Prof. Davis: At Height of '60s Black Power Movement, FBI Declared War Against Black Bookstores
February 22, 2018
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
Writing in The Atlantic, University of Baltimore Assistant Professor of History Joshua Clark Davis uncovers a little-known part of the 1960s-era struggle between activists and the establishment: a coordinated push by the FBI against black bookstores.
"In addition to [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover's memo, I uncovered documents detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a dozen cities across the U.S.," writes Davis, author of last year's 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...."
Davis says that FBI field offices were instructed 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."
While the surveillance was highly invasive, Davis notes, it was often mundane in nature. Regardless, he adds, it amounted to government overreach during an explosive era.
"Indeed, the FBI's war against black bookstores represents a sad chapter in the history of law enforcement in the U.S., a time when federal agents dispensed with all notions of freedom of speech as they targeted black entrepreneurs and their customers for buying and selling literature they deemed politically subversive."