How W.E.B. Du Bois Resisted Government Repression

On August 3, 2017—one week before the violent white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.—the FBI circulated an internal intelligence assessment on “Black identity extremists,” or BIEs. The Bureau defined BIEs as individuals whose beliefs reflect “anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology.” The FBI stated that “an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement” perpetrated by BIEs likely stemmed from “alleged police abuse against African Americans.”

The report connected early twentieth century Black Nationalist movements such as Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple to the mid-twentieth century Black Power era and the work of organizations like the Black Liberation Army. It identified the killing of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014 as pivotal points for recent BIE activity.

Foreign Policy, the recipient of the leaked FBI assessment, broke the story on October 6, 2017. It further documented the contemporary surveillance of Black people upon which outlets like The Intercept, Colorlines, Mother Jones, and The Guardian had previously reported. While the 2017 report is the first known use of the Bureau’s BIE label, its association of Black identity with extremism taps a very long history of rhetorically signaling Blackness as threatening and terroristic.

The BIE label does not just perform verbal violence; it literally imperils the lives of Black people in its pathological attempts to disfigure and eliminate Blackness. The immediate historical backdrop of its creation prompts the following questions: Why did the BIE label materialize during the era of Black Lives Matter? Why does the BIE label have expansive federal sanction during a time when the White House flagrantly displays its embrace of white supremacy? The reasons behind this development are more evident when viewing BIE as part of a longer historical arc.

Black scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois’s encounters with the US surveillance state—primarily the FBI, but also the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency—during the Cold War era documents a long history of what writer Simone Browne calls "the surveillance of Blackness." Rather than batter him into political submission, the surveillance state’s insidious intrusions into Du Bois’s life, like many of today’s activists and intellectuals, steeled his resolve for the liberation of Black people. The FBI Watches W. E. B. Du Bois Federal surveillance of Du Bois began during World War I through the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s progenitor, along with the Military Intelligence Division. Officials targeted his criticism of racism in the US Army and investigated other militant African Americans over fears about pro-German sentiments.

According to its files, the FBI’s documented surveillance of Du Bois began on May 1, 1942 through its Atlanta division. At the time, Du Bois was 74 years old and a professor of sociology at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). There he refined his leftist commitments to economic democracy and political equality through incisive thinking, teaching, and writing on socialism and Marxism – an orientation about which the FBI took a keen interest.

The FBI surveilled Du Bois across the globe. A female informant furnished the Bureau with extensive information about his lectures in Japan, where he had visited in the late 1930s. This revelation suggests that the FBI carried out surveillance earlier than the date that appears on the first page of his file. That report recorded that he wanted to foster unity between “the yellow and Black races in opposition to the white race.” Du Bois’s promotion of social and economic equality was of particular concern to the FBI, as well as his attempts to forge solidarity between oppressed people across the globe

. As the period of World War II gave way to the Cold War era, Du Bois continued to elucidate the possibility of Black liberation at home and abroad. Expressions of global Black solidarity at this point in history challenged the prevailing anticommunism of the Second Red Scare. A lecture trip to California in 1953 illustrates the degree to which the FBI continued to keep eyes and ears on his movements. Supported by the efforts of the Southern California Peace Crusade, in February he delivered several talks organized around a Negro History Week theme. In Los Angeles, he addressed the subject of peace and freedom in Africa and its relationship to the Black freedom struggle in the US.

His speech covered Black political history in the US and cautioned that political progress without economic equality spelled destruction. Du Bois emphasized economic equality rooted in communal mindedness. From the communitarian perspective, he observed that the fate of freedom movements abroad, especially decolonization struggles in Africa, determined the future of freedom for Black people in the United States. Du Bois recommended the pursuit of “united social effort for the common good so that decently fed, healthy, and intelligent people can be sure of work, not afraid of old age, and hold high their heads to think and say what they damn please without fear of liars, informers, or a sneaking FBI.”

There is no doubt that personal experience with surveillance inspired Du Bois’s specific reference to the FBI in his speech, something his file bears out in reference to his West Coast travels. Three months before his speech, the Los Angeles Bureau office telegrammed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover about Du Bois’s scheduled visit to California. An informant provided a tentative schedule of activities: lectures on Black history and a testimonial dinner “honoring Dr. Du Bois for his lifetime contributions to the cause of peace and the struggle of the negro people for equality.” Further communications on the February activities noted the Los Angeles County Communist Party’s support of Du Bois’s commemorative dinners across the state along with newspaper coverage of his speeches about “the crisis in Africa.”

The Subjectivity of Surveillance If the FBI spent years watching and tracking Du Bois’s movements and ideas, the subjectivity of surveillance indicates the personal toll and the psychic cost he paid for incessant federal encroachment. Yet the gestures of support and solidarity he received also factored into his individual experience with surveillance: it steeled his devotion to Black freedom.

At the end of his posthumously published Autobiography, Du Bois reflected on how the close eye of federal officials shaped the subjectivity of surveillance. “The secret police swarmed in my neighborhood asking about my visitors; whether I entertained and whom,” he wrote of the Brooklyn home in which he resided throughout the 1950s. “My mail was tampered with or withheld,” and “a whispering campaign continually intimated that some hidden treason or bribery could be laid at my door.” “I was classed as a ‘controversial figure,’” he said.

Postal problems plagued Du Bois even into his 90s. Seven Seas, a German publisher, only received the manuscript for his book ABCs of Color after six months of correspondence between the US Postal Service in both Brooklyn and Washington, DC during which he requested a track on the overseas package he sent by certified mail. References to the surveillance of Du Bois’s home, tampering with his mail, and domestic spying were not the ramblings of a paranoid person; they disclosed the ongoing psychic cost of living under federal scrutiny as a Black radical possessing socialist convictions in a rabidly anti-communist society also blanketed with anti-Blackness.

Upon returning to New York in 1959 from travel abroad, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham, met W. E. B. at the airport. She became very concerned when it took her husband an unusually long time to get through customs. For two hours “he had been taken into a small room and searched—every item removed from his bags; every piece of paper scrutinized,” she said. When Shirley pressed him on the difficulty of that moment, he downplayed its severity matter-of-factly. “Stop worrying,” she recalled him saying, “I haven’t been harmed. Such things happen in a police state. This is a fact we have to face.”

While the effect of privacy violations was a burden that Du Bois bore, comrades who stood with him in struggles for freedom lifted his spirits and energized his efforts toward peace. Two poems he received in 1951 illustrate the essential role creative encouragement played in his subjectivity of surveillance.

Nat Bond, one of Du Bois’s advocates from North Carolina, sent him an eight-stanza poem titled “To W.E.B.--From the People." Bond placed Du Bois—whom he called a “Bard of Freedom”—within a broad roster of American political heroes while specifying his relationship to Black history. “Through your life the deeds of Douglass reign/In your voice, we hear so clear/The quiet rush of Harriet’s Freedom Train.” Jewish feminist writer and literary icon Eve Merriam's poem, “For W.E.B. Du Bois," deployed nature imagery to depict the strength of his political convictions as a “freedom tree” and a “topmost tower of peace.” She wrote that he possessed a moral fastidiousness that was no match for “the lyncher’s knife nor the bayonet greased by gold.” Merriam imagined that Du Bois’s supporters would build a “green archway to the future,” thus ending on a note of hopeful possibility.

Such artistic interventions lifted Du Bois’s spirits. In his 1952 book In Battle for Peace, a memoir of his brushes against McCarthyism’s obsessive opposition to Black radical politics, he profusely thanked supporters for fueling his freedom dreams during some of his most difficult days.

All told, federal assets tracked Du Bois’s movements for over 40 years between World War I, which began in 1914, until his death in 1963 which coincided with the early Cold War. He lived to 95 years of age, which means that the US government surveilled Du Bois for nearly half of his life. Re-reading Du Bois’s Black freedom struggle against anti-Black federal surveillance and repression in today’s times underscores the central role of knowledge production in the pursuit of intellectual insurgency and collective liberation.

About the Author

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a Sections Editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.