by Will Caldwell
The FBI issued an intelligence assessment on Aug. 3, 2017, alerting law enforcement around the country to the new threat of “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE). Foreign Policy since has obtained a copy of the report and it is now receiving widespread media coverage. Many in the government and the press are expressing their shock and confusion at the report’s assessment that there is a coherent threat coming from anti-police brutality activists, Black nationalists, and Moorish Sovereign Citizens alike. Yet, only a few short decades ago, the FBI targeted similar groups of Black Muslims and civil rights activists under its COINTELPRO “Black Nationalist — Hate Groups” division.
In fact, the intelligence assessment explicitly links the FBI’s perception of a BIE threat to its counterintelligence efforts against Black American citizens during the Civil Rights era. Page 6 of the report claims that “BIE violence peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the changing socioeconomic attitudes and treatment of blacks during the Civil Rights Movement.”1 The FBI’s coinage of the new BIE designation therefore ought not to distract us from the fact that it perceives threats from Black Americans today as an extension of the threat of “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” in the past — and is likely to deal with it along similar lines. So how did the FBI understand these Black “Hate Groups” in the age of COINTELPRO?
The available COINTELPRO papers unfortunately provide little guidance on the FBI’s definition of Black “Hate Groups” — only who it considered to fit the description. Among these were “such groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Revolutionary Action Movement, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Congress of Racial Equality, and the Nation of Islam.”2 Fortunately, however, the individual file on the Nation of Islam (NOI) provides documents that specify the definition of “Black racial hatred” in great detail.
The assumptions here are quite clear: racial hatred is Black Identity. What concerns the FBI is whether that identity will be expressed or repressed.
The FBI’s Central Research Section published a book-length monograph in 1959 on the NOI entitled The Muslim Cult of Islam (MCI). The publication was intended for “Special Agents investigating this Cult about which nothing is known by the average Agent, who has found it most difficult to investigate.” One of the key goals of this manual was to distinguish the “orthodox religion of Islam” from the MCI, “a fanatic Negro organization purporting to be motivated by the religious principles of Islam, but actually dedicated to the propagation of hatred against the white race.” (iii) Racial hatred is what essentially distinguishes the MCI from true Islam. The authors of the manual therefore go to great lengths to describe it — providing a nearly 20-page comparison of the two groups on points of prayer, places of worship, cleanliness, etc. in which hatred is described in detail as the distinguishing factor. They describe racial hatred as something that all Black Americans atavistically possess but which the MCI is particularly skilled at evoking.
“[It forms] the very foundation of all the teachings of the Cult. The white man is indeed the scapegoat, upon whom is vented a hatred so tinged with primitivism that it has almost regressed to savagery. It is to the white race that these Negroes gladly throw the blame for all their social, economic and cultural ills, and it is from the preachings of their leaders that they receive the food for their emotional appetites.”3
Islam plays the consistent role, in both of these assessments, of unleashing the innate hatred Black people have for a prosperous white civilization.
The assumptions here are quite clear: racial hatred is Black Identity. What concerns the FBI is whether that identity will be expressed or repressed. This is an understanding of Blackness that has both immediate and more general roots. The authors of the manual cite a 1938 article on the NOI by Erdmann D. Beynon called “The Voodoo Cult among Negro Migrants in Detroit.” Beynon interviewed police officers and members of the NOI for this article but clearly draws his interpretations of the NOI from the police. He similarly concludes that W.D. Fard was able to elicit hatred from his congregants because their poor socioeconomic conditions, along with the wealth of white people, was “symbolic of all that these people hated.”4 Islam plays the consistent role, in both of these assessments, of unleashing the innate hatred Black people have for a prosperous white civilization. The FBI, Beynon, and the Detroit Police Department, however, did not reach this conclusion simply through observation. This perception of Islam’s relationship to Blackness was widespread at the time — propagated most prominently by a wildly successful book entitled The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy.5 The author, Lothrop Stoddard, describes control of Africa and Africans as the determining factor of global hegemony post-World War I. The only two global forces powerful enough to assert this control were Western civilization, which could pacify Africans’ innate hatred against it with Christianity, and Islam, which would transform them into “a sword of wrath, the executor of sinister adventures” that would crush the West.6 Thus, the COINTELPRO “Black Nationalist — Hate Groups” division that emerged in the 1960s was built upon a worldview that saw African-descended peoples not as equal citizens but rather as potential threats to the integrity of Western civilization who must be controlled at all costs.
The FBI’s seemingly new focus on “BIE” in fact has direct roots in its counterintelligence program against Black organizations and activists of the past. History therefore has some important lessons for us as we assess the meaning and potential impact of this new report. The most important of these lessons is that all Black Americans are potential targets of this new program. The FBI has historically perceived Black identity as a potentially volatile entity that might become “extreme” given the right circumstances. The article in Foreign Policy noted the shock of many “experts and former government officials” that the FBI is “grouping together Black Panthers, black nationalists, and [the] Washitaw Nation” despite their lack of common ideology. Yet the FBI never posited a common ideology to groups listed under its former COINTELPRO division — simply common hatred that emerged from their Black identities. Given the role that the FBI historically has attributed to Islam as the greatest enabler of Black racial hatred, it is hardly surprising to see contemporary Muslim groups like Moorish Sovereign Citizens listed alongside Black nationalist and activist groups. Black Muslims have indeed long been at the center of movements for justice and freedom from institutionalized violence in the United States. That the FBI has chosen to investigate a new generation of Black Americans using the old epistemology of COINTELPRO — rather than the police abuses they are protesting — suggests that we are another step closer to losing the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and that history will be our best guide going forward.
- “(U//FOUO) Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers” https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/4067711/BIE-Redacted.pdf, accessed October 9, 2017.
- “COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 1 of 23” https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists, accessed October 8, 2017.
- “Nation of Islam Part 1 of 3” https://vault.fbi.gov/Nation%20of%20Islam, accessed October 8, 2017.
- Erdmann Doane Beynon, “The Voodoo Cult Among Negro Migrants in Detroit,” in American Journal of Sociology 43, no. 6 (1938): 899.
- Stoddard’s book plays a similar role in post-World War I geopolitics that Samuel Huntington’s “A Clash of Civilizations?” has in the post-9/11 era in that his thesis was widespread enough to influence the thinking even of those who had not read it. One notable indication of the book’s influence at the time is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s satirization of its ideas in The Great Gatsby. One of the main characters, Tom Buchanan, speaks of a “Goddard” who wrote a book explaining that “if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged…. This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things.”
- Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1920): 102.
Will Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in Islam and American Religions at Northwestern University. He specializes in the history of early twentieth-century African American Muslims, with a focus on issues of race, empire, and internationalism.