Tracking Activists: The FBI’s Surveillance of Black Women Activists Then and Now
Ashley D. Farmer
In 2017 the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit released a memo that identified a new national threat: “Black Identity Extremists (BIE).” These “extremists,” the Bureau claimed, were “motivated [by] perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” and “spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” Agents pinpointed the “August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri,” and the “declination to indict the police officers involved” as politicizing BIEs. In other words, the FBI claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement—started by three Black women—was ground zero for their renewed interest in targeting and surveilling Black activists.
Three years later, in the aftermath of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many others, another wave of protests has erupted. In response, the FBI has used this “extremist” framework to ramp up its surveillance using the same medium through which news of the murders and protests spread: social media. Recent reports indicate that the Philadelphia Police, with the help of federal agents, tracked a female protester from Instagram, to “an Etsy shop that sold the distinctive T-shirt the woman was wearing in the video,” to her LinkedIn page, “and eventually to her doorstep in Germantown.” Other investigations reveal that police officers are using Twitter to spread misinformation about June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
This tracking of activists has deep, intertwined roots in the nation’s history. Under the watch of multiple presidents and Attorneys General, the government has engaged in decades-long surveillance and harassment campaigns against Black activists that began with the creation of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908. Via FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, this operation expanded significantly with his establishment of the Counterintelligence Program or COINTELPRO. From 1956 to 1971, federal agents partnered with state officials and police to eavesdrop on phone calls, create false mail and “Black propaganda” publications, infiltrate organizations, and fabricate evidence aimed at turning activists against each other. Hoover’s targeting of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X is now the subject of scholarly and popular lore. Less well-known however, are the many Black women who endured repression during COINTELPRO. Examining their efforts illuminates the deep roots of government surveillance and sheds light on FBI tactics amid this iteration of uprisings, which are increasingly women led.
The Sojourners for Truth and Justice were among the first of many Black women’s groups to draw Hoover’s ire. Founded in 1951, the Sojourners cultivated a national presence on behalf of Black mothers, widows, and women. Activists such as Louise Thompson Patterson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Eslanda Robeson brought their expertise to the group. Younger Sojourner leadership included budding writers Alice Childress and Lorraine Hansberry. The organization developed a “Black left feminist” ideology and agenda, or a politics that empowered working-class Black women by “combining black nationalist and American Communist Party positions on race, class, and gender with black women radicals’ own lived experiences.” They applied this focus broadly, developing a capacious platform that ranged from antilynching to anti-apartheid protests.
COINTELPRO tactics developed in tandem with, and in some cases through, the FBI’s surveillance of the Sojourners. Agents began watching the group in September 1951 in anticipation of their initial “Sojourn” to Washington, D.C. The organization called on Black women to meet in the nation’s capital to “demand of the President, the Justice Department, and the Congress the absolute immediate and unconditional redress of [Black women’s] grievances.” Quickfire agent reports illustrated the Bureau’s growing concern that “prominent” members such as “Mrs. Paul Robeson, Mrs. Willie McGee, Mrs. Shirley Du Bois, and Mrs. William Patterson” could attract hundreds to D.C. to pressure high-ranking government officials. Building on contemporaneous Cold War discourses, the Bureau claimed that the Sojourners were attempting to “disguise” the “true Communist character” of their organization by “secur[ing] Negro women” who were “interested only in the betterment of the Negro race” for their subversive causes. However, records indicate the Bureau’s real concern was that this D.C. protest was a “test movement” for the Sojourners’ larger plans to incite a “revolution” among Black people.
Nothing stoked FBI agents’ fears of the Sojourners more than their proposed “March on Georgia.” In October 1951, agents began to fixate on the group’s plan to gather hundreds to support Rosa Lee Ingram—a Black woman sharecropper and mother accused of killing a white man who attacked her and her sons. In classified memos, they asserted that a Sojourner-led group of “a thousand or more colored women [planned] to protest the imprisonment of Rosa Lee Ingram” outside her Georgia prison cell. The Bureau also claimed that the Sojourners intended to “forcibly take ‘Mother Ingram’ from prison” in the “ho[pes] of provoking an incident that will cause bloodshed and ‘spark a revolution throughout the South.’” In reality, the Sojourners were only able to send a small delegation to visit Ingram as plans for their larger march fell apart. They also had intentions of freeing Ingram. Agents’ concerns about the group was both an index of their fears about the Sojourners’ popularity as well as their efforts to justify Bureau-based surveillance and harassment of these women.
The Sojourners were well aware of the Bureau’s surveillance and struck back by publicizing their tactics. Fresh off their Washington, D.C., protest, participants reported the FBI harassment they experienced in the press. Adele Young, a Los Angeles Sojourner, detailed how men in dark suits denied the group entry into their pre-arranged meetings. She also told of how the Sojourners could barely maneuver in and out of buildings because these men followed and photographed them as they moved. Young’s recounting of events in Washington, D.C., juxtaposed the law-abiding Sojourners with the illegal and confrontational tactics of the FBI. It also framed the Black women’s collective as a group that could and would stand up to government repression.
The following year, the Brooklyn chapter published a resolution about FBI surveillance and harassment of member Esther Cooper Jackson. Cooper Jackson and her husband, James, mounted an impressive affront to white supremacy through their leadership of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC)—an interracial protest group that supported everything from voting rights to fair employment practices. This SNYC organizing, coupled with Cooper Jackson’s support of the Sojourners, made her a target of attack. The Brooklyn Sojourners “strongly condem[ned] the FBI’s harassment” in their resolution. They also detailed how Cooper Jackson and her daughters had been “harassed and constantly followed by dozens of FBI men…to the park, to school, on visits to friend’s homes, by car, subway, [and by] train” and how agents “tried to force her four year old daughter out of nursery school.” The Sojourners called for letters to be sent to President Truman demanding that he use his power to stop racist violence rather endorse Hoover’s harassment of Black women. The group’s resolution rendered antisurveillance protesting part of the national discourse as well as the Sojourners’ organizing agenda.
When FBI agents couldn’t break or imprison Black women activists, they tried to flip them into informants. Such was the experience of life-long radical activist Audley Moore. Moore was a supporter of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s. She rose to national fame as an organizer within the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. When McCarthyism suppressed her radical networks, Moore organized on the lower frequencies of the movement, developing her own radical grassroots organizations in the 1950s and 1960s. The activist went on to mentor and advise many late-twentieth-century luminaries, including Muhammad Ahmad, founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement, and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. Agents surveilled Audley Moore for nearly fifty years.
Moore’s wealth of organizing experience made her an ideal potential Bureau informant. To that end, agents called her in for an interview “telling [her] to name [her] price” for sharing information on Black organizing and organizers. Committed to the cause—and well-acquainted with the Bureau’s tactics—Moore feigned ignorance in response to the agents’ questions. According to COINTELPRO reports, the activist claimed to be “ignorant” and “unlearned” about issues related to Black organizing and offered “inconclusive” answers when questioned about her activism and activist affiliations.
Moore instead used the interview to shift the scope and focus the interrogation. Agents recorded that “in nearly all instances” in which they questioned Moore, she “entered into a diatribe on the injustices being suffered by the Negro” and “reiterated time and again” that “any activity in which she had been engaged was motivated only by her desire to improve the lot of the Negro.” She also had questions of her own for the Bureau. Moore repeatedly queried her interrogators, asking why she “noticed nothing but White men” employed at the FBI office and why they spent so much time and resources surveilling her. In the end, it was Moore, not the agents, who ended the interview. She abruptly cut off their conversation, stating “that she would not be a witness” for them in any trials against fellow activists and that “she would not discuss these matters again.” Moore’s obstinance forced agents to conclude (and report to Hoover) that Moore was “extremely bitter with regard to the race problem” and “interested only in denouncing ‘white men.’” If the Bureau was going to try to turn her into an informant, then Moore made sure that they knew she was informed about their harassment, surveillance, and racism.
Other Black women organizers who were ensnared in COINTELPRO adopted a similar approach. On June 3, 1963, local law enforcement maimed sharecropper and Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer, along with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was helping Black Mississippians register to vote when police pulled her and other activists off a bus, brought them to the Montgomery County Jail, and beat her until her “body was hard as metal.” At the Attorney General’s behest, the Bureau sent agents to investigate the crime. The FBI sought interviews and photos of both the perpetrators and victims and were prepared to obtain them “with or without their consent.”
Many Black women activists tried to thwart FBI agents’ attempts to record them. Hamer did the opposite. She agreed to an interview and photo documentation of her injuries, but only after Agents secured her release from jail. Hamer “was extremely hostile in her manner” and “showed little respect for the FBI” during the interview. She was even more defiant in her photos. The images in Hamer’s FBI file reveal an activist who literally and figuratively faced the surveillance state. Agents circulated a full-body image of Hamer in a flower-patterned, cinched-waist dress with matching beaded necklace and earrings. Hamer is facing forward while also sitting into her left hip, forcing her right hip and leg to jut to the side slightly—a stance of defiance. The purpose of the photos was to document her injuries, which the Bureau did halfheartedly. As Hamer explained, “they took pictures of the front, but didn't any of my back where I was beaten.” If this was all she was going to get, Hamer was going to make it count. In the photos, the Mississippi activist holds out her left arm in front of her so that her body, her facial expression, and her bruises are all in view. Yet, Hamer does not look down at her injuries. She instead gazes defiantly and directly into the camera; eyes hooded but determined. Hamer’s message was clear: she was compliant in the Bureau’s documentation of her injuries insomuch as the documentation also served as evidence of her confrontation of white supremacy.
Hamer understood the stakes of cooperating with the Bureau’s investigation. The activist repeatedly indicated that Bureau agents were a “rotten bunch” and that she was well-attuned to how the FBI could manipulate the evidence she provided to track and discredit her. They did. Just a few years later, the tenor of Hamer’s FBI file shifted. Agents continued to track her after investigating her 1963 beating, already having detailed information on her family, job, and organizing networks. They also began to focus on her associations with alleged “black hate groups” such as the Republic of New Africa, anti-Vietnam War organizations, and communist activists. Nevertheless, Hamer chose to comply with the Bureau’s investigations for a chance to put the atrocities she experienced on record. Hamer exploited Hoover’s obsession with extensive documentation to ensure that her experiences with police violence and racism would not be erased.
If recent reports are any indication, the Bureau has renewed many of its surveillance and repression efforts. Many are on the lookout for COINTELPRO schemes akin to the King “suicide letter” which intimated that the civil rights leader should kill himself rather than risk the publication of embarrassing personal details or agents’ efforts to infiltrate the Black Panther Party. Less evident are the more subtle forms of surveillance that the FBI perfected and used on Black women organizers and groups. If these tactics have gone undetected historically, so too can they fly under the radar today. A closer examination of the repression and surveillance that Black women activists endured amid COINTELPRO can illuminate how the FBI has adapted their tools and strategies to fit the current political moment and public sentiment.
Studying how Black women have endured and counteracted these efforts in the past can also expand conversations about the historical study and archival preservation of current protests. Social media is now one of the primary terrains of struggle between organizers and repressive state forces. This calls into question how we document this current moment while also being mindful of how the Bureau and local law enforcement can also use this archive to undermine protests, target Black organizers, and infringe on citizens’ rights. Historians and archivists in groups such as Documenting the Now, Project STAND, and The Blackivists have taken up this question of ethical archiving amid a rise in activist surveillance. Their work shows that organizers—particularly Black women— are still under siege but also capable of creating strategies to combat surveillance and repression. Starting with the history of women who organized amid COINTRLPRO offers a productive entry point for understanding how to record, write, and theorize about protest surveillance today.
Ashley D. Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (2017), a co-editor of New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (2018), and numerous scholarly and popular articles about Black women’s radical politics.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counter-intelligence Division, Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement, Aug. 3, 2017.
“The FBI used a Philly protester’s Etsy profile, LinkedIn, and Other Internet History to Charge Her With Setting Police Cars Ablaze,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 2020; “Police keep using Twitter for Misinformation and Rumor-Mongering About Protesters,” Washington Post, June 16, 2020.
For more details about these tactics, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (1990).
Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism and the Making of Black Left Feminism (2011), Mary Helen Washington coined the term “Black Left Feminism.” Mary Helen Washington, “Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Claudia Jones: Black Women Write the Popular Front,” in Left of the Color Line: Radicalism and Twentieth Century Literature of the United States, eds. Bill V. Mullen and James Smethurst (2003), 185.
“The Sojourners for Truth and Justice,” Folder 17, Box 4, Louise Thompson Patterson Papers, (Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia).
See for example: Report to Washington and New York from Washington Field Agent, Sept. 21, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice File # 100-384225.
Memo from A.E. Belmont to D.M. Ladd, Re: Sojourn for Truth and Justice, Sept. 27, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice File # 100-384225.
Memo to the Attorney General, Director, FBI, Re: Sojourn for Truth and Justice, Internal Security-C,” Nov. 2, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice File # 100-384225.
The FBI maintained that it was the Secret Service and/or Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) that took these photos. However, Bureau agents admitted to performing “spot checks” on the Sojourners and had informants infiltrate the sojourn to D.C. Memo from Mr. F. J. Baumgardner, TO: Mr. A.H. Belmont, Re: Sojourn for Truth and Justice, Internal Security-C, Oct. 18, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice File # 100-384225.
Resolution as reprinted in Memo from SAC, New York, To Director, FBI, Re: Sojourn for Truth and Justice, Internal Security-C, Aug. 4, 1952, Sojourners for Truth and Justice File # 100-384225.; “Sojourners for Truth Meet, Fete 3 Mothers,” New York Amsterdam News, Jun. 28, 1952, 21.
Ashley D. Farmer, “Mothers of Pan-Africanism: Audley Moore and Dara Abubakari,” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, 4 (2016), 274–95; Ashley D. Farmer, “Reframing African American Women’s Grassroots Organizing: Audley Moore and the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, 1957–1963,” Journal of African American History, 101 (2016), 69-96.
Audley Moore, Interviewed by Mark Naison, 1972, Oral History of the American Left Collection, (Tamiment Library, New York University, New York, New York).
“Report: New York, Re: Audley Moore, 12/9/1953, Audley Moore New York File #100-13205.
“‘We Haven’t Arrived Yet,’ Presentation and Responses to Questions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 29, 1976,” in Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck eds., The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell it Like It Is (2011), 189.
Memo to FBI Director from Assistant Attorney General, Burke Marshall, July 15, 1963. Fannie Lou Hammer File #: 44-22262.
Memo to Director, FBI from SAC Memphis, 6/19/1964, Re: Fannie Lou Hamer, Victim, Fannie Lou Hamer File #: 44-22262.
Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1933,67-68; SA Report, Atlanta Office, June 14, 1963, Re: Fannie Lou Hamer, ETAL-Victims, Fannie Lou Hamer File #: 44-22262.
Memo to Director, FBI from SAC Memphis, Re: Fannie Lou Hamer-Victim, Fannie Lou Hamer June 19, 1964.
“Secret- Fannie Lou Hamer,” Oct. 16, 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer File #: 44-22262.
Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 57, 68.