Claudia Jones and the FBI Harassment of Black Radicals

This is the first installment of a three-part series on Claudia Jones.

Claudia Jones reading The West Indian Gazette in London in the 1960s (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

In February 2018, New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz wrote an article about former hippies being put in the “horrible position” of rooting for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With President Trump’s constant attacks on American intelligence agencies, the right-wing for the first time has gone on the offensive against the very institutions that have ensured its power. The FBI has devoted much of its existence to undermining and dismantling the American Left. Those efforts, especially during the Cold War, guaranteed the ascendancy of the Right and the Republican Party, a moderate Democratic Party, and a harassed and marginalized Left. Black radicals and immigrants were especially targeted by the FBI because of their vulnerable citizenship status.1 The FBI harassment of Claudia Jones highlights the Bureau’s long-standing mission to silence Black radicalism, marginalize immigrants, and dismantle the Left.

Federal repression of radicals began with industrial strikes and the growing concern with foreign radicals after the Civil War. This repression was fueled by fears of an unruly underclass and the imperative to maintain white male supremacy and control. Anti-communist crusades occurred throughout the decades before the Cold War and were neither passing aberrations, nor a series of isolated events, but the driving force behind securing the racial and class order. World War I and the Red Scare was the moment when US counterintelligence agencies solidified their power and gained the full legal weight of the federal government to harass radicals. The Bureau of Investigation, later the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a fledgling organization during World War I, until it began its targeted harassment of labor organizations, and foreign and Black radicals, with the full weight of the federal government behind it.2

After the first Red Scare, the FBI, assisted by civilian organizations like the Catholic Church, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, among others, continued its harassment of American radicals. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) and its members were regularly targeted during the 1920s and 1930s, but they hoped with Soviet Russia as a wartime ally during World War II, that American communism could be accepted into mainstream American politics. Instead, new mechanisms were created to empower the Bureau, the Justice department, and state police. Not the least of which was the 1940 passage of the Smith Act which made it illegal to advocate or be a member of an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the US government. The Act was an attempt to make communism illegal.3

By 1941, Claudia Jones came under FBI scrutiny and the Bureau’s interest in Jones would lead to her deportation fourteen years later. Jones joined the CPUSA in 1937, but in 1941, she became the educational director for the Young Communist League, thus moving into her first leadership position with the Party. The Bureau began its investigation by trying to ascertain personal information on Jones. Its initial assumptions were that she was born in Lawrenceville, Virginia, the Bureau had local agents contact the Lawrenceville schools, local doctors, municipal records keepers, and several other individuals and organizations to try and find out who she was. Meanwhile, the Bureau had an agent in New York City tailing her every move and noting when she was at Party events. New York agents recommended her for “custodial detention” because of the wartime national security crisis. Custodial detention referred to J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous security index. The index was a list of ever-changing names of people who would be detained in concentration camps in the event of an invasion or uprising in the United States. It was created in the early years of the war, before American intervention, and included the names of some German and Italian fascist sympathizers. Communists and radical labor leaders were especially targeted, as well as journalists and even Congressmen that were critical of the FBI. Claudia Jones would remain on the index until she was forced out of the country in 1955.4

As late as 1947, the Bureau was still trying to ascertain Jones’ birthplace and who her parents were. Its New York agents were tasked with contacting local schools, finding yearbook photographs and asking witnesses to identify her, and finding records of her sister’s citizenship application. Meanwhile Jones was becoming a Party leader, writing for its daily newspaper the Daily Worker, and heading a revamped Party Women’s Bureau. At the same time, the domestic Cold War put pressure on CPUSA members and the Justice Department began its prosecution of communists under the Smith Act.

But as the Bureau would soon find out, Jones was vulnerable for more than just her Party leadership. By May 1947, the FBI confirmed that Jones was not a citizen and had been denied the right to naturalize because of her political affiliations. Once the Bureau found that she was not a citizen, it began to pursue legal options that could be taken against her by contacting the Criminal Division of the Justice Department as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The challenge was to prove that via her membership in the Communist Party, or any of her own writings and activities, Jones advocated the violent overthrow of the US government.

For some CPUSA members, affiliation with the Party alone made it hard to prove that the person advocated violent revolution, but Jones was becoming a visible and vocal leader in the Party. She also frequently wrote position papers in the Party’s theoretical magazine Political Affairs. Jones was not coy about her Communist Party affiliation and readily admitted it in public forums. The Bureau kept detailed records of of her publications, offering synopses of each, as well as any news of her that was announced in the Daily Worker and all CPUSA or related events she attended or spoke at. Jones likely had little idea that the FBI was doggedly following her every move while also trying to formulate a plan to deport her from the country. That plan would come to fruition in 1948.

In 1948, Jones was arrested under the 1918 Immigration Act, one of the very acts that empowered the FBI’s relentless campaign against American radicals. The repression of radicalism required constitutional reinterpretation, especially for American citizens. Political affiliation, though protected under the first amendment, became a tool to attack radical activists. But proving that a person’s political affiliation meant he or she advocated violence against the government was difficult. Immigrants did not have even basic constitutional protections and deportation became a favorite tool to thin the Left’s ranks. It was used with some success during the first Red Scare when well-known anarchist Emma Goldman and others were expelled. Black foreign radicals were also a favorite target. Jamaican Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, for example, was deported in 1927.

The FBI had to prove that Jones was a national security threat and in response collected an extensive report that included whether Jones had knowledge of the CPUSA’s conspiracy to overthrow the government, acts that she committed that would prove her support of said conspiracy, and witnesses that could speak to Jones’ commitment to the violent overthrow of the government. The deportation proceedings, however, were put on hold while the government decided to follow a stronger legal case against her. In June 1951, Jones and several other Communist leaders were indicted under the Smith Act. For the next few years, the FBI continued its surveillance of Jones compiling a large file that monitored her public activities and private life.

Through the Freedom of Information Act and the FBI’s website, American citizens can access some of the files that were kept on American radicals. What the FBI harassment and monitoring has done over the course of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, is to limit the Left’s activities, and in some cases to eliminate its leadership entirely. Later revelations about programs like COINTELPRO, prove that social justice advocates have been targeted for making claims to citizenship rights and equality, and nothing more radical than that. The Borowitz article satirizes a very real dilemma for American radicals, defending the Bureau’s right to investigate a sitting American President with the full knowledge that it has historically used its power to undermine the Left. The history of American intelligence organizations is the history of limiting the Left’s influence in American politics and ensuring the white racial and political order.

  1. Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 368-415; Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning For Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 187-192; Carole Boyce Davies, “Deportable Subjects: US Immigration Laws and the Criminalizing of Communism,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 100: No. 4 (Fall 2001): 950-951.
  2.  Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 193-197.
  3.  LaShawn Harris, “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” Vol. 94: No. 1 The Journal of African American History (Winter 2009): 38-39
  4.  Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), 213.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.