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SEE IF YOU CAN MAKE SENSE OUT OF THIS
Targeting minorities is an FBI tradition
By Derrick Z. Jackson, 8/21/2002
THE SECRET detentions of Arabs and Muslims and the wish of the Bush administration to snoop on us in libraries smells of 1919, when the Justice Department cited "wartime security needs to violate civil rights" of African-Americans.
The haunting odor wafts out of Kenneth O'Reilly's 1989 book "Racial Matters: The FBI's Secret File on Black America." In 1910 the Justice Department merely ignored lynchings, saying it had no authority "to protect citizens of African descent in the enjoyment of civil rights generally." By 1919, federal law enforcement conveniently turned black victims into potential black traitors.
J. Edgar Hoover brought to the Federal Bureau of Investigation a mind-set that "blacks who struggled to make the nation live up to its democratic ideals represented a threat to his America that one day might rival the threat posed by his dreaded communists," O'Reilly wrote. With that mind-set, federal agents began visiting black communities "to assess attitudes toward the draft and to investigate rumors of subversion.
"Concluding that second-class citizens would have second-class loyalty, the FBI dismissed every black dissident as subversive, every criticism of American policy as un-American," O'Reilly continued. "While Woodrow Wilson defended national self-determination at the Versailles peace conference, his State Department solicited intelligence reports from the FBI on any black American who complained about riots and lynchings.
"While the president promised to bring democracy to the world, black activists reminded him that he had not yet brought democracy to blacks in his own country or to the not-very-white peoples who lived in America's overseas possessions." When Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian and head of the all-black National Equal Rights League, pressed Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts to read the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the US Constitution into the Treaty of Versailles, "Hoover, already adept at making himself useful to the incumbent administration, called upon the bureau to monitor `Negro leaders' and their `political stand ... toward the peace treaty and the League of Nations.'
"By the fall of 1919 the FBI had institutionalized surveillance programs aimed at blacks. Bureau field offices across the country covered `the Negro Question' systematically, recruiting `reliable Negroes' as informants in the `various Negro lodges and associations' and having them report on `Negro ministers' and anyone else who preached `social equality' and `equal rights.'
"The informants infiltrated every racial advancement and black nationalist group, from the moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the immoderate African Blood Brotherhood, hoping to detect `ultra radical activities' or even `liberal activities' ... Hoover concluded that `the Reds have done a vast amount of evil damage by carrying doctrines of race revolt and the poison of Bolshevism to the Negroes."'
Hoover shadowed black self-help leader Marcus Garvey until Garvey was imprisoned for fraud. Hoover expanded his surveillance to African-American newspapers and magazines, fearing that their advocacy of equal rights would incite "the Negro elements of this country to riot and the committing of outrages of all sorts." O'Reilly wrote, "Under the name of law and order, Hoover proposed the repression of any black dissident who challenged second-class citizenship."
In 1942 the FBI launched what O'Reilly called "its most systematic Negro Question investigation." The bureau studied every black newspaper, tapped phones and bugged the offices of black organizations, spread negative propaganda about the NAACP and the Urban League and even investigated Olympic hero Jesse Owens. For all of that, the FBI "never found the ideas and deeds of subversion that the director thought they would find, not even in their full-scale probe of communist attempts to incite `the feelings of Negroes' during the 1943 riots in Detroit and other cities.
"The Bureau uncovered `no information,' Hoover informed the White House, to substantiate the charge that `foreign elements' inspired the riots." Six decades later, the United States is citing wartime security needs to violate civil liberties. It rounded up 1,200 people, kept them away from lawyers and the public, yet uncovered no information tying any of them to the terrorist attacks. Six decades ago, the government put every black-owned newspaper under suspicion. Now it wants to put every library under its microscope. Because we have not learned from history, anyone who checks out a book on Islam will now have to think twice if he or she will be considered a subversive.
This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 8/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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