Activities & Organizations News

UH students in the ’60s were targeted by the FBI

The Students for a Democratic Society had a long history of vocal opposition to government and military influence on campus.  | File Photo

You’re at a party for a certain University of Houston club wearing a mini-skirt. You’re talking to a boy who hands you a joint. You have a good night at the party, and you go home with him. The next morning you wake up and go on with your life. 

In 2019, that’s considered a normal, if not relaxed, weekend. But, in 1968, the FBI would have considered you a subversive actor, according to declassified documents Houston Chronicle reporter Robert Downen highlighted in a Twitter thread

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War, young men began to burn their draft cards and join clubs to show their opposition to the war effort.

One of these clubs, Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, was a small, uninfluential club on campus. Even so, they became a target of the FBI.

“It is felt that the New Left in the Houston Division which is a comparatively small group at this time offers excellent potential for counterintelligence activity,” the FBI’s counterintelligence document about the UH’s leftist groups said. 

The documents detail about four years of surveillance and infiltration of certain groups on campus, mainly SDS, and the actions the FBI did and did not take to try and disrupt and disband the groups.

The FBI discussed sending a fake letter to The Cougar condemning strikes in California, planting people inside the groups, watching campus bulletin boards and preventing anyone they believed were involved with the “new left” from getting jobs.

In the documents there are three pages dedicated to a teaching student who was headed to Los Angeles to obtain a teaching position. The woman was targeted by the FBI because she had shown up to class wearing a “mini-mini skirt” and was considered a “radical.”

“She was reprimanded and informed that mini-mini skirts would not be allowed,” the document said. “She thereafter appeared in dresses well below the knee, which were as outlandish as the mini-mini skirts. She obviously was showing her rebellion against the authorities.”

She was also allegedly involved with SDS, smoked marijuana, and was “promiscuous,” according to the FBI. This led to a letter being sent to the Los Angeles Board of Education detailing why they should not hire her.

A scuffle between police and SDS from 1969. The FBI sent letters that lied about members of Students for a Democratic Society to potential employers and news publications. | File Photo

“As you can see this girl certainly is not the proper person to be in charge of and teaching youngsters in yours or any other school system,” the letter said. “It is suggested you might want to thoroughly check this person before offering her a teaching position.”

Another plan the FBI had was to send a letter to The Cougar that would decry strikes by California grape pickers and cause “considerable consternation” for the SDS said a COINTELPRO document, an FBI counterintelligence program.

In the letter, the FBI planned to lie, saying that the SDS was using a fundraiser that was supposed to help California grape workers, for the benefit of their own pockets.

“It is apparent that the efforts by the Houston SDS on behalf of the grape strikers is merely to obtain money to fill the treasury of the local SDS group and not for the benefit of the grape strikers in California,” the proposed letter said.

The FBI stated that they were aware of the New Left that engaged in smoking marijuana and were holding “pot parties,” and planned to hand over information about these gatherings to HPD. 

The FBI sought to prevent SDS members from getting jobs at various companies in the Houston area, notably industrial plants, describing the SDS’ plans as “infiltration and disruption.” 

John Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, wrote in an article titled A Study in Marxist Revolutionary Violence: Students for a Democratic Society, 1962-1969, that this work-in program was meant to get SDS members in contact with workers. 

In the article, Hoover characterized the SDS members as extremist, “all the more dangerous because (this extremism) emanates from young people.” 

Hoover expressed a highly negative opinion of the SDS, among other organizations he labeled as extremist, condemning such factions as the Old and New Left, the Minutemen, the Black Panther Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.

“A scant two years ago, few Americans had heard of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),” Hoover wrote. “Today these initials are the trademarks of a movement whose members have developed into embittered, vociferous revolutionaries who have ignited many campus insurrections.”

This negative opinion was shared in the COINTELPRO,  documents about the Houston New Left and SDS, which referred to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as “leeches that never work and do very little of anything other than sit around.” 

The focus on the group was more than being concerned that young people were smoking pot and wearing mini skirts. The FBI was also on the lookout for any way they could obtain private documents of new left members to search.

When two students were arrested on their way to a large demonstration in Austin, and charged with possession of illegal weapons, the FBI used the opportunity to get access to the students’ car and documents, such as their Social Security number and pay slips. 

The FBI also placed an informant in the Young Socialists of America Houston group, who planned to get YSA leaders drunk at a party and “obtain pertinent information to the investigation of YSA and its members.” 

While 1968 is a long time past, and attitudes have changed to the degree that many of the targeted students’ activities are considered normal instead of subversive and destructive, the counterintelligence initiatives against the SDS by the FBI still cast a shadow. 

“I was able to track down a few of the SDS members via phone while researching this story,” Downen said at the end of the Twitter thread. “To this day, they’re still afraid of talking about it.”

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