"Anti-Klan (Part 1)": The FBI, the Police, and the KKK

The historical question of the role of FBI informants in destroying radical Left movements and organizations in the 1960s and 1970s has been raised anew by Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives.1 By radicals, the use of informants is felt to be particularly pernicious insofar as informants not only abuse the very trust that is essential to building social movements but they weaponize that trust itself to undermine movements. What's more, although informants are defended by the security apparatus as essential and essentially neutral tools in the capturing of bad guys, no one believes they are neutral (or, put more clinically, as sociologist Gary T. Marx does, their mandates are not always clear.) Instead, they frequently direct movements toward illegal, or more illegal, activities in order to build cases for prosecutions. I return to this topic not because informants interest me per se but because they are one symptom of a broader complex that is the relationship of the state and social movements and the state and racism.2 Where I am going with this is actually a relatively narrow question of the relationship of right-wing extra-legal violence and the police, which I pose by looking at the FBI during COINTELPRO’s spying on white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. But first let me take a wide berth.

The State and Racism

Today, in the war on terrorism, it is clear that every single prosecution of a supposed “homegrown” terrorist is the result of informants’ fabrication of criminals (not crimes, because the “crimes” are always prevented by heroic G-men or cops) by nudging impressionable, weak, lonely, dim, or otherwise susceptible folks toward actions they would otherwise not undertake. Entrapment does not even begin to describe the ludicrous prosecutions of young Arab or Muslim men who are fed “radical” ideas, offered weapons, supplied with plans for their use, and then arrested for attempted terrorist attacks. A key problem, however, with seeing these cases as exceptional—or, for that matter with seeing the case of Aaron Swartz as exceptional—is that so-called prosecutorial overreach is the fundamental modus operandi of the war on drugs and of the long history of the criminalization of color in the United States in which it is a major chapter. There is no overreach because extremity is the norm. What has been called overreach is a key modality of racism today. Prosecutors’ childish chalking up of wins as if in a game of stickball relies on the overwhelming imbalance between state power and impoverished, overworked public defenders who barely defend impoverished and frequently uninformed, isolated, terrified, and despondent young black and brown men in a game that is clearly, thoroughly, historically rigged. 

If W.E.B. Du Bois were alive today, he might rewrite a scene in Dusk of Dawn that explains the social construction—not biological determination—of race through racism, not with reference to segregated public transit but with reference to prosecutors’ “wobbles” and the decision to charge felonies. He originally imagined a conversation that begins “But what is this group; how do you differentiate it; and how can you call it ‘black’ when you admit it is not black?” That “not black” is the refusal to ascribe biological, physical, or “scientific” status to race. To this question the reply is, “I recognize it quite easily and with full legal sanction. The black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia” (153). Today, Du Bois’s answer might include the sentence: “The black man is a person whose misdemeanor is charged as a felony in California.” (I draw here on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, which explains how California’s “three strikes” law, or in Du Bois’s phrase “legal sanction,” works: nonviolent prior convictions can be included among eligible “strikes,” with no restrictions on age at time of offense, how much time has elapsed, nor even in what jurisdiction the offense occurred, which “allows prosecutors to use their power to ‘wobble’ charges in order to make current misdemeanors into felonies and therefore strikable” [108]. The November election saw a successful ballot initiative to change "three strikes.") The point here is that race as a sociohistorically specific, mutable set of ascriptive hierarchical orderings of honor/dishonor and privileges is not strictly or necessarily the beginning point of racism but is rather the product, the endpoint, of group-differentiated applications of state and extra-legal power. 

COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups

But what about the subterranean intersections of state and extralegal power that conduce to group-differentiated violence? It is well-known that in addition to its programs aimed at the New Left, the old Left, and black radicals, the FBI operated a counter-intelligence program against right-wing extremists, including the KKK. Left radicals have been wont to dismiss this program with explanations such as that it was merely a façade to placate those who might have thought the FBI was overzealous in focusing only on the Left. A problem with this argument is that even if it is meant to apply to Congress, the Cabinet, or other people “in the know,” COINTELPRO was secret and was not designed to operate on the plane of the construction of state legitimacy. Others argue that even though it did exist, the program was dwarfed in size by the COINTELPRO activities aimed at the Left. There is something compelling to this argument, although it is reliant on outdated archival sources, but it is still insufficient. The best analysis I have read of the difference between COINTELPRO-New Left and COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups is by the sociologist David Cunningham, who has written extensively on the subject. I have yet to read all his output, but a great place to start is his 2003 article in Social Science History, “Understanding State Responses to Left- versus Right-Wing Threats: The FBI’s Repression of the New Left and the Ku Klux Klan,” liberated here. A version of the argument rendered for a popular audience is here. Cunningham compares the New Left and White Hate Groups COINTELPRO operations, but I build on his sophisticated analysis by perhaps injudiciously grouping together the New Left and black radicals, or what COINTELPRO called “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups,” and extending evidence from his research on the former to the latter. (Still, Cunningham shows that alliances between “New Left” and “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups” caused the FBI consternation. The FBI undertook 22 “actions” to create conflict that would prevent such alliances.)

I previously noted that J. Edgar Hoover, and the federal government more broadly, drew parallels between the Klan and purportedly violent black radicals because extra-legal or vigilante violence threatens the state on its own terrain. As Nikhil Singh writes, violence is the state’s “most important form of discourse.” Cunningham’s analysis gives an important specificity to the historical lack of parallelism belied by Hoover’s own arguments.3 In fact, white supremacist organizations did not suffer the same, or a parallel, fate as New Left or black radical organizations at the hands of their respectively targeted COINTELPRO operations. Instead, Cunningham shows that the Klan was disrupted but not intentionally destroyed, whereas the New Left and black radical groups were intentionally destroyed. White right-wing groups were not thought of as inherently subversive and thus in need of destruction; their violent tactics, however, were to be prevented.4 In contrast, merely by existing, regardless of violent intent or activity, New Left (of mixed colors) and black radical groups were subversive and thus in need of destruction. 

The difference, therefore, in terms of state security practices, is racism if we define racism, with Gilmore, as "state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death." Here, premature death can be construed in its literal sense or in a perhaps no less traumatic, painful, and horrific but less literal sense, as the destruction of radical social movements poised to foment, or to continue to foment, radical social change. I join together, as they were joined together empirically, these two senses of death, or state murder: if black and New Left radicals were struggling to lessen and undo gross, historical harm to black people, which included that produced by white vigilante violence, the FBI put a stop to that effort on a group-wide basis. 

Local Police & the KKK

These conclusions are devastating enough. Yet I cannot help but feel slightly dissatisfied with this damning evidence of how the FBI, for Chomsky "a secret terrorist organization," practiced, constructed, and bolstered structural racism without any agents themselves having had to think a prejudicial thought—though we can be sure they did. The reason I am dissatisfied is not any fault of Cunningham’s sharp analysis. Rather, it is the fault of the historical record. Of course perhaps the only reason we know about COINTELPRO is the accidental discovery of its documentation by some clandestine operators who had broken into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. Just to remind you, these “thieves” have never been caught. The FBI apparently tried to catch them, but given that one of the tasks of COINTELPRO was training informants or other assets to steal documents that could be used in intelligence/counter-intelligence operations, or else to set radicals up for capture and prosecution (as in the Camden 28), it takes no great leap of the imagination to figure out why they were not caught. Either they were trained well enough to evade FBI forensics by the FBI or the FBI simply did not want to find them, because doing so would have revealed even more than what was revealed in the aftermath of the discovery. Or both.

Anyway, Cunningham’s research is based on a publicly available microfilm collection of COINTELPRO correspondence between field offices and Washington, which is thought to be effectively complete. What I want to know is what is not in these documents, in terms of White Hate Groups. What may never have even crossed the desk of an FBI agent? The FBI is not the local police, and bureaucratic and class-stratified (in-)fighting certainly characterized their relationships. During the Cold War local police were useful to, and used by, the FBI as sources of information on radicals, suspected radicals, and those who did not hew to the Color Line, as were many other unofficial, and frequently right-wing organizations, like the American Legion. This history remains untold (wait for my second book, or third). But what did local police hide from the FBI, particularly in the South? Or, put another way, what did the FBI choose not to learn? 

Cunningham himself got me thinking when he writes, “The patriotic tendencies of the Klan created an ideological common ground that could be exploited by Bureau agents” (363). Elsewhere he writes, “Agents saw Klansmen, unlike student protestors, as basically patriotic and sympathetic to many mainstream American political ideals. Many Klansmen were active participants in their local communities and almost all supported the war in Vietnam. Even the Klan’s strong pro-segregationist views did not draw the attention of the FBI” (353); only violent actions did. That Klan ideology did not disturb the FBI made me wonder how this ideology would have been seen by local law enforcement, given that the FBI were likely to be outsiders, or at least better-educated and perhaps from a different class background than the Klan, whereas local cops were not. Here, then, the great utility of Gilmore’s definition of racism as encompassing “state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal” action is laid bare. The problem for historians, however, is that the records of state action are more available to us than those of the extra-legal action. What is extra-legal often becomes available to us when it garners state attention, in the form of prosecution. And we know, or we have a strong sense of, how infrequently white vigilante violence was prosecuted, thanks largely to black newspapers and organizations that produced other records. 

But, given how much perspiration has been shed by theorists who wish to alert to us to the fuzziness of the boundaries of the state, we might be careful about drawing the state/extra-legal distinction strongly. Rather than indulging in more theorizing about this fuzziness (for now), I submit that its empirical evidence might actually be found in the place where few such theorists bother to look: the police. The police have the ability to transform the extra-legal into the state-sanctioned. One short example will suffice: “In Jonesboro, Louisiana, the Ku Klux Klan marched through the black section of town behind a sheriff’s patrol car in the mid-1960s in order to emphasize that the Klan’s effort to prevent blacks from registering to vote was backed by official sanction.”5 Jim Crow was said to have been enforced by blue (meaning cops) by day and white (meaning Klan) by night.

But what about the police themselves who were blue by day and white by night? Southern cops and the Klan were often not separate but were the same men, or from the same social circles. As Jack O’Dell wrote in 1965, “The Klan has historically been an integral part of the state and local governmental machinery in the South. Consequently, a thorough investigation requires that Congress look into the role and membership of the Klan as it operates in such police departments as that of Birmingham, Ala., Savannah, Ga., St. Augustine, Fla., and elsewhere; as well as among the state police, particularly in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana” (108). Needless to say, no such thorough investigation ever occurred. The Senate's Church Committee and the House's Pike Committee (whose report was suppressed) were the equivalents for FBI, NSA, and CIA activities, but the particular character of local, whether municipal or county, police makes such historical accounting difficult. Archival records are not kept, or are not open. The fragmentary ground of the municipal-level state, which impedes a certain amount of scrutiny or external monitoring, was what Southern, white conservatives aimed to protect in the 1950s and 1960s from federal intervention. The FBI acquiesced or actively supported this arrangement. One result is the paucity of knowledge today about how white supremacy functioned in this period at the intersection of the police and the Klan (or other less well-known white vigilante groups), even before sham prosecutions, all-white juries, and dirty judges got involved. (But see, eg, At the Dark End of the Street.) 

There is, however, endless political wisdom and knowledge recorded informally, and through artistic works. Because I am far from an expert on much of it, I cannot comment but would like to learn more. What I am an expert on is punk rock, and one of the finest punk bands, The Dicks, have a track on their 1983 first LP, “Kill from the Heart,” that contains more indignant insight and knowledge than a sheaf of Congressional reports. As a queer, left-wing band from Texas in the early 80s, they bore witness to the continuation of the vigilante practices of the 1960s. The song is called "Anti-Klan (Part 1)" and the lyrics are as follows:

I see that you're a policeman
I know you're in the Ku Klux Klan
You got a gun hung on your hip
It's underneath your silky slip

I know you'd kill me if you could
You hide your head beneath a hood
I know that you're a closet case
Afraid to show your fuckin’ face

We'll fight you
Yes, we'll fight
You're blue by day, but white by night
Let's fight!



1. I previously critiqued the framing of the subsequent critical conversation this book spawned. For an analysis of the Aoki controversy that is congruent with my own but also has a lot of other useful information, see historian Trevor Griffey's article in Truthout. We wrote our respective articles without knowledge of the other.

2. That said, informants are a symptom like organ failure is a symptom—not a small thing. According to an article in Mother Jones, “After years of emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the [FBI] now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked . . . with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as ‘hip pockets.’” It continues, “Throughout the FBI’s history, informant numbers have been closely guarded secrets. Periodically, however, the bureau has released those figures. A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had 1,500 informants. In 1980, officials disclosed there were 2,800. Six years later, following the FBI’s push into drugs and organized crime, the number of bureau informants ballooned to 6,000, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986.” See also Rick Perlstein in Rolling Stone. 

3. Although the number of “actions” of repression Cunningham charts was approximately equal, 484 actions against the New Left and 480 against White Hate Groups, the rates were dramatically different, as COINTELPRO-New Left lasted only three years, whereas COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups lasted seven. For an explanation of the actions and Cunningham’s methodology, you’ll have to read the article itself.

4. In this way, COINTELPRO, as a secret program, did not foster state legitimacy but did bolster claims that pro-segregation activists were legitimate and operating within the terms of respectable politics.

5. Quote from “Blue by Day and White by [K]night: Regulating the Political Affiliations of Law Enforcement and Military Personnel” by Robin D. Barnes in Iowa Law Review 1995-6, Issue 3, page 1101.


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