Posts Tagged ‘Civil rights’

The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI.(Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.” The FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Did Mexico Reshape the American Civil Rights Movement? –

HNN  August 10, 2014


It was a moment that schoolteacher Primitivo Alvarez never forgot. In the state of Tlaxcala, 50 miles and a massive volcano to the east of Mexico City, American philosopher John Dewey cautioned his hosts from the Mexican federal government not to copy the institutional models that others had constructed. It was 1926, and Dewey was surveying the work of his Mexican students in Mexico’s rural provinces and delivering a series of lectures in Mexico City that would shortly be published by the New Republic“Dewey wanted the rural schoolteachers of Mexico to remember the urgency and necessity of avoiding imitation, even if the model originated in the advanced countries, because each nation organizes its own system of education in accordance with its unique history, tradition, racial past, and economic and social institutions,” wrote Alvarez. Everyone knew which models were not to be copied. During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Catholicism and social Darwinism had been allowed to harden into an ideology of hierarchy that younger intellectuals were now replacing. Dewey was a perfect fit for the new institutions of postrevolutionary Mexico, Alvarez and others believed. New ideas and new models, porous to change and experimentation, would destroy the make-believe world of poverty and violence that Mexico’s Porfirian leaders had created.

As he looked back on his monumental study of the New Deal, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. celebrated the ideas of John Dewey’s pragmatism for the influence they had wrought on FDR’s politics in the aftermath of the Great Depression. “A thoroughgoing philosophy of experience, framed in the light of science and technology, could produce an organized social intelligence,” wrote Schlesinger, Jr. in The Age of Roosevelt. “And the organized social intelligence, Dewey believed, could direct the processes of social change into a rational and beatific future.” Schlesinger, Jr. was not alone in underscoring the importance of Dewey’s pragmatism in the creation of the modern liberal order. Henry May argued that pragmatism had helped usher in the bundle of ideas that separated the twentieth century from the nineteenth, a rupture that he referred to as “the end of American innocence.” Alfred Kazin had included pragmatism and social science as part of the revolution that had produced modernist literature, meanwhile. And one could see Dewey’s relationship to modern education in Lawrence Cremin’s classic studies from the 1950s and 60s.

What is surprising given Dewey’s formidable role in American culture and later historiographical return in the work of contemporary scholars like Robert Westbrook and Richard Bernstein has been the absence of attention to Dewey’s influence in Mexico at the same time that the New Deal was being formulated in the U.S. During the period of rich policy experimentation between 1920 and 1940 that followed the devastating Mexican Revolution, John Dewey’s Mexican students hitched pragmatism to state policy in Mexico in the effort to destroy the institutions of the Porfirian political order and rebuild the postrevolutionary nation anew. In newly-established public schools, they used pragmatism to integrate Mexico’s ethnic groups into a single community of citizens. In scientific institutes centered in Mexico City, they used the scientific ethos to experiment with applied psychology, anthropology, and sociology. In rural states to the west and south of Mexico City, they attempted to balance the relationship between theory and practice that Dewey believed was central to social philosophy. Just as in Henry May’s portrait of pragmatism, Dewey’s ideas in Mexico helped separate the social determinisms of 19th-century Mexico from the modernist ethics that Mexico’s revolutionaries created after 1920.

The efforts in Mexico to achieve the progressive society that Dewey once referred to as the “great community” were filled with institutional difficulty and philosophical peril. The greatest of the Mexican pragmatists, Columbia University-trained Moisés Sáenz, once chastised a group of Americans for their complacent understanding of a complex society whose civil war had just finished killing one million of its own people. “Our emotions occlude our vision; we become confused by the complexity of experience; our accomplishments contradict each other at every turn; they seem to put the most obvious and the most profound into war with one another,” he told his audience. A decade later, Sáenz created a vibrant metaphor for the attempt to blend theory with practice that John Dewey’s pragmatism had made central to modern social critique. “We are walking on the edge of a knife,” he wrote. “We must choose between excessive empiricism and excessive speculation.” Precarious government financing, ongoing local rebellions, and threats to the national territory always made pragmatist attempts at reform a difficult enterprise fraught with the possibilities of failure and slow incremental advance at most.

Yet for Americans who were trying to understand how state power could be used to alleviate economic conflict and to create new relationships among culturally distinct communities, Mexico’s postrevolutionary experiments represented a rich set of policy models that they imported into the United States as they sought to transform public government and public schools in the American West. In rural Tlaxcala in the 1930s, for example, teacher training academies provided these Americans with new ideas about how government could work with local communities to create new schools. Science institutes established by the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City by 1930 provided them examples of the role of social scientists in government bureaucracy. And in Morelos, laboratory schools showed them how daily work patterns could be integrated into language-instruction models.

The anthropologists, psychologists, and educational philosophers who studied Mexico’s pragmatist experiments in the 1930s carried Mexico’s lessons into the 1940s desegregation movement in Texas, California, and Arizona as they sought to refashion America’s racial hierarchy. For Ralph L. Beals, Montana Hastings, George I. Sanchez, and Edwin Embree, Mexico’s policy work represented a bridge between state-led reform efforts abroad and political change at home. Daniel T. Rodgers has argued in Atlantic Crossings that progressive policy work in Europe and the United States was never free from misunderstanding and misreading. Yet such mistranslations did not prevent Americans from learning social policy from government models abroad, he argued. In a similar fashion, Mexico’s social reform experiments became discrete policy antecedents for these American racial liberals that have not been accounted for by scholars of pragmatism, the federal state, and US-Mexico relations. Government reform and civil rights in the American West were not uniquely domestic phenomena, the career of Mexican pragmatism shows us, but offshoots of policy reform and nationalism in Mexico in the two decades that followed the Mexican Revolution. School desegregationist George I. Sanchez agreed. “Nothing has affected my thinking and my feelings more than Mexico’s experience – redemption by armed Revolution, then Peace by Revolution,” he wrote in 1966 as he looked back on his career. “This latter revolution still goes on, and I associate myself with it vicariously – from afar, and from close-up examination there as often as I can.”

Mexico’s policy influence over the United States reverses the way that scholars understand the US-Mexico relationship. We typically think of the United States as a hegemonic nation whose power shapes the nations of Latin America along a north to south trajectory. But the example of Mexico during the 1930s and 40s shows us that Mexican government policy influenced American politics as much as American power influenced the history of Mexico. Thus, while Americans tend to think of Mexico as a country of “chaos” – a word that has been perennially repeated in accounts of Mexican history from 1920 to the present day – Mexican policy change has been important to the United States in ways that Americans have not imagined. Pragmatism in Mexico helped to reshape the moral character of American nationalism and democracy, and at the level of institutional practice rather than in theory alone, during a moment of heavy social change in American history. That John Dewey’s influence was part of that process only underscores the centrality of his ideas to social change abroad as much as in the United States.

Ruben Flores is an intellectual and cultural historian from El Paso, Texas who studied at Princeton and Berkeley before coming to the University of Kansas. Flores is the Undergraduate Director for the Department of American Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

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The Warren Court Decisions Earl Warren Said Were the Most Important … «One Person, One Vote» 

 HNN   June 18, 2014

In an age of increasingly sophisticated, computer driven gerrymandering, an imagined, but non-existent, epidemic of voter fraud that has led to a profusion of voter identification laws, and an infusion of corporate money into the electoral system, we as Americans continue to wrestle with basic notions of fair representation. As we struggle to make our political system more truly democratic, we ought to consider the bold and historic actions taken by the Supreme Court of the United States fifty years ago this month.

On June 15, 1964, just four days after the United States Senate brought an end to the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a series of decisions that established the principle of “one person, one vote” in all state legislatures. For the remainder of his life, Chief Justice Earl Warren maintained that these decisions trumped all others made during his tenure, including the segregation decisions, in terms of their importance to American democracy.

Prior to the reapportionment rulings, American democracy was a deliberately misshapen enterprise. In a U.S. version of “rotten boroughs,” district boundaries in almost every state were readily drawn to give some citizens a far greater voice than others. In California in 1960, for example, a state senator from the Eastern Sierra had a mere 14,000 constituents, while a peer from Los Angeles represented more than six million.

Like Jim Crow, this practice seemed to defy the most elementary notions of democracy as a system of popular self-rule – and yet it had many defenders. Malapportionment circumscribed the political power of labor and civil rights advocates and promoted a pro-business, anti-labor agenda of low taxes, limited government spending, and minimal regulation. In the American South, malapportionment served as a cornerstone of white supremacy, ensuring the overrepresentation of the most ardent segregationists and thus further delaying the realization of civil and voting rights for African Americans. As the 20th century proceeded, urban and suburban populations swelled dramatically while legislative districts remained roughly the same. As a result, minority rule intensified.

After World War II, individual citizens, municipal officials, and civic organizations began to seek relief, but repeatedly failed, thwarted by a conspiracy of inaction among lawmakers and judges.

Finally, in 1962, the Supreme Court decided the time had come to intervene. In Baker v. Carr, a majority of the Warren Court ignored the angry dissent of Felix Frankfurter and ruled that federal courts did have jurisdiction to consider whether or not legislative malapportionment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Deliberations in Baker proved so exacting that they contributed to the physical decline and ultimate resignation of Frankfurter and one of his colleagues.

Baker v. Carr did not establish a standard for states to follow in drawing legislative districts, but the decision did open the doors of the federal courts to litigants to challenge malapportionment. Within two years, attorneys and plaintiffs in more than three-dozen states had done just that.

During a tumultuous term that began in October 1963 and was tragically interrupted by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments and issued full opinions in seven of these cases. In February 1964, the Court announced that each state’s districts for the U.S. House of Representatives must contain, as nearly as possible, the same number of people. What came next proved far more controversial.

On June15, 1964, Warren delivered the Court’s opinion in Reynolds v. Sims. Declaring that “legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” he announced that the Equal Protection Clause required both chambers in a state’s bicameral legislature to be apportioned according to the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Although less well-known than Reynolds, a companion case, Lucas v. Forty-Fourth General Assembly of Colorado, turned out to be the most important decision handed down that day. In it, the Court made clear that its ruling in Reynolds left no room for states to deviate from straight population equality in either branch of a bicameral legislature, even if a state’s voters supported a less rigorous standard in a referendum. In one broad stroke , the Court effectively rendered unconstitutional almost every state legislature in the nation. By the end of the decade, the Court had determined that apportionments for all elective municipal and county offices—including city councils, boards of supervisors, and school boards, among others—must adhere to the same standard.

Proponents of reapportionment hailed the decisions as “magnificently liberating,” a step “toward establishing democracy in the United States,” while opponents denounced them as the most significant “usurpation of power by the judicial branch” in American history. Opposition to the decisions of June 15, 1964, soon coalesced around Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican Minority Leader who enjoyed close ties with national business organizations. Dirksen championed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed state legislatures to apportion one branch of a bicameral legislature on factors other than population. When this approach failed to draw enough support in the Senate, he and others took a more radical step. In order to overturn the court’s decision, they sought to hold the first Constitutional Convention since the founding convention of the 1780s. Over the course of five years, from 1964 to 1969, thirty-three states, just one short of the constitutional threshold, petitioned for such a convention.

Ultimately, time proved the most important ally of the pro-reapportionment forces. The principal of “one person, one vote” soon became the norm in every state and led to a profound transformation in American democracy. In many states, the stranglehold of rural voters was broken, as residents of the burgeoning suburbs exerted more influence.

As the essence of majority rule confronts new challenges, most especially from a profusion of corporate money into the electoral process and a frightening retreat from the massive achievements of the Voting Rights Act, we would do well to remember the reapportionment revolution of the 1960s and its reminder of the need for constant vigilance against counter-majoratarian impulses in our democracy.

J. Douglas Smith is the author of On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States, published by Hill & Wang, June 10, 2014.


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