Historians | Educators | Get Involved | Sign Up | ACLU | Credits

Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam

Unlawful Surveillance, Intimidation, and Harassment

The civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early '60s was, in many ways, a triumph of American justice and democracy. Its accomplishments came despite aggressive attempts by the FBI and other agencies to derail it using surveillance, blatant intimidation, and outright obstruction.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for almost 50 years, was given free reign to pursue civil rights activists based on his suspicion that communists were infiltrating civil rights organizations to overthrow the government. Hoover sent informants to church meetings, intercepted mail and phone calls, engineered break-ins, and planted news stories to defame civil rights leaders. COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Programs) was also instituted against the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, white supremacists, black nationalists, and the New Left. Although the civil rights movement ultimately succeeded, many lives were harmed in the process.

Many young people who began their political activism during this time transferred their commitment to social justice to other causes, including protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and '70s. The government's suppression of anti-war protestors and civil rights activists was framed as a fight against the spread of communism, so those who opposed the Vietnam war were often accused of sympathizing with the enemy.

In addition to surveillance by the FBI and local authorities, the U.S. Army also began secretly and illegally monitoring protests and anti-war groups. The Army's activities were stopped in 1971, after being exposed by a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sam Ervin Jr, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina.

Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations developed other secret programs, most notably Operation CHAOS and Project MINARET. Their main purpose was to link the civil rights movement and anti-war protests to international communism. After 1975, legislation was introduced to curb the unlawful surveillance of American citizens by U.S. intelligence agencies. The sole outcome was the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in 1978, which gave the judiciary the power to oversee claimed "foreign intelligence" activities. However, in subsequent years, the Reagan administration weakened FISA. After 9/11, the Bush adminitration circumvented it.

Moments in History

1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American, is murdered in Money, Miss., bringing national attention to the way blacks are treated in the South.

1955: Rosa Parks inspires the Montgomery bus boycott, officially beginning the modern civil rights movement. The American Communist Party's advocacy of full equality for African-Americans makes civil rights activists a target of FBI anti-communist investigations.

1963: President Kennedy is assassinated and the newly sworn-in president, former Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, affirms that the United States intends to end racial discrimination and continue supporting South Vietnam.

1965: A draft card is burned publicly for the first time in the United States, inspiring meetings around the country where large groups of young men burn their draft cards.

1969: Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton is killed in a raid by Chicago police. In 1976, as a result of the Church Committee hearings, Americans learn that Hampton's bodyguard was an FBI agent provocateur.

1969: Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and elsewhere take part in the International Moratorium, a mass demonstration against the Vietnam War.

1970: The Ohio National Guard opens fire on Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four students and wounding nine others. College campuses across the United States erupt in protest, leading to early termination of the school semester.

1975-76: The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee) reports to Congress that "domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association and privacy. It has done so primarily because the constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied."

1978: Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Historians’ Perspectives

Geoffrey Stone
Geoffrey Stone
Opposing the Vietnam War. The government prosecuted individuals who were significant political figures ... (0:53)
Adam Green
Adam Green
Targeting Political Figures. The figures that people don't recognize today ... (0:57)
Threat to national security. A sense of threat can be made in two ways ... (0:57)
Surveillance of Dr. King. Individuals who are able to escape the most severe forms of targeting ... (0:51)
Athan Theoharis
Athan Theoharris
The FBI's Disinformation Campaign. In the Bureau's terminology, the purpose of these programs ... (0:53)