Surveillance, State Power, and the Activism of Shirley Graham Du Bois

Shirley Graham Du Bois, 1946 (Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress)

The recent Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality are a reminder that social justice advocacy and activism can come at a great cost. They also reveal that American law enforcement more often targets left-wing activists using the full force of the law while ignoring or participating in organized white supremacist terror campaigns. This was also true during the Cold War, when the full state apparatus was deployed against activists in the Black Freedom Struggle. Federal authorities cut off the most radical voices and linked social justice advocacy to an alleged, but fictitious, treasonous conspiracy. The personal and political costs were enormous for many activists who were legally harassed and monitored, arrested, imprisoned, and deported. Shirley Graham Du Bois, who spent the early Cold War years loudly challenging anticommunism, faced a surveillance state that sought to restrict her movement and imprison her husband W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1952 the Du Boises were detained and deported from Canada—where they had traveled to attend a peace conference—and sent back to the United States. This incident represents just one among many of the actions taken by the state against Black freedom activists to hinder progress and maintain the white supremacist state.

In the postwar years, Black radicals were wary of the escalation of anticommunism in American domestic and foreign policy. As the United States positioned itself in opposition to communism, criticism of American foreign policy became akin to subversion. Armed with legislation and sympathetic politicians, American intelligence increased its monitoring and legal harassment of the Black Freedom Struggle. In 1950, former communist Louis Budenz told the FBI that Graham Du Bois was a secret communist, beginning twenty-five years of surveillance. The risk of arrest and imprisonment did not deter Graham Du Bois, who became an advocate for peace and a critic of how American foreign policy subjugated newly decolonized states under the aegis of freedom while silencing American Black freedom activists. Graham Du Bois believed that people of color globally could only achieve freedom through a vigorous peace movement that countered anticommunism.

Graham Du Bois has often been reduced to an appendage of her famous husband. Aside from being a celebrated author, she was a tireless organizer in the peace movement as evidenced by her activism and the intelligence community’s rigorous monitoring of her activities. Graham Du Bois participated in the 1948 Progressive Party campaign, which provided visibility but also the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She was also an organizer for the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949, and she traveled to a number of conferences hosted by the World Peace Congress, an organization with ties to the Soviet Union. All the while, the FBI noted her movement with interest. After a peace conference in Paris, Graham DuBois helped to found the Peace Information Center (PIC), an organization that circulated peace information in the United States and worked to obtain signatures on a “Ban the Bomb” petition that was linked to the World Peace Congress. Secretary of State Dean Acheson dismissed the petition as Soviet propaganda, and the federal government turned its attention to the people and organizations supporting it. Graham Du Bois remained under the radar, but W.E.B. Du Bois was not so lucky–he and other PIC members were indicted for failing to register as a foreign agent for the now dissolved organization.

Graham Du Bois organized the defense for her husband and the other indicted members, doing two national tours to raise money for their legal fees. She and Du Bois would give speeches to local communities and meet with organizations to raise funds. The FBI followed their every move and recorded some of Graham Du Bois’s speeches in her file. These speeches amounted to advocacy for peace and equality, something the Bureau equated to criminality. By 1951, DuBois and his co-defendants were acquitted and the Du Boises, who had only recently married, hoped to finally be able to enjoy married life.

However, enjoying married life did not mean that either of them intended to abandon their advocacy for peace. They continued their involvement in the movement, even as their friends and acquaintances faced constant legal harassment and found mainstream publishers blacklisting them. In May 1952, the couple was invited to speak at a Canadian Peace Congress event held in Toronto, Ontario, and sponsored by the American Peace Crusade (APC). The APC emerged in the wake of the PIC and served as a critic of Cold War Policy and the Korean War. Many activists feared that the United States would once again deploy an atomic bomb against a nation of color, amplifying the urgency of the peace movement.

The Du Boises agreed to attend but warned the conference organizers that they might not be allowed in the country since they both had their passport applications for a peace conference in Brazil denied a few months earlier. The State Department, empowered by anticommunist sentiment, denied the passport applications of a number of Black Freedom activists, including the Du Boises on several occasions, to limit their freedom of movement and interaction with overseas activists. But Canada’s border with the United States at the time should not have posed an issue as it has been described as “porous”—travel between the two nations was loosely policed and often only required proof of American citizenship, like a birth certificate or a driver’s license.

As historian Dennis Molinaro argues, Canada, much like its peer white settler state to the south, used its immigration policy and deportation as tools to construct a desirable citizenry. Deportation laws, created and enforced by the Immigration Department and Minister could keep out the poor and unemployed, people of color, the “morally questionable, and political radicals.” Coupled with the American State Department, the Du Boises feared that the power of the two states could prevent their travel, and they were right.

On May 9, 1952, after leaving New York City via airplane and landing at Malton airport in Ontario, the Du Boises were detained. In Graham Du Bois’s FBI file, an agent cited a Quebec newspaper that reported that the airport had no facilities to examine the couple so it was forced to send them back to the United States. The communist newspaper the Daily Worker did not accept these excuses, instead claiming that the Canadian authorities were “suddenly” concerned that the Du Boises were a “menace to Canada’s security” because they wanted to speak on the “subversive subject” of peace. The paper compared the Du Bois’s deportation to a similar incident in which “imitation-nazis” running a “red-baiting outfit” prevented Mary McLeod Bethune, the political opposite of the Du Boises, from speaking at an event. The common denominator was that both the governments of Canada and the United States along with local “imitation-nazis” wanted to silence Black Americans, particularly those advocating for their rights.1

W.E.B. Du Bois later described the deportation in a 1952 memorandum. Their encounter with the authorities initially appeared routine as they were both asked questions about where they traveled from, why they were in Canada, who their next of kin was, and how much money they had. They both signed a form, believing it was just part of the routine; however, an official came back into the room denying them entrance into the country and instructing them that they had to be on the next plane back to New York. They had arrived in Toronto at 12:28 pm, by 1:30 pm they were escorted to a plane, and they arrived back in New York by 3:30 pm. The deportations were justified under the Immigration Act, section 2, stating that neither of the Du Boises were Canadian citizens nor any other accepted classification of people that could travel to Canada.

In a letter to Graham Du Bois, Bruce Mickleburgh of the Canadian Peace Congress wrote that he and his entire organization were dismayed about their treatment. During the course of their interrogation and detention, Mickleburgh was in communication with an “eminent citizen” with ties to the Liberal government who believed that it was a “profound error” on the part of their government. But he also suspected that the government was not “acting on its own behalf,” suggesting that American officials worked with Canadian immigration enforcement to ensure the Du Boises’s exclusion. Mickleburgh described the suppression of the peace movement as “germ warfare” and one he believed they could win since their treatment by authorities was “unprecedented,” and it was setting an “evil precedent.” He hoped to see Graham Du Bois and her husband in person in the “not-too-distant-future” as the Canadian Peace Congress pledged itself to furthering the peace movement and to resist being silenced by authorities.

The following month, on June 27, 1952, the United States Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, which strengthened the anticommunist infrastructure and would be used to deport their colleague Claudia Jones and prevent the overseas travel of Paul Robeson and the Du Boises. Not until 1958 were their passports returned, but that did not end the state’s harassment. During the Cold War, American intelligence and law enforcement deployed every tool at its disposal to undermine the Black Freedom Struggle. This by itself is not remarkable as it is a regular part of the American history narrative. What is remarkable is that the Du Boises along with so many other Black Freedom activists persisted despite harassment. They knew that even in the face of the white supremacist state, struggle was necessary to secure Black liberation.

  1. “Dr. Du Bois and Mrs. Bethune,” Daily Worker, May 16, 1952, 5.
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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.

Comments on “Surveillance, State Power, and the Activism of Shirley Graham Du Bois

  • A personal experience. In the days of the first anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., one in which active popular support was still meager, Sarah E. Wright organized a picket line in front of the UN. It was held on the coldest day of the year, near zero, and only twelve people showed up, including Shirley Graham.

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