Law Enforcement’s Double Standards for Black Radical Activists

Activist leading a group of demonstrators in Miami, May 2020 (Shutterstock).

Many Americans were appalled to watch the Donald Trump inspired coup attempt against Congress. That Trump instigated his followers and encouraged them to employ violence was not the surprise, what many observed was how seemingly easy it was for the rioters to attack the Capitol building, gain access to private offices, then walk away with police watching. In the days following, the FBI asked the public to help identify the invaders on social media in hopes that they could bring charges. It was a total failure by security and law enforcement and once again revealed the FBI’s inadequate response to white supremacist terrorism. In contrast, the FBI has actively and aggressively monitored left-wing and Black organizations (most recently labeling Black Lives Matter “Black identity extremists”), harassed and interfered with their planning, kept lengthy files on leaders and members, and dismantled organizations. While recent scholarship has also shown that these terrorists have stolen military material and have penetrated law enforcement agencies, The Bureau,  born out of anti-radicalism, has devoted much of its existence to weakening Black Radical organizations while white supremacist terrorists go unnoticed.

In 1951, the Sojourners for Truth and Justice (SJT), a Black woman’s radical organization, was created to address racist violence and Cold War militarism. In its short existence, the Bureau compiled a nearly 500-page file on the group while also keeping its leadership and many of its members under surveillance. The Bureau’s contemporary incompetence regarding right-wing organization is because its focus has historically been and continues to be on left-wing and Black radical organizations, preventing social justice progress and criminalizing anti-racism.

The SJT are but one example of FBI harassment of a Black Radical organization; but it is an important example of how quickly the Bureau and the federal government used the resources at its disposal to harass an organization out of existence. In fall 1951, Louise Thompson Patterson and Beulah Richardson issued a “A Call to Negro Women” to march on Washington to demand action on civil rights and peace. It was a year punctuated by arrests, trials, and harassment of prominent Black Radicals including W.E.B. Du Bois and Claudia Jones. Immediately, one of the Bureau informants notified the agency of the organization and the Sojourners’ file was created as the organization was being birthed. The Bureau noted the Sojourners’ intention to travel to Washington D.C. to hold rallies, speeches, and seek an audience with the President, Congress, and State and Justice Department leaders. But the Bureau was more interested in its communist affiliations. Its file incorrectly noted that the Sojourners was “initiated” by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). The CRC headed up by William Patterson, had been designated communist, thus linking the Sojourners to the Party and sealing its fate in the eyes of the Bureau. Additionally, the Bureau noted that five of the Sojourners leaders – Charlotta Bass, Shirley Graham, Louise Patterson, Eslanda Robeson, and Frances Williams – were on the Security Index. The Index was J. Edgar Hoover’s list of individuals that would be detained in the event of a national security crisis.1

Bureau files are notorious for noting the real purpose of the organization. In SJT’s case, to represent Black Americans and the “betterment” of their conditions; but then abruptly dismissing it as a cover for disguising its “true Communist character.” In its obsessive monitoring of the trip to Washington, the Bureau noted that the group planned to protest “mob lynching, housing segregation, Jim Crowism, Negro frame-up trials, police brutality, armed forces segregation and nationwide discrimination” which “allegedly” violated the constitution. This to the Bureau was a national security threat. The Bureau also regularly told on itself in its files; in one report an agent noted that SJT activist, Adele Walker, who traveled from Los Angeles to attend the march on Washington wrote an article accusing the FBI of following the group and taking pictures. The agent tried to confirm whether pictures were taken and found that the Bureau used informants to infiltrate the group, but Secret Service and CIC agents (Counterintelligence Corp of U.S. Army) were the ones following and taking pictures. The SJT was in its infancy and it already had three intelligence agencies following it. Later, the Office of Naval Intelligence would join the fray.2

The informant system was troubling partly because many were paid which required a constant supply of fresh information; some informers also held personal grudges against people or the organizations they were supplying information about and were willing to exaggerate. One informant told the Bureau that the group would be a test case for the revolution and that they planned to go to Georgia and liberate Rosa Lee Ingram from prison. Ingram was being held for the murder of a man who tried to sexually assault her. As it turned out, Eslanda Robeson publicly proposed a “Walk on Georgia” on Mother’s Day 1952 and a picket outside the prison where Ingram was being held. The proposal was even advertised in the Daily Worker; hardly a jump start for the revolution. This sensationalized information kept informers on the Bureau’s pay roll, though the Bureau often questioned the information. The Bureau believed in this case that the informer “exaggerated” but that the “Walk on Georgia” organized by “militant communists” would create “racial friction.” It informed the Governor of Georgia and their Atlanta office to be on the alert; the Bureau also warned the prison warden and the state police who mobilized eighty additional officers to monitor the location. The walk was postponed, but the group continued to mobilize on Ingram’s behalf. Meanwhile, law enforcement saw the STJ as a threat and were fully prepared to detain the women if they arrived.3

As Erik McDuffie argues, in its one year of existence the STJ created a “Black Left feminism” that articulated Black women’s triple oppression and formulated a radical program for emancipation. The group supported the CRC’s We Charge Genocide petition, it rallied on behalf of Willie McGee facing the death penalty for allegedly raping a white woman and condemned the Korean war and American militarism. But the Bureau only saw communist agitators and were determined to destroy the group. As Gerald Horne argues, communism is a “boogeyman” it is a “specter called forth” when people in power “feel their grip begin to erode.” Anti-communism is a “tool of repression” that is used to “stifle dissent and weaken civil liberties.” Charisse Burden-Stelly argues that anticommunism was/is anti-Black and operates as a tool to criminalize Black Radical activism. From its very inception, the Bureau monitored STJ, its members, and its activities and continued long after the organization was no longer active. The Bureau instructed its many informants to alert the Bureau in the event the STJ was reactivated so that it could pursue action. It kept an eye on Charlotta Bass, the last known STJ president who at 79 years old was debilitated by arthritis and partially bed-ridden; nevertheless, the Bureau made pretext calls to keep an eye on her.

The Bureau’s historical and contemporary treatment of Black Radical organizations is in total contrast to its utter failure in monitoring right wing white supremacist groups known for engaging in terrorism. Today the Bureau has been circulating images asking the public to identify people involved in the capital raid even though many of them openly planned it on social media. There has been speculation that the Bureau cannot legally monitor social media, but even were that the case (and its not), when it came to left-wing Black Radical activists, extralegal actions never dissuaded the Bureau or its agents. More troubling is how many law enforcement officers were involved in the coup attempt or helped by courteously escorting the raiders out of the capitol building. In the end, the coup attempt was not a failure of law enforcement, it was a white supremacist enforcement structure getting found out.

  1. “Sojourners for Truth and Justice,” September 27, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice file, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1.
  2. “Sojourners for Truth and Justice,” September 27, 1951; Mr. F.J. Baumgadner to Mr. A.H. Belmont, October 18, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice file, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  3. “Teletype from LA, Director, Urgent,” October 24, 1951; “Sojourn for Truth and Justice, Internal Security,” November 2, 1951, Sojourners for Truth and Justice file, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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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.