FBI Files and Historical Practice

My undergraduates are always horrified to learn that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) once tried to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself or else it would release damning evidence of his extramarital affairs. The FBI’s letter to King is exemplary of the contentious relationship between the Bureau and social justice activists and organizations. It’s also a reminder to researchers that the FBI’s extensive files on American activists tell us less about the people being investigated and more about the Bureau’s efforts to undermine social justice movements.

The FBI harassment of King is the most famous example of Bureau misdeeds toward Civil Rights activists and organizations, but the Bureau has collected lengthy intelligence files on hundreds of activists. One of the its favorite targets was the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and its members. In my decade and a half of studying communists, I’ve read thousands of pages of FBI files. Anyone who has used FBI files in research can tell you that if you can get through the numerous redactions and mind-numbing repetitions, you can sometimes find interesting insights about the agency’s relationship with activists. But these documents are not value-neutral. Those under investigation often captured the Bureau’s attention simply because of their association with the civil rights movement, their advocacy of socialism or communism, or because an informer drew the Bureau’s attention to that person. From studying these files, it seems clear that many of those the FBI targeted were only guilty of seeking women’s and civil rights, and that the Bureau went to great lengths to harass and undermine efforts to secure women’s and racial equality.

Claudia Jones. (Wikimedia Commons)

The FBI file on communist Claudia Jones, for instance, demonstrates the lengths the Bureau was willing to go to discredit those advocating equality. Jones joined the CPUSA because she was drawn to its anti-racism and advocacy of women’s rights. She rose in the Party ranks to become one of the most sought after theoreticians, speakers, and activists. Jones taught classes, wrote ideological pieces that influenced Party principles, and became a public face for the Party. Because of that, she drew FBI attention. It took the Bureau nearly five years to realize that Jones was not, in fact, born in the United States, but was an immigrant from Trinidad. Agents interviewed school registrars and physicians, looked through school yearbooks, contacted credit agencies and colleges, interviewed landlords and employers, and combed through Jones’s written work to find out where she was born. Bureau agents were assigned to report on all of Jones’s activities and note her movements. Sometime in 1946, an agent found her sister’s naturalization papers. When the agents realized Jones was not a U.S. citizen and had actually been denied citizenship in 1940 because she listed the Communist Party as her employer, the FBI focused its attention on making a case for Jones’s deportation.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the FBI files is that the “crimes” such communists were accused of were advocating for equal rights for women and Black Americans and a socialist America. When the FBI realized Jones was an immigrant, she was arrested on three separate occasions. Jones’s first arrest was under a 1918 Immigration Act that allowed for the deportation of foreign radicals. Her second arrest in 1950 was under a newly updated law, the McCarran Internal Security Act, that strengthened existing laws that allowed for the deportation of radicals. Both deportation proceedings were halted for unknown reasons. In her final arrest in 1951, Jones was charged alongside twelve other communists with violating the Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate for, or belong to, an organization that called for the violent overthrow of the United States government. The case the Bureau constructed was based on Jones’s own written work, and one Bureau agent summarized that the bulk of Jones’s writing concentrated on equality for women and Black Americans. Though the agent did not state it explicitly, civil rights advocacy was linked to communism, and believed to be subversive.

Blue plaque in Notting Hill, UK, dedicated to Claudia Johnson. (Graham Tiller/Flickr)

The FBI’s wartime and postwar obsession with communists is notable because only a few years before, in 1937, the agency all but ignored the disappearance of an American citizen alleged to have been kidnapped and killed by Soviet agents. Juliet Stuart Poyntz went missing from Manhattan in June 1937. A communist party leader, Poyntz moved into the Soviet anti-fascist underground in 1934 to collect intelligence in Nazi Germany. Poyntz’s friends urged the Bureau to open an investigation, but it claimed that it did not have jurisdiction. The Bureau’s case file on Poyntz includes her friends’ phone calls and letters to the Bureau asking for help, but no evidence of an actual investigation until the Cold War. It was decades later, during the Cold War when anti-communism became an American obsession, that the Bureau paid any attention to Poyntz, and its primary sources of information were former communists, who only became trustworthy upon defection.

Recently, the Bureau has shut away some older files, making them unavailable to researchers. My initial attempts to obtain the Juliet Stuart Poyntz file yielded a less-than 20-page file of handwritten analysis. I only discovered the full 200-page file after exploring the Sam Tanenhaus papers at the Hoover Institution Archives; Tanenhaus, biographer of former communist Whittaker Chambers, obtained the files from the Papers of Historian of American Communism Harvey Klehr, held at Emory University. A serendipitous discovery indeed, without which I would never have had access to these documents. Another recent request for Charlotta Bass’s papers yielded a disappointing 51-page document chronicling an insurance disagreement. Bass was the editor of the Black newspaper The California Eagle, and a fellow traveler of the Communist Party who came under FBI scrutiny when she rejected anti-communism and vocalized her objections to Cold War policy. Historians have written about a lengthy, nearly 250-page file on Bass, that was apparently released in the 1990s, but which is currently no longer available to researchers.1

The intentional silencing of these sources is curious, but not out of line with Bureau history. It has focused much of its existence on targeting left-wing organizations and individuals using questionable and extra-legal tactics. It is an organization born out of anti-communism, steered for much of its history by director J. Edgar Hoover, a pathological anti-communist bent on making social justice movements appear as communist plots. This history has come back to haunt the Bureau with the current rise of white nationalism. The Bureau has come under fire from within its own ranks as well as from without, with criticism that it has been woefully inadequate in investigating white supremacist organizations. Additionally, Donald Trump has gone on the offensive against the Bureau suggesting that he and his administration are above repute and not susceptible to FBI diligence, making Bureau critics uncomfortable in siding with a President who has stoked white nationalist rage. But FBI history has to be confronted, and its historic attacks on social justice organizations reconciled with, to understand its inadequacies in focusing on right-wing organizations and its continued focus on people seeking social justice. Just as the Bureau files are not value-neutral, the agency’s history is not value-neutral, and historians and the American public deserve access to that history.

Notes

  1. Roger Streitmatter, African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994). Streitmatter wrote about the FBI’s surveillance of Bass and its lengthy file. I have contacted Streitmatter who unfortunately lost the file in a flood in his office nearly twenty years ago. Other historians who cited the file that I contacted were citing Streitmatter. Return to text.

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