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Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues

“Got them blues, blues, blues
Them mean ol’ FB Eye blues…”

-Richard Wright

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the oldest official national police force in the United States. Its focus has always been at least twofold: to investigate perceived threats to the existence of the US government and to go after criminals who commit certain crimes across state lines. The former focus has most often been turned towards the left side of the political spectrum, although recently that eye has turned a greater part of its view towards radical Islam. Like the leftist “threats” in the past, it seems from a daily reading of the news that many of these supposed threats are either paranoid fantasies of the Bureau and its agents or actually contrived by the Bureau itself. Another similarity is the lives these phantasms have destroyed.

One other consistent target of the FBI has been the non-white community in the United States. For the most part, at least until recently, this meant the African-American people. Indeed, the FBI is considered one of the most racist institutions in the US government since its inception. This was true in the case of its hiring practices and its approach to carrying out its mission. Any Black organization or individual standing up to racism was suspect; from the NAACP to Marcus Garvey and from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Black Panther Fred Hampton, fighting for equal rights and racial justice was automatically suspect.

The stories of FBI surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and numerous other civil rights and Black liberation activists are fairly well known. So is the racism of the long term director of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover. Less well known is the Bureau’s harassment and surveillance of Black writers and other artists. That is the subject of the recently published book by William J. Maxwell titled F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African-American Literature. The text was sourced primarily from FBI files the author Maxwell procured via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He lists these requests and their results (whether he received any documents, how many pages and amount of redactments) in the book’s appendix. The book also includes an excellent annotated index that in itself is quite a read for anyone interested in US government surveillance of its citizens.k10321

Underlying Maxwell’s text is the convincing notion that the control of African-Americans was central to the growth of the FBI and its presence in the popular imagination. It is the story of a megomaniacal man (J. Edgar Hoover), his extreme nationalism/patriotism, racism, and ego. Naturally, it is also a history of Washington’s ever-intensifying centralization of surveillance. Informed by Hoover’s own racism and apparent doubts about his own heritage, Maxwell contends that this phobic obsession with Black America was as important as the Bureau’s early focus on leftists and anarchists and its 1930s campaign against outlaws like John Dillinger and other so-called public enemies.

Like other histories detailing US racism and its continued existence after the Civil War and Reconstruction, FB Eyes relates the tale of the great boxer Jack Johnson and his persecution by racist law enforcement agencies around the United States. It was Johnson’s flamboyant disregard for laws and customs forbidding interracial sexual relations and his ability to beat any white-skinned competitor (plus his tendency to brag loudly about it afterwards) that brought down the wrath pf white society and its enforcers. In fact, it was his bringing a white girlfriend with him across state lines that gave the FBI the opportunity to prosecute him under the Mann Act (this law was used to prosecute musician Chuck Berry many decades later.) Johnson was forced to flee the US, only returning after seven years in exile to serve a year in federal prison.

News stories announcing the existence of government surveillance have not surprised civil libertarians and left radicals for decades. When Edward Snowden exposed the scope of eavesdropping and other surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, there was substantial outcry from the mainstream media, Congress, and many ordinary US residents, but for the aforementioned skeptics, Snowden’s revelations only confirmed what the Left and civil libertarians already suspected. This was also the case in the 1970s when the Church hearings in the US Senate made official the information regarding COINTELPRO that was revealed in the FBI documents stolen from FBI offices in Media, PA. by a group of heroic antiwar activists. Maxwell’s book continues this tradition of exposing government surveillance, with a specific focus on FBI spying on African-American writers and poets. If nothing else, it is a comprehensive look at this aspect of FBI surveillance of US citizens. Complementarily, it is also a primer on some of the more influential African-American writers of the twentieth century.

The approach Maxwell takes in his book is somewhat unique, at least for studies of government surveillance. As the subtitle implies, FB Eyes (which is taken from a poem by one of Hoover’s favorite subjects, Richard Wright), Maxwell suggests that the surveillance conducted by the FBI helped “frame” African-American literature from 1919 on. This “framing” occurred in a number of ways. Some of those methods included simplistic approaches such as threatening to cancel or not renew visas for writers living abroad unless they informed on their fellows who were Communist while other means were more sophisticated and included the creation of literary journals that published and reviewed some writers while ignoring others. Another tactic involved pressuring publishers to not publish writers the Bureau considered radical or revolutionary. This latter tactic was also used against the counterculture/New Left underground media during the 1960s and 1970s to great effect. Indeed, many of the FBI tactics of surveillance and harassment (black ops in today’s parlance) that were used on the New Left and antiwar organizations of the 1960s and 1970s were first used against Black organizations and individuals earlier in the century. Tragically, the tactics used during COINTELPRO against African-American groups were generally considerably worse than those used against predominantly white organizations. As any student of the period knows, FBI operations against African-Americans included murders, false charges and imprisonment, the destruction of personal and political relationships via lies and intimidations, to name just a few of the more popular tactics.

According to Maxwell, his reading of the FBI files he was able to procure reveals an FBI that seemed to understand the importance of culture as a means of social change. It was this understanding that inspired Hoover to set up the program discussed in this book. Although the motivation behind the FBI’s relatively exhaustive study of Black literature was to stifle and subvert its liberatory possibilities, Maxwell writes that in doing so, the Bureau became one of “the most dedicated critics of African-American literature,” at least during the time when Hoover was its director. Given the importance placed on literature and culture by Hoover and his agency–especially in relation to the US Black community–it was only natural that the Bureau would try to shape its content and direction. Although this attempt was occasionally successful, it seems fair to state that by the late 1960s, the predominant influence of the FBI on African-American literature (and culture in general) was in direct opposition to the FBI and its director.

Maxwell opens FB Eyes by describing a letter written by one of Hoover’s top agents, William C. Sullivan. The letter, which was part of the COINTELPRO operation against Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fictionalized plea from a non-existent African-American upset with rumors about King’s purported infidelities and ties to communism. “King, look into your heart…” it reads. “You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to us Negroes….” (Maxwell, from the Introduction.) According to his memoirs, Sullivan perceived himself as an antiracist and FBI surveillance as a means of keeping the struggle for civil rights within the parameters of mainstream US politics. In order to achieve this task, Sullivan was willing to violate a good number of articles in the Bill of Rights. In fact, Maxwell describes Hoover actually reining Sullivan in some during Nixon’s presidency when a plan designed by Tom Huston considered, among a multitude of other police state tactics, spying on every single US college student. (The plan as a whole was eventually rejected, in large part because Hoover saw it as an attempt to usurp his power. However, many individual elements of the plan were put in place.) Sullivan was killed in a suspicious hunting accident in 1977, perhaps because he knew too much.

A common misconception of liberal US residents is that it is the political right wing that favors government surveillance and harassment of civil rights and other predominantly left-leaning groups and individuals. While it is true that some of the greatest violations of civil liberties occurred under the Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, anyone who has paid the least amount of attention knows that Barack Obama’s administration is no slouch when it comes to such conduct. Much of the surveillance discussed in Maxwell’s book began under the liberal Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

William Sullivan was but one purveyor of the belief that CONTELPRO was primarily designed to destroy the Klan and other groups in the white racist movement. While this may have been the intent of various liberals in the FBI involved in the project, the historical facts are that the New Left and Black liberation movements bore the brunt of COINTELPRO and the Klan never disappeared. In fact, the Klan’s continued presence in the US white racist movement is testament to the untruths present in such a supposition. Given the historical truth that African-American radicals of every stripe were one of the primary targets of the FBI from its inception, the theory that the Bureau prioritized ending racism seems a bit far-fetched.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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