In the spring of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced to his agents that COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program established in 1956 to combat communists, should focus on preventing the rise of a “Black ‘messiah’” who sought to “unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” The program, Hoover insisted, should target figures as ideologically diverse as the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King Jr., and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
Just a few months later, in October 1968, Hoover penned another memo warning of the urgent menace of a growing Black Power movement, but this time the director focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.
In a one-page directive, Hoover noted with alarm a recent “increase in the establishment of black extremist bookstores which represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.” The director ordered each Bureau office to “locate and identify black extremist and/or African-type bookstores in its territory and open separate discreet investigations on each to determine if it is extremist in nature.” Each investigation was to “determine the identities of the owners; whether it is a front for any group or foreign interest; whether individuals affiliated with the store engage in extremist activities; the number, type, and source of books and material on sale; the store’s financial condition; its clientele; and whether it is used as a headquarters or meeting place.”
Perhaps most disturbing, Hoover wanted the Bureau to convince African American citizens (presumably with pay or through extortion) to spy on these stores by posing as sympathetic customers or activists. “Investigations should be instituted on new stores when opened and you should recognize the excellent target these stores represent for penetration by racial sources,” he ordered. Hoover, in short, expected agents to adopt the ruthless tactics of espionage and falsification they deployed against civil-rights and Black Power activists, and now use them against black-owned bookstores.
Hoover’s memo offers us a troubling glimpse of a forgotten dimension of COINTELPRO, one that has escaped notice for decades: the FBI’s war on black-owned bookstores. In addition to Hoover’s memo, I uncovered documents detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a dozen cities across the U.S. in conducting research for my book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. At the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI conducted investigations of such black booksellers as Lewis Michaux and Una Mulzac in New York City, Paul Coates in Baltimore (the father of The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates), Dawud Hakim and Bill Crawford in Philadelphia, Alfred and Bernice Ligon in Los Angeles, and the owners of the Sundiata bookstore in Denver. And this list is almost certainly far from complete, because most FBI documents pertaining to currently living booksellers aren’t available to researchers through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The FBI’s reports on black booksellers were highly invasive but often mundane. The FBI reports note phone calls from Coates’s number to his former comrades in the Black Panther Party—but also to Viking Press and the American Booksellers Association. Agents in New York reported an undercover source’s questionable claim that the Lewis Michaux “was responsible for about 75 percent of the antiwhite material” distributed in Harlem, but another report conceded that he was “no longer very active in Black Nationalist activity as he is getting old.” In Philadelphia, agents traced a car’s license plate at a Republic of New Africa convention to Dawud Hakim, but not long afterwards they quoted sources stating that the RNA was “now defunct in the Philadelphia area” and that Hakim “has not shown interest in any Black Nationalist Activity.”
While perhaps not surprising, it is deeply disturbing that Hoover and the FBI would carry out sustained investigations of black-owned independent bookstore across the country as part of COINTELPRO’s larger attacks on the Black Power movement. But Hoover’s order that agents track these stores’ customers represented not just an attack on black activists, but also an absolute contempt for America’s stated values of freedom of speech and expression. Any citizen who stepped into a black-owned bookstore, it seemed, risked being investigated by federal law enforcement.
To be sure, many black bookstores did have direct connections to Black Power activists. Quite a few black booksellers themselves participated in Black Power organizations, even if those organizations didn’t operate their stores. But more often the connections between the bookstores and the movement weren’t institutional, but intellectual and informal. Customers sought out copies of such titles as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, which black booksellers gladly sold them. The rapid proliferation of black-owned bookstores in the late 1960s and early 1970s signaled African Americans’ growing appetite for black political and historical literature and reading materials on Africa.
Black-owned bookstores also sold works by authors who were not formally associated with Black Power organizations, including critically acclaimed writers such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as street-literature favorites like Iceberg Slim, author of the novel Pimp. Black bookstores weren’t fronts assigned by activist organizations to distribute political propaganda. They were independent businesses serving black people’s growing appetite for books by and about black people.
The Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C., seems to have drawn more scrutiny from the Bureau’s agents than any other black bookstore. Established by veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the famed direct-action civil rights organization founded in 1960, the store opened in late spring 1968 just weeks after an uprising devastated the District following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The store was an especially convenient and frequent target for federal law enforcement, both because of its ties to prominent figures in the Black Power movement, and its location in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, less than three miles away from the FBI’s headquarters.
The Bureau launched its surveillance of Drum and Spear after sources sighted Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) visiting the store in its first weeks of business. Hoover’s office soon ordered that the investigation of the store “should be intensified” beyond occasional visits by agents and expanded to cultivating customers, employees, and people who attended meetings at Drum and Spear as undercover sources. From 1968 until the store’s closing in 1974, the Bureau compiled nearly 500 pages of investigative files on Drum and Spear. Plainclothes agents who visited the store aroused employees’ suspicions when they sat in parked cars in front of the business for hours. In another incident, two men wearing suits who appeared to be federal agents visited Drum and Spear and asked to purchase the store’s entire inventory of Mao’s Little Red Book. Agents’ reports meticulously detailed the store’s contents, relating that its roughly 4,000 copies of 500 titles were divided into five sections—African Works, Works of the American Negro, Fiction, Third World, and Children’s Works—while posters and photos of H. Rap Brown, Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Che Guevara decorated its walls.
Hoover was right about one thing: black bookstores were on the rise by the end of the 1960s. As late as 1966, black-owned bookstores operated in fewer than a dozen American cities, and most of them struggled to stay in business. Within just a few years, however, the number of stores had skyrocketed. Dozens of new stores opened throughout the country in the final years of the ‘60s, roughly tripling their numbers since the start of the decade. As The New York Times reported in 1969, “A surge of book-buying is sweeping through Black communities across the country.” What had been about a dozen black bookstores operating in the mid-1960s grew to over 50 by the early 1970s, and around 75 by the middle of the decade.
In Hoover’s eyes, black-owned bookstores represented a coordinated network of hate-spewing extremists. His clumsy invocation of the phrase “African-type bookstores” betrayed his lack of understanding of pan-Africanism, a philosophy that people of African descent around the world should unite in pursuit of shared political and social goals. To Hoover, radical anti-government organizations actively fomented black Americans’ growing fascination with Africa in the hopes of using it as a weapon against whites. But Hoover grossly mischaracterized the organic groundswell of popular interest in African history, culture, and politics spreading throughout African American communities.
As with much of COINTELPRO, Hoover took a model of counter-intelligence developed to combat the rigidly organized and centralized Communist Party of the United States of America and applied it to a much looser and decentralized array of Black Power groups emerging across the country. The CPUSA for instance, had operated a series of official bookstores carrying party literature in cities across the U.S., which the FBI had monitored since at least the 1930s.
The FBI appears to have wound down its surveillance of black bookstores by the middle of the 1970s, in the wake of Hoover’s death and the formal conclusion of COINTELPRO. As the Black Power movement declined in the late 1970s, so did black bookstores, and their numbers significantly dwindled by the start of the ‘80s (before experiencing a resurgence in the early 1990s). Looking back, it’s worth asking if the Bureau’s investigations may have undermined the viability of these black-owned businesses, creating undue stress for owners already struggling to make ends meet and scaring away customers who wanted to avoid any encounters with law-enforcement officials.
Indeed, the FBI’s war against black bookstores represents a sad chapter in the history of law enforcement in the U.S., a time when federal agents dispensed with all notions of freedom of speech as they targeted black entrepreneurs and their customers for buying and selling literature they deemed politically subversive.
“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Philadelphia bookseller Dawud Hakim lamented in 1971, having learned that that he was himself a target of the Bureau’s misguided surveillance campaign. “We are trying to educate our people about their history and culture. The FBI should be spending their time instead on organized crime and dope peddlers.”
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.