Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used the COINTELPRO counterintelligence program to spy on, infiltrate and disrupt Black activist groups throughout the ’60s and ’70s. And as The Atlantic reported on Monday (February 19), Hoover’s efforts also extended to  independent Black bookstores. 

Article author and University of Baltimore professor Joshua Clark Davis wrote that he 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.” A 1968 memo, which Davis sourced through a Freedom of Information Act request, demonized Black bookstores as breeding grounds for extremist rhetoric and actions:

Each [field] office should 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. … The investigation should 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. … Investigations should be instituted on new stores when opened and you should recognize the excellent target these stores represent for penetration by racial sources.

The “racial sources” line refers to Black informants who, similar to how the FBI monitored the Black Panther Party, would pose as interested customers to gather information. Davis wrote that the program ultimately collected information on several of the most well-known Black bookstore owners of the era: 

At the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI conducted investigations of such Black booksellers as Lewis Michaux and Una Mulzac in New York City, Paul Coates in Baltimore (the father of The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates), Dawud Hakim and Bill Crawford in Philadelphia, Alfred and Bernice Ligon in Los Angeles, and the owners of the Sundiata bookstore in Denver. And this list is almost certainly far from complete, because most FBI documents pertaining to currently living booksellers aren’t available to researchers through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Despite its overreach, Davis cites unpublished reports that allegedly show the surveillance yielded little incriminating information: 

The FBI reports note phone calls from Coates’s number to his former comrades in the Black Panther Party—but also to Viking Press and the American Booksellers Association. Agents in New York reported an undercover source’s questionable claim that Lewis Michaux “was responsible for about 75 percent of the anti-White material” distributed in Harlem, but another report conceded that he was “no longer very active in Black Nationalist activity as he is getting old.” In Philadelphia, agents traced a car’s license plate at a Republic of New Africa convention to Dawud Hakim, but not long afterwards they quoted sources stating that the RNA was “now defunct in the Philadelphia area” and that Hakim “has not shown interest in any Black Nationalist activity.”

The article also details specific actions against Drum and Spear, a Washington D.C. store founded by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1968: 

The Bureau launched its surveillance of Drum and Spear after sources sighted Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) visiting the store in its first weeks of business. Hoover’s office soon ordered that the investigation of the store “should be intensified” beyond occasional visits by agents and expanded to cultivating customers, employees and people who attended meetings at Drum and Spear as undercover sources. From 1968 until the store’s closing in 1974, the Bureau compiled nearly 500 pages of investigative files on Drum and Spear. Plainclothes agents who visited the store aroused employees’ suspicions when they sat in parked cars in front of the business for hours. In another incident, two men wearing suits who appeared to be federal agents visited Drum and Spear and asked to purchase the store’s entire inventory of Mao’s Little Red Book. Agents’ reports meticulously detailed the store’s contents, relating that its roughly 4,000 copies of 500 titles were divided into five sections—African Works, Works of the American Negro, Fiction, Third World and Children’s Works—while posters and photos of H. Rap Brown, Carmichael, Huey Newton and Che Guevara decorated its walls.

The article closes with a quote from one of the booksellers, Dawud Hakim. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “We are trying to educate our people about their history and culture.”

Read “The FBI’s War on Black-Owned Bookstores” here.