The FBI’s Forgotten War on Black-Owned Bookstores

In the spring of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced to his agents that COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program established in 1956 to combat communists, should focus on preventing the rise of a “Black ‘messiah’” who sought to “unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-Harlem), right, gestures emphatically as he speaks outside the National Memorial African Bookstore in the Harlem section of New York, 1965. AP

The program, Hoover insisted, should target figures as ideologically diverse as the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King Jr., and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

Just a few months later, in October 1968, Hoover penned another memo warning of the urgent menace of a growing Black Power movement, but this time the director focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.

In a one-page directive, Hoover noted with alarm a recent “increase in the establishment of black extremist bookstores which represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.”

The director 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.”

Each investigation was 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.”

Perhaps most disturbing, Hoover wanted the Bureau to convince African American citizens (presumably with pay or through extortion) to spy on these stores by posing as sympathetic customers or activists.
“Investigations should be instituted on new stores when opened and you should recognize the excellent target these stores represent for penetration by racial sources,” he ordered.
Hoover, in short, expected agents to adopt the ruthless tactics of espionage and falsification they deployed against civil-rights and Black Power activists, and now use them against black-owned bookstores. Hoover’s memo offers us a troubling glimpse of a forgotten dimension of COINTELPRO, one that has escaped notice for decades: the FBI’s war on black-owned bookstores.
In addition to Hoover’s memo, I uncovered documents detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a dozen cities across the U.S. in conducting research for my book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.
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). 

Read the rest at CITY LAB


  1. Please continue to share this type of information for our people to to and remember where they have come from and what they had to endure during THESE times!!!

  2. This is may be factual but i believe you are reaching too far. In NYC on Lenox Ave and 133rd st. there was the Liberation Book Store…You want to know why they closed down??? The place was the size of a closet and they didn’t accept credit cards…They opened back up after several years only to close forever….please don’t tell me whitey put them out of business!!!!!!

    • They shud had expanded their business practices, but it appears the truly did not want to be a part of the establishment. Paying fees for allowing cc. So in effect yes. U can’t keep it simple in this atmosphere of capitalism. Gentrification caused them to lose a base of loyal customers. I cud go on.

    • There’s zero connection between the historical facts related in this piece and the economic rationale behind the closing of the “Liberation” bookstore. It is you that is reaching, attempting to refute a am argument that is not even being made in this piece. The author is merely retelling the history of the FBI’s historically documented and testified counterintelligence efforts in monitoring Black bookstore outlets suspected of possible “extremist” activities. No one is talking about “whitey” at all.

  3. Though COINTELPRO is frequently viewed as a past tense operation, I would bet my bottom dollar that it has continued to exist, in some form or fashion, with perhaps different code names, even before the advent of Drumpf.

  4. If we supported any Black owned Business including book stores, they would exist. In my city as property values go up many corner stores can’t sustain. Also when a Black owned Business does open, the youngers see it as a new place to hangout in front. A friend opened a business and when he complained, they vandalized his car. He ended up closing. We can’t blame everything on others.

    • We also can’t be afraid to tell the truth and LISTEN to the Truth because it makes you uncomfortable.

  5. The FBI also purchased radicals books in order to bon-fire them later on. Many of these first-edition publications were never reprinted, as the FBI had assumed would be an outcome.

  6. The bookstores could be actual lifesavers but some of us need to really “read” because some of us do too much SCROLLING and rely on what we see on social media on a daily basis instead of actually taking the time to ENLIGHTEN OURSELVES and nusrishing our own minds.

  7. To all who thinks this article is blaming someone…it is not. It is just stating all they would do to make sure we would not seek knowledge, encourage, or enlighten ourselves.

  8. Most of you are missing the point of the story here, it’s not about now, its about what has taken place and the intent of the FBI and the USA on people of color.

  9. There was also a Black Desk in many police departments around the country, along with a Red Desk, the purpose of which was to spy on and disrupt progressive movements.

  10. Peace to all the point l get is what the enemy has done ,, is doing ,, and will continue to do to us , in the name of their freedom,, to do that for them is total control & us doing wrong to us is also part of their equation ,,even our businesses closing down from our lack of support,, psychological warfare ,, the ferverbio more then one way to skin a cat is my point !!! It is like when the drug cartels smuggle as many of the routes get exposed 3xs that get through they factor that in their equations !!!! Just my thoughts on this matter

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