It was the year of the Apollo 14 moon landing. On March 1, the Weather Underground took credit for a bombing at the U.S. Capitol. Later in the year, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule unanimously that busing students may be ordered to achieve racial desegregation. On March 8, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were preparing for the world champion boxing match that night. Against this backdrop, eight ordinary citizens were plotting a break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.
The year was 1971, which is also the name of a documentary shown last night at CCR’s monthly Freedom Flicks screening. Timed to be carried out during the Frazier-Ali fight, in the hopes that security guards would be absorbed by the “Fight of the Century,” the raid, and the files stolen that night by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, was the first to expose the FBI’s illegal efforts to disrupt social movements and suppress dissent, including the first mention of the infamous COINTELPRO, a series of covert, and highly illegal, projects conducted by the Bureau aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations.
The Citizens’ Committee discoveries came before the better-known publication of the Pentagon Papers, and they are part of a tradition that includes the whistleblowers of today, like Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. All of these whistleblowers risked their own freedom to expose threats to privacy and the ability to peacefully assemble in an attempt to shift the status quo and to secure rights for oppressed groups and individuals. Their actions aided all movements in this country, demanding that the government be held accountable for violating rights and obstructing efforts to secure those rights in the first place.
Born out of the Civil Rights movement, during a time when our government and our society explicitly sanctioned denying human and constitutional rights to Black Americans, CCR’s work was likewise born in the midst of the FBI surveillance and harassment that began to be uncovered when the Citizens’ Committee broke into the office in Media, PA. Throughout our history we have fought for government transparency and accountability, working to advance the goals of movements while protecting them as they engage in their struggles.
We are proud to have shown 1971 this month as part of CCR’s 50th anniversary and thank last night’s featured guest speakers Betty Medsger, the journalist who broke the story on the contents of the FBI break-in, and CCR board member and senior community organizer at the NAACP LDF Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, for participating in a talkback with our audience. Over 70 people attended last night’s screening and stayed behind for a special talkback with our featured guest speakers. Ms. Medsger and Mr. Akinwole-Bandele contextualized the importance of the Citizens’ Committee’s heroic acts as they relate to ongoing struggles today, which reflect those struggles of yesterday. In addition, they expertly discussed the ways in which these revelations not only reshaped how people report on government abuses, but also the impact they have had on all movements since 1971. The many small acts of individual citizens have always helped lay the foundation for successful change movements. And CCR will be there, ready to protect those movements and individuals from silencing and repression.