African-Americans, Surveillance & The Freedom of Information Act

Archives, Civil Liberties, Government Information, Privacy, Surveillance

By: Jane’a Johnson

What is modern man but a bundle of documents? What is he or she but a collection of images, files, memos, and numbers?

An unredacted copy of a letter sent anonymously to MLK Jr. by the FBI. It comes from the New York Times, but was original found in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
‘You Are Done’: The letter sent to King by the F.B.I. Credit National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

The latest news cycle has been dominated by a memo written by republicans alleging abuses from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). It accuses the FBI of inappropriately surveilling a Trump campaign advisor, among other things. The accuracy of the document is unclear – but what is clear is that the unlawful surveillance of an American citizen is being used to impugn the integrity of the highest law-enforcement agency in the land. The convoluted string of accusations and partisan posturing obscures very real concerns about the ever creeping, ever expanding nature of surveillance and the unimpeachable authority of documents. It is something which the larger American public is now only starting to come to terms with, but something which African-Americans understand well – too well. From the man on the street corner to adored literary luminaries, watchful eyes and ears were and are a constant. James Baldwin has the dubious distinction of the writer with the longest FBI file.


One might think of the covert, sometimes illegal FBI surveillance of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and various other political dissidents as the petri dish where experiments with overreach were conducted years before they were unleashed on the general public. It is only within past decade or so that we are learning just how extensive the surveillance was through the Freedom of Information Act. It is only now that people like artist Sadie Barnette are beginning to come to terms with what it means. She turned her father’s 500-page FBI file into art, spray painting it with pink splotches, and adorning it with jewels. Rodney Barnette was the founder of the Compton, California chapter of the Black Panthers. My Father’s FBI File, Project I was exhibited in 2017 at the Oakland Museum of California. 


FBI file of Rodney Barnette
Sadie Barnette, My Father’s FBI File, 2017. Image courtesy of Baxter Street Camera Club of New York.


In honor of Black History Month, let us reflect on what it means to be free. The right not just to dissension, but to be a private citizen free from harassment and tracking. The right to know what is known about us, and be at least in some sense, the archivists of our own lives. Freedom-loving Americans might look back on the late 1950s and 1960s as a peculiar time. It produced COINTELPRO, an FBI organization aimed at discrediting and surveilling political organizations deemed threatening for whatever reason and the Freedom of Information Act, an act signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 that allows for the disclosure of information and documents controlled by the US government. In the 241st year of our democracy, we might also think hard about how information, or lack there of, is being weaponized in new, but strangely familiar ways.


Jane'a JohnsonJane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.

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