brothers down there. We don’t need sissies or freaks for leaders. Some brothers on the west side say he’s with the man cause he don’t work, but he sure gets around. Maybe you can do something. [signed] A Brother. (Leighton 163)
The FBI tried to discredit the Black Panther Party (BPP) by using sexual knowledge to discredit the organization. The BPP was the group of most significant concern to the bureau. In addition to Fred Hampton, the bureau took aim at other Chicago branch leaders such as Bobby Rush and Robert Brown.
I know those two [redacted] and [redacted] that run the Panthers for a long time and those mothers been with every black outfit going where it looked like they was something in it for them. The only black people they care about is themselves. The Panthers need real black men for leaders not freaks. (Leighton 164)
Former Black Panther Ashanti Alston once said that what the FBI did with COINTELPRO was take advantage of the weakness already present within the organization. Homophobia was a weakness within both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and the FBI exploited it.
Jared Leighton. “‘Character Assassins’: How the FBI Used the Issue of Homosexuality against the Black Freedom Struggle.” Journal of Civil and Human Rights, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 151–85. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5406/jcivihumarigh.2.2.0151. Accessed 18 Jan. 2023.
“Ashanti Alston.” YouTube, Free Speech TV, 26 September 2019, https://doi.org/10.5406/jcivihumarigh.2.2.0151. Accessed 18 January 2023.