People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 7

February 22, 2009


Recalling State Repression  Of Black People In The USA

Siddhartha Roy

The Negro youth and moderates must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” - FBI memo dated April 3, 1968, from San Francisco Office to Director.

JANUARY 20, 2009, a momentous day for America and its Black population, or at least that is how it is being projected. The first American with a Black lineage took the presidential oath at the Capitol after an impressive electoral triumph after promising Change and urging the voters to be audacious with Hope.

Interestingly, 89 years back on January 20, 1920, there was another attempt aimed at Hope in the form of the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU had its origins in the anti-militarist National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) which worked for pro-active opposition to American intervention in the First World War by aiding – legally and otherwise – ‘conscientious objectors’ who refused to participate in the imperialistic war. The ACLU today has grown to a membership of 5,00,000 members and supporters with offices in all the 50 states of USA along with Washington DC and Puerto Rico. Although having a history of undeniable contribution to the civil liberties movement in the US, the ACLU comes with its share of criticism. Under the leadership of Roger Baldwin and Counsel Morris Ernst, the ACLU in 1940 conducted a ‘purge’ in its ranks to bar communists from being part of the organisation. Justifying this act of ideological straight-jacketing it said, “[it was] inappropriate for any person to serve on the governing committees of the Union or its staff, who is a member of any political organisation which supports totalitarianism in any country, or who by his public declarations indicates his support of such a principle”. This led to the expelling of a large number of communists and radical trade unionists from the ACLU ranks, including founder member Elizabeth Flynn. Elizabeth was a towering civil liberties activist working for trade union and women rights issues in the US. Her expulsion was due to the fact that she was also a member of the Communist Party of USA (CPUSA) and the International Workers World (IWW) trade union. This watering down of the ACLU came at a time when the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) led by Martin Dies Jr. led a rabid and insane witch-hunt against communists and communist sympathisers, both actual and alleged. This Red-scare drive charged people cutting across age lines including the then nine year old Shirley Temple!



Though the ACLU was established with the stated aim of working “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States”, the anti-communist purge within the organisation was widely seen as negating its claim of being anti-discrimination. The ACLU since its inception, and during its later growth, has largely been centrist and arguably the biggest organisation in the civil rights arena. However the civil rights movement in the US, especially the African-American part of it, branched off into multiple streams with growing time. Almost each stream had its own variant of Black liberation ideology and most certainly its distinct working method. From the Christian pacifist Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Gandhian Martin Luther King, Jr., to the revolutionary Black nationalist movement led by Malcolm X to Black supremacist Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad and so on.

As is common knowledge, the American government has since the very beginning been wary of and opposed to groups and individuals advocating, demanding or agitating for liberty, whether civil or political, both within the boundaries of the Land of Liberty and without. This has been laid bare by the many covert and overt actions taken by the American rulers from time to time starting with the First Red Scare in the 1917 to 1920 period to the modern day Patriot Act. Incidentally the history of political repression and retribution in the USA is as old as its movements for liberty. This is evident from the first recorded existence of Red Squads, which were secret police bodies meant for infiltrating into Leftist groups and help to counter them, going as far back as 1886 at the time of the Haymarket Uprising in Chicago. The activities of the Red Squads were however not restricted to only surveillance and intelligence gathering. They were used in all possible ways to sabotage and crush mass movements. This, on the part of the Squads, called for activities ranging form agent-provocateur roles to discrediting and even killing leaders and committed workers of Leftist organisations. The Red Squads were used to varying degrees by intermediate administrations till they were officially declared ‘stopped’ after the Church Committee findings post Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the discovery of COINTELPRO. Interestingly, COINTELPRO, the short form for FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, was not ‘de-classified’ and opened to the public by the government. It was discovered by a group of Left-wing radicals who called themselves “Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI”, when they burgled an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. The information found was sent in copies to all leading media houses in the country. Initially however, most media outlets refused to publish the findings. This could very well be the effect of Operation Mockingbird as per which the US government actually placed their field agents in media offices to ensure that they kept in line with the principle of preventing support in any form to “indigenous elements in threatened countries of the free world.” This is corroborated by Deborah Davis in her book Katharine the Great, saying “By the early 1950s, [Frank Gardiner] Wisner [of CIA] ‘owned’ respected members of The New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles”. Though the list of targets of political repression and silencing of opposition in the US is long and varied, arguably the prime targets and hence the worst victims of it were the Black liberation and other Left leaning groups. This is laid bare through the FBI director for nearly half a century, J Edgar Hoover’s own directive in the COINTELPRO papers demanding “Personal Attention To All Offices” written on August 25, 1967 stating “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavour is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralise the activities of black nationalist hate-type organisations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters…” (emphasis added). In fact as Rodery Jefferys-Jones notes in his book The FBI, “Eighty five per cent of COINTELPRO operations had been against such targets as the CPUSA, Black Nationalists, Martin Luther King Jr., and the new Left”. It also goes on to note that “Whereas the FBI needed little invitation to proceed against the Left, it had required the intercession of Democratic politicians, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, to arrange the White Hate COINTELPRO”.

In view of the above, the Black Panther Party (BPP), which as per its stated beliefs, writings, statements and work, combined the cause of Black people’s upliftment and Leftist politics of Marxist political ideology and Mao Tse Tung’s way towards the Revolution, was the obvious and one of the choicest targets of the FBI. On June 15 1969, Hoover said, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”. To this effect 233 of the 295 authorised Black Nationalist COINTELPRO actions were directed against the BPP. The BPP was targeted through a large number of techniques. The prime amongst them was to encourage other Black organisations that would ‘compete’ with the BPP. Notable amongst them was the FBI created ‘gang-war’ between the BPP and an organisation called the United Slaves Organisation (USO) in California and the Blackstone Rangers in Chicago. False letters and defamatory materials were sent by the FBI to the opposing groups so as to enrage them about the other and lead to altercations, at first verbal and later lethally violent. Many BPP activists were shot and beaten to death by USO members with FBI personnel assisting them in street fights. The FBI became so brazen in its activities that two active members of the BPP, Bunchery Carter and John Huggins, were killed by USO members on University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus itself. An attempt at peace talks between the USO and the BPP initiated by the latter was seen as a threat by the FBI and was quickly thwarted by more provocation and active proxy killing. Apart from this the FBI also drove a wedge between its two prominent leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P Newton. The FBI sent letters separately to Cleaver who was away in Algeria, and Newton, who was in jail at that time, questioning their leadership abilities as compared to the other. All these letters were from fictitious ‘sympathisers’ and ‘revolutionary’ groups. The third very important activity to break the back of the BPP was to discredit them in public and dent the morale of the panthers rendering them ineffective. This is shown very clearly by one of Hoover’s letters to a field agent in San Francisco directing him to supply evidence that only works to support the view that the BPP was “a violence-prone organisation seeking to overthrow the government by revolutionary means” or else forfeit his job. This was in response to the field agent’s report that the Panthers were simply giving breakfast to children in that area as part of their Free Breakfast for Children program keeping in line with their belief in Mao’s statement “serve the people”.

(To be continued)