February 21, 2018

Hoover’s FBI vs. black independent booksellers


It’s 1968. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is working overtime to suppress the gathering momentum of the Black Power movement. Under the aegis of COINTELPRO (for the Bureau’s Counter Intelligence Program), agents and informants are sniffing around for legal transgressions, or even private gossip, that might be used to take down some of the movements leaders.

Next month, well publish a book that adds a whole new dimension to what we know about the chaos of that time. Until then, a recent Atlantic piece by Joshua Clark Davis will have to tide us over.

Davis tells the dark story of how the FBI trained its sights on black independent booksellers, with the orders coming straight from Hoover:

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.”

The goal was to bring the extralegal spying techniques of COINTELPRO to the hallowed spaces of independent bookstores — specifically those with black owners.

In researching his book on activist entrepreneurs, Davis discovered evidence of FBI meddling in the affairs of booksellers in (at least) New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Denver. Of course, many of these records simply detail the day to day work of booksellers, placing calls to publishers or liaising with the American Booksellers Association. Even more invasively, the records reflect a keen interest in the lives of everyday bookstore patrons as well.

Adding to the FBI’s paranoia was the fact that black-owned bookstores were a growing phenomenon in the late sixties. Customers were hungry for titles like the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and to learn about now-iconic authors like James BaldwinIt’s simply wrong to have identified these black independent business as conspirators in some sort of giant underground information network.

Unfortunately, by the mid-seventies, the explosion in black bookstores would flag (not re-igniting until the nineties) — a sad testament to the chilling effect these unwarranted actions against booksellers had.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.