In a nation built on the foundation of White
supremacy, anyone the authorities perceive as threatening that foundation
is considered subversive. This has always been true of African Americans
who fought for racial equality, and is now equally true for an increasing
number of people, including artists, Muslims and anyone who speaks
out against this nation's state-sponsored violence and racism.
Witch hunts and federal surveillance are therefore
nothing new: a fact it is important for all of us to remember. Declassified
U.S. military intelligence documents show that for decades this
country spied on African Americans they feared, from well-known
ones such as W.E.B. DuBois and heavyweight boxing champion Jack
Johnson, to farmers attempting to escape the oppression of a sharecropping
system that chained them to the land and left them consistently
In World War I, the U.S. government set up a special
Military Intelligence Division (MID) in the War Department to monitor
people deemed dangerous to the government. (This has very obvious
similarities to the massive National Security Administration monitoring
of the phone records of U.S. citizens that is going on today.) One
of their primary targets was African Americans, especially those
in the press, and they routinely followed up leads on "dangerous"
Black people. The title of their program showed the racist assumptions
and fears that drove their actions: "Negro Subversion."
When a Black newspaper in San Antonio, Texas editorially
criticized the government for hanging thirteen soldiers after the
riots and sentencing forty-one others to life imprisonment,
the U.S. Justice Department charged the editor with violating the
Espionage Act because the editorial allegedly attempted "to
cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, and refusal of duty."
Although the editor hadn't written the editorial and hadn't even
been in town when it was published, he was sentenced to two years
in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
(Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People and African Americans
throughout the country, the soldiers sentenced to life imprisonment
were eventually released. The last one, however, was not released
until 1938, thus serving twenty-one years in prison for defending
himself against White violence).
W.E.B. DuBois was harshly criticized for his writings
about race discrimination. The Crisis, which he edited
for the NAACP, was placed by the MID on a secret list of publications
that were banned from reading rooms used by Black soldiers. The
Crisis and DuBois, along with the writings and activities of
many other Black editors and publications, were placed in a government
file called "Radical Activities." The New York City postmaster's
office even looked through The Crisis for possible "subversive"
material and kept the head of MID, General M. Churchill, informed
about what he found.
Officials at MID and other government agencies were
especially concerned that articles about political, economic and
social equality would be read by Black soldiers returning from fighting
for democracy on the battlefields of Europe.
"It is feared," read a report by the MID
on one such article, "that upon the return of these negroes
to their homes in the United States articles of this nature will
lead a certain class of the race to strive to attain the dubious
ideals of the writer."
In one of the most shocking efforts to keep watch
over Black people the government feared, Joel Spingarn, the longtime
chairman of the board of the NAACP (and ironically, the creator
of the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by African Americans),
joined MID as a major. Spingarn then promptly sent a letter to the
secretary of the NAACP, John Shillady, asking for a list of all
the officers of the national NAACP and of the presidents and secretaries
of every local branch throughout the country.
The letter was written by Spingarn on behalf of General
Churchill. Shillady not only promptly furnished the names of the
officers to Spingarn at the War Department, but also provided information
on the number of NAACP chapters around the country, the total number
of NAACP members, the number of members expected after the latest
membership drive, and the names of branches that were currently
Shortly after joining the MID, Spingarn was ordered
to investigate a report that "there may be enemy propaganda
to stir up colored people" in New Jersey, and was told to "ascertain
from responsible colored people" whether or not it was true.
Spingarn was also told "not to let anyone know he is doing
so in connection with the government inquiry into Negro Subversion."
During the "Red Summer of Hate" in 1919,
when race riots occurred in twenty-five cities and Black soldiers
still in uniform were lynched, the government considered the soldiers
a threat and made excuses for the lynchers. The MID kept the government
informed of "suspicious" Black people, meaning anyone
who criticized the government or such White supremacist practices
as lynching and the peonage of Black farmer workers.
The latter included Black sharecroppers in Arkansas
who organized a union in an attempt to stop White farmers from cheating
them. The government sent troops
to help the White farmers put down this "rebellion," and
after a deputy sheriff was killed, MID officers helped local authorities
prosecute and imprison the sharecroppers. Six of them were sentenced
to die in the electric chair, after being indicted, tried and convicted
in a total of seven minutes. During the next five days, six more
of the sharecroppers were condemned to death and eighty were sentenced
to prison for terms of from two to twenty years.
When four African Americans were killed in Helena,
Arkansas, the Secretary of War for the United States sent a telegram
to the commanding general at Fort Pike, Arkansas: "Colored
Normal School at Pine Bluff, R.O.T.C. Unit, reported to have 137
rifles and ammunition. Possible trouble feared at time of funeral.
Send experienced officer immediately to Pine Bluff to take charge
of and hold rifles and ammunition until after funeral. By direction
of Secretary of War."
Government intelligence agencies continued to keep
close watch over Black Americans even after World War I ended. Among
those under its surveillance were Marcus Garvey and his Universal
Improvement Association, and ex-heavyweight boxing champion, Jack
Johnson. Johnson was followed to Mexico, where an MID agent reported
back to Washington that a "Mr. Walter Sanborn refused to serve
Jack Johnson in a store in Mexico City because he was a negro and
three of (Mexican President) Carranza's generals made him apologize."
The MID was very worried that "negroes and Mexicans"
would join to somehow attack White Americans.
With the closing of the MID, much of its work was
taken over by the ambitious and racially paranoid J. Edgar Hoover.
The Bureau of Investigation he worked for would soon become the
Federal Bureau of Investigation. This history goes far in explaining
why the FBI later considered Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X
and others so dangerous to the White power structure.
Therefore, what the government is doing now against
African Americans, Muslims and anyone else who challenges their
policies, is nothing new. Black people have always lived in a post-9/11
world when it comes to oppression, intimidation and White fear.
Their fear that Black soldiers returning from Europe in 1919
would challenge the structure of White supremacy, is the same fear
that drove them to strike Black military men and women from the
voting rolls in the 2004 presidential election.
According to a recent investigative report by the
British Broadcasting Corporation (which, to my knowledge, has not
been picked up by the so-called mainstream media in the United States),
officials secretly and illegally struck Black military personnel
from the voting rolls even while they were fighting for the United
States in Iraq. Once they were taken off the rolls, usually without
even knowing about it, they could not challenge the latest manifestation
of White supremacy in the form of the George Bush presidency.
Republican National Committee officials, according
to the report, sent letters to the servicemen and women's homes
in the United States, even though the officials knew the men and
women were overseas. The envelopes had printed on them: "Do
Not Forward." Then, when the service people didn't respond
to letters they never received, elections officials declared that
they were falsely registered and struck them from the rolls.
And so, while the methods change, the game plan is
always the same: to protect White supremacy, especially as it is
manifested through economically and politically powerful White males,
from the dangers of "Negro Subversion." The actions of
officials today are simply the latest in a line that stretches back
to the enslaved men, women and children of centuries past who fought
back against their enslavement, and thus were considered "dangerous"
and "subversive." But somehow they held onto the belief
that this country's promises were also meant for them and their
Both their determination to be free, and the determination
of White supremacists that they never be free, were summed up in
a newspaper ad placed by a 19th century slaveowner: "Ran away
from the subscriber, a negro lad named Liberty. The fellow may have
changed his name."
No, he and his fellow descendants have never changed
their names and never will. Liberty is still the name and the goal,
even if it is once again increasingly considered subversive.
Clinton L. Cox is a veteran journalist and inveterate
student of Black history, based in upstate New York. Contact him