House Democrat introduces bill to release COINTELPRO files on surveillance of Black Panthers and Fred Hampton

A Democratic lawmaker on Tuesday introduced a bill that would require the government to release its decades-old records from an FBI-run covert surveillance program that monitored the Black Panthers, as well as civil rights and anti-war activists, among others.

In addition to requiring the release of files from COINTELPRO, or the Counter-Intelligence Program, within six months of enactment, the bill would remove the name of J. Edgar Hoover — who oversaw the FBI during the program — from the FBI headquarters in Washington.

“I want to shine a bright light on this dark chapter of our nation’s history,” Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois said in a statement introducing his proposal. “And I think it is very timely and very important that we do it at this moment.”

Rush co-founded the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter and was close friends with Fred Hampton, the party chapter’s chairman who in 1969 created the first Rainbow Coalition before he was killed in a predawn raid by Chicago police. Rush, who blames the FBI for Hampton’s death, called for a full reporting of the domestic spying on civil rights activists and others.

“As a victim of COINTELPRO, I want to know, with honesty, with clarity, and with no redactions, the full extent of the FBI’s nefarious operations,” the congressman said. “I want to know the breadth and depth of the conspiracy to assassinate Fred Hampton and how taxpayer dollars were spent on his assassination. I want to know why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a focus of the FBI, why Billie Holiday was a focus of the FBI — I want to know why so many young activists were harassed by the FBI. What was the justification for the impact that it had on their lives?”

CNN has reached out to the FBI for comment.

COINTELPRO was founded as a vehicle for the FBI’s professed efforts to stymie communism within the United States but soon expanded to include counterintelligence efforts on Americans in ethnic activist groups and other domestic groups like the Socialist Workers Party. The program sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” Black nationalist groups in cities across the country, according to its own documents from 1967.

The Black Panther Party emerged from the Black Power era and the global political upheaval of the 1960s. Inspired by Malcolm X’s revolutionary Black nationalism, it borrowed rhetoric from radical movements in Cuba, Africa and the developing world and demanded decent housing for Black people and an end to police brutality, even patrolling Black neighborhoods to protect residents.

Hampton’s story has drawn recent interest in light of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a film that paints a biographical portrait of Hampton and tells the story of his activism in Chicago as FBI informant William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, reports his movements to the FBI. The film was up for six Academy Awards, and Daniel Kaluuya won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hampton. (“Judas and the Black Messiah” was released by Warner Bros., which is a unit of CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia.)

No one was brought to justice in the raid that killed the 21-year-old Hampton and his defense captain, Mark Clark, in 1969. The Black Panthers say the men were targeted and murdered by Chicago police serving a warrant for illegal weapons. A grand jury found Hampton had been shot in the head twice and that police had found two guns next to him.

Initially, seven Panthers were charged with attempted murder and other counts; the charges were later dropped. A prosecutor and 13 others were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice and were acquitted in 1972. A decade later, the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government agreed to a $1.85 million settlement with the raid’s survivors and Clark’s and Hampton’s families.

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