During the peak of the Black Power movement in the United States, African Americans were joining forces to demand changes as sort of an more proactive extension of the Civil Rights Movement. This caught the attention of the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.
During this period, Hoover began to use a counter-intelligence program created in 1956 called COINTELPRO to monitor Black activists, Civil Rights leaders, and people involved in the Black Power Movement. This ranged from Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) to Martin Luther King Jr. to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. But did you know Hoover also had his agents investigate Black-owned bookstores nationwide? Yes, bookstores.
Even though the majority of Black-owned bookstores were not hubs for Black activistism and were just businesses that happened to be owned by Black Americans, Hoover had the Bureau put these establishments under surveillance in 1968.
In a memo, Hoover 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,” according to University of Baltimore professor Joshua Clark Davis, who obtained a previously classified memo about this surveillance program while researching his 2017 book, “From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.”
The point of the investigation was, read Hoover’s memo, 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.”
The Bureau even convinced some African-American citizens to spy on these stores as well.
One of the stores was The Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C., which unlike most of the stores on Hoover’s list did have some activist ties. The bookstore was opened by veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in late spring 1968 just weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Carmichael even visited the store shortly after it opened. The store was also located less than three miles away from the FBI’s headquarters. The Bureau had the store under investigation until it closed in 1974, and during that time the FBI compiled nearly 500 pages of investigative files on Drum and Spear.
“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,” Davis wrote in The Atlantic.
Written by Ann Brown