Although the Civil Rights Movement resulted in many well known changes at an institutional level, it is widely agreed that the movement did not succeed in a total transformation of American society. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not fully realized. The exact reasons for this are subject to debate, which often unfortunately devolves into partisan blame shifting between conservatives and liberals. In contemplating this history, little attention is given to one of the most unfortunate reasons that the Civil Rights Movement lost steam – interference and attacks from American intelligence agencies bent on neutralizing what they saw as a force of change that could destabilize society.
Efforts to marginalize and degrade the success of the Civil Rights Movement has played out for many years, but took on an initial intensity during the 1960’s. CIA assets including Gloria Steinem were never far removed from a larger overall process in which black American civil rights leaders were targeted and African American society was disrupted. Agents like Steinem were directly involved with spreading propaganda like a virus during the 60’s and beyond. The effects on the black community in the United States have been so tragically consequential that they could safely be defined as an experiment in population control. An examination of the methods in which the Civil Rights Movement was targeted can teach us much about our history, and even more about what we must vigilantly watch for in the future.
I. Steinem’s History With The CIA
The beginning of Steinem’s history with the CIA is somewhat unclear, although the facts indicate she was recruited either during her university years or immediately afterwards. From 1956 to 1958, Steinem traveled to India as a Chester Bowles Asian Fellow. According to documentation of Steinem’s career, individuals she met with during her time there included Indian Communist Party founder M. N. Roy and a researcher who appeared to have been a CIA agent. Steinem’s “official” association with the CIA began upon her return to the United States in 1959 when she took charge of a front organization called the Independent Research Service where she was tasked with recruiting students to attend Soviet-controlled youth festivals in 1959 and 1962.
In 1978, feminist group Restockings wrote in the book Feminist Revolution that Steinem was listed as a co-director of an Independent Research Service pamphlet titled A Review of Negro Segregation in the United States which alleged that segregation of black Americans was at least partially self-perpetuated. When Feminist Revolution was first published, the CIA-connected Ford Foundation was among those to demand that publisher Random House remove all references to Steinem and the Independent Research Service.
The connection between Steinem, the Independent Research Service the CIA was not exposed until 1967 when the details of the clandestine support were leaked to Ramparts Magazine, then reported widely by the Washington Post and New York Times. Both the CIA and Steinem herself would ultimately acknowledge the connection in subsequent years, although they both insisted that their work aimed to combat Communism.
Steinem’s acknowledged tenure with the CIA resulted in a number of high profile connections with individuals involved in various CIA operations. Research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis lists the Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank chairman John McCloy, OSS psychological warfare expert and senior executive at Time, Inc. C.D. Jackson and Watergate-connected CIA operative Cord Meyer as individuals who supported her work with the Independent Research Service. Although the CIA placed some degree of trust in Steinem, other agencies were wary of her. A few years later the FBI warned the Justice Department’s civil rights division that Steinem was a security risk and an inadvisable hire due to what they considered to be unacceptable far left associations.
Although the relationship between Steinem and the CIA supposedly terminated after 1962, her associations with high profile figures controlling public policy continued. According to Julian Assange, Steinem dated Henry Kissinger during his years working for the Nixon administration. She would also spend nine years in a relationship with Stanley Pottinger, the former Assistant Attorney General with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who insisted that there was no evidence of FBI involvement in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Steinem founded Ms. Magazine in 1971, she chose Elizabeth Forsling Harris, a PR executive who helped with advance work for John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Dallas, Texas as her co-founder and publisher. An examination of the effects and goal of her work throughout the late 1960’s and early 70’s gives the distinct impression that Steinem’s association with the CIA may not have ended, instead playing a role in the agency’s known attempts to undermine domestic Civil Rights groups during this period.
II. Targeting Of Black America And Civil Rights
The rapid initial success of the civil rights movement, and the promise it held to effectively disrupt the power structures in the United States at the height of the Cold War made it an obvious target for intelligence groups, both within the United States and abroad. Actions taken against the black community during these years included targeting civil rights leadership, drafting and deploying black males to fight in foreign conflicts and destruction of black society by targeting the family unit and promoting gender conflict.
A. Targeting Black Leaders
Black leaders had been targeted by intelligence and government agencies long before the 1960’s, but it was the 60’s that were marked by a series of targeted assassinations. Two of the most well known from this period are likely Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Although Malcolm X, a Black Nationalist, spent most of his career in opposition to MLK’s nonviolent approach to Civil Rights his opinions shifted just a year prior to his death. In May 1964, Malcolm was quoted in the New York Times as stating that his perspectives of white people had changed and that he would work with the younger generations to combat racism. He was assassinated in February 1965.
As one of the most iconic leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was undoubtedly a high-priority target. Although Dr. King delivered a number of socialistic critiques of capitalism during his lifetime he was ardently opposed to communism. It was this opposition in fact that caused him to be the only high profile American to be targeted by intelligence agencies in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s KGB opposed Dr. King due to his unwillingness to allow Communist sympathizers to foment poor race relations. His death came several years after Malcolm X’s in 1968.
The removal of leadership figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X was essential to sideline individuals who might be more nationalistically minded or support American socialists over foreign supported extremism intended to deteriorate the Civil Rights situation.
B. Disrupting Black Society
Targeted assassinations of leadership figures coincided with the Vietnam War, which lead to a disproportionate number of black men being drafted or otherwise deployed to the war zone. The Oxford Companion to American Military History stated that although blacks represented 11% of the US population from 1965 to 1969, they made up 12.6% of the soldiers in Vietnam. The majority of these served in the infantry where they suffered casualty rates of 14.9%.
It was statistics like these that caused Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders to denounce Vietnam as being “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight” where black men were far more likely to see combat. Deploying males to a war zone also had the effect of disrupting society in a manner similar to the Second World War.
C. Consolidation Of CIA Domestic Intelligence Programs Under Operation CHAOS
The Central Intelligence Agency has a long and tenured history of interfering in foreign politics. Their domestic operations, however, have been given considerably less attention in recent years. By the end of the 60’s the CIA began to centralize their various domestic operations under a single program known as Operation CHAOS. Officially begun in 1967, all existing CIA domestic programs were consolidated under CHAOS after Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in January 1969.
Operation CHAOS served as a means for the CIA to infiltrate and spy on groups and individuals they considered to be behaving in a manner that was “illegal and subversive.” Organizations that were targeted by the CIA included socialist-leaning student organizations, the Black Panther Party and Ramparts Magazine, the publication that first exposed Gloria Steinem’s relationship with the CIA.
On April 4th, 1969, Steinem published her “landmark” piece “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” in New York Magazine. The article’s main focus was to encourage women to break away from the Civil Rights movement and “start concentrating on their own problems.” With Civil Rights leadership weakened by targeted assassination and men of fighting age being shipped out to a foreign theater of combat her writings served to perpetuate these issues by causing gender conflict within the civil rights movement.
“After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” stood in total contrast to previous prevailing philosophies that supported societal models, which Steinem attacked as “patriarchal.” Leadership such as Dr. King preached that the cornerstone to building a strong black American community was the nuclear family. In 1966, King gave a speech where he stated that black America’s “very survival was bound” to their ability to create and foster strong families. “The whole of society,” King said, “rests on this foundation for stability, understanding and social peace.” With figures like King out of the way by 1969 there was clear opportunity to attack what he had seen as a cornerstone of the black society in America – healthy and harmonious families. The spark that was lit by Steinem’s article would inoculate the Civil Rights Movement with a new strain of feminism that spread like a pathogen.
III. Exposure Of Operation CHAOS And Coverup
The years following 1969 were marked by turbulence and increasing inter agency spats. While the FBI supplied the CIA with intelligence for Operations CHAOS, they refused to provide any context or analysis due to the perception that this would violate their charter. It’s possible that this tension contributed to the outbreak of the 1972 Watergate scandal, where an active CIA asset was arrested while bugging the DNC’s headquarters and a senior FBI official provided information exposing the scandal to the Washington Post.
With the increasing public scrutiny of covert domestic programs, Operation CHAOS was officially shut down in 1973. In 1974, journalist Seymour Hersh exposed the program with an investigative piece published in the New York Times. The expose caused enough public outrage for the establishment of committees in the House and Senate as well as the Rockefeller Commission, headed Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller. These investigations were marked by attempts from Ford Administration officials to block Congressional committees from accessing information and interview with officials and focusing on the more easily controlled Rockefeller Commission.
The Commission’s goal was not to reveal wrongdoing by US intelligence agencies but to mitigate damage caused by leaks. Famous revelations such as the disclosure of Project MKULTRA were in fact “safe” because CIA officials considered these programs to be failures. It is already public knowledge that some information including disclosures of the CIA’s involvement in assassination plots was removed from the final report by the Commission. The involvement of Nelson Rockefeller, whose family was involved with government calls for population control and funded Nazi-affiliated eugenics programs which maintained files on millions of Americans marked for genetic elimination was especially inappropriate and showed the pervasive interest of special interests in embedding themselves within the Rockefeller Commission for their own private purposes.
IV. Post-Rockefeller Commission
Targeting black communities continued long after the 1960’s. When disclosure of US bioweapon experimentation on American populations began in the 1970’s tragedies such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments showed that black Americans were specifically targeted by various bioweapon programs conducted by various government agencies. Much of the information surrounding these programs remains classified, “destroyed” or otherwise kept from the public sphere. It is impossible to know the full extent of these programs that used American citizens as guinea pigs for experiments in biological warfare and population control methods.
Reporters who exposed other CIA targeting of black American communities were singled out for discrediting and character assassination. Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance series published with The Mercury News alleged the involvement of the CIA in trafficking of crack cocaine that was rampantly distributed in black communities and resulted in disproportionate sentencing of black Americans. The high incarceration rates that resulted from these policies further contributed to the fragmentation of the black American family unit. Webb was attacked by almost every mainstream media outlet for his revelations and was ultimately found dead with two gunshots to the head.
The combined effect of legal, biological and sociological attacks on the black community has prevented them from realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a black American society built on bedrock of stable family units. In 1960, two thirds of black children lived with two parents – today that number has been reduced to one third. Over 73% of black children are born out of wedlock according the data published by the Center for Disease Control in 2012 (a dramatic increase from 11% in 1938). These statistics are part of an overall decrease in fertility and birth rates that have continued uninterrupted to this day. This trend is alarming, given that social scientists have been observing since the 1960’s that the breakdown of the family unit was not due to economic factors. The obstacles created by the intelligence community and new social theories degraded the ability of black families to retain their cohesive structure, exposing generations to the struggles of single parenthood and continuous poverty.
Despite these factors that disrupt family structure and make life more difficult for black women, Gloria Steinem as recently as 2015 told the Huffington Post that she credited black women with “starting the feminist movement” she helped foster and spread in the 1960’s and 70’s. She has remained active in various social justice movements. In January 2017, she was a speaker at the Women’s March protests in Washington DC.
It seems that Operation CHAOS may have lingered on past 1973 in spirit if not in name. Certain members of the Reagan administration would eventually attempt to allow the CIA to resume domestic operations in the 1980’s. The proposal received strong criticism in the New York Times. In 2015, reports began to emerge highlighting claims that an activist crossing the Canadian border was “randomly selected” for a search as part of a program called “Operation Chaos.”