The Memphis Commercial Appeal made international news earlier this year when it broke the story that Ernest Withers, a trusted civil rights movement activist, had been a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The Commercial Appeal has pursued the story aggressively, suing the FBI for the release of the FBI's informant file on Withers, as well as creating a special section of its web site called "Ernest Withers: Exposed."
But while they are making Freedom of Information Act requests, the Commercial Appeal's reporters might also want to request FBI documents about their own publication's role in the FBI's campaign to discredit and divide civil rights and black power movement leaders.
According to documents from the FBI's counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against "Black Nationalist Hate-Type Groups," the FBI cultivated a contact at the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1969 through which to spread malicious rumors about two Black Power organizations in Memphis: the Invaders and the Black Knights.
According to a February 26, 1969 memo from the Memphis field office to FBI headquarters,
Due to the success of the counterintelligence program whereby the Memphis Office has been furnishing a reliable newspaper source of the Memphis Office information regarding the black militant organization known as the Invaders, as set out hereinafter, the Memphis Office is giving consideration to increasing this type of counterintelligence activity and a preliminary contact has been made with a representative of the Memphis "Commercial Appeal" who has always been cooperative with this Bureau in an effort to determine his interest in writing articles, exposing the Invaders organization and the Black Knights organization such as the articles that have been written recently and appeared in the Memphis "Press-Scimitar," the afternoon daily newspaper. This contact appears to be receptive and, if after the next contact with this individual he appears cooperative, Bureau authority will be requested to "leak" information of a derogatory nature regarding the Invaders and other black nationalist militants to this reporter.
The FBI's proposal to use the Commercial Appeal in this way was in no way unusual. The FBI developed its COINTELPRO tactic of using receptive reporters in the news media to leak malicious information about people who exercised their First Amendment rights as part of its campaign against the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the late 1960s, the FBI extended those efforts to target the "white hate" groups, the New Left movement (especially college students), and "black nationalist hate-type organizations."
When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced the creation of the COINTELPRO against Black Nationalism in a August 25, 1967 memo to all FBI field offices, he said that the program's intent was "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, the spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder."
The manipulation of the news media was always part of this program. As Hoover explained in the same document,
the pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where such publicity will have a neutralizing effect... When an opportunity is apparent to disrupt or neutralize black nationalist, hate-type organizations through the cooperation of established local news media contacts or through such contact with sources available to the Seat of Government, in every instance careful attention must be given to the proposal to insure the targeted group is disrupted, ridiculed, or discredited through the publicity and not merely publicized.
Did the FBI use the Commercial Appeal as part of this effort? The document that suggests that the FBI might have done so raises more question than it answers. Who was the FBI's contact at the Commerical Appeal that it had previously worked with? Did the contact help the FBI plant "derogatory" stories about the Invaders and Black Knights? And if so what effect did the stories have on the movement?
Unfortunately, the FBI's release of its Headquarters files on COINTELPRO-Black Nationalism were heavily redacted in the 1980s. In a May 21, 1969 memo, the Memphis field office bragged to FBI headquarters that the Invaders'
... operations are being seriously hampered by the distrust and lack of confidence in the distrust and lack of confidence in the Invader organization by the rank and file Negro resident in Memphis... The articles written by [redacted] depicting the Invaders as a criminal group of thugs has been most beneficial to the Memphis PD [police department] inasmuch as many Negro citizens have called in to the PD and furnishing information re Invaders almost without exception stating that after reading the articles by [redacted] they are now convinced that the Invaders are only interested in criminal activity and are not interested in elevating the Negro race.
However, in a May 8, 1969 FBI document published online by the Commercial Appeal itself, the puzzle is solved. In that document, the FBI claims that it used the Commercial Appeal to plant negative stories about the Invaders:
Cooperative reporters on the Commercial Appeal, daily morning newspaper, and Press Scimitar, daily afternoon newspaper, Memphis, have written a series of stories pointing out the violence-prone nature of the Invaders, their vent [sic] toward engaging in criminal activities, these stories being written in vane to tend to discredit the Invaders in the community.
According to the FBI, its Memphis field office destroyed its file on COINTELPRO-Black Nationalism on June 11, 1991.