The leaders of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) always saw the repressed African American population of the United States as an easy sedge-way into gaining control of the Government. As a result, they tried actively to gain the support of Blacks around the country by championing civil rights. But they never could succeed, and ended up hurting the Civil Rights Movement more than they helped, especially in the 1940’s and early to mid 1950s. Segregationists and others who were against the movement seized it’s supposed communist association and attacked it. J Edgar Hoover, FBI Director and a fierce opponent of the Civil Rights Movement, had to squash the movement not from the front TV sets of American families, but from his secret wiretaps, with fabricated information and through covert meetings. Communism, which never had even a meager following in the African American populace, provided J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI an illegitimate and weak scapegoat with which to attack the Civil Rights Movement and attempt to stop it dead in its tracks.
The real question is, was there a communist infiltration in the Civil Rights Movement? In his book Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990, author Earl Ofari talks about communism’s association with African Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s, and also shows how the United States Communist Party (CPUSA) always tried to recruit African Americans to its side, helping cause the illusion of a deep communist infiltration into the African American communities of the USA. Ofari makes the strong statement that the CPUSA failed in recruiting African Americans. At its peak in the 1930’s, the CPUSA had only 7,000 black members, and the number shrunk to 1,000 by the 1950’s, when the Civil Rights Movement began to take full stride. So even though the CPUSA was one of the most loyal defenders of blacks rights (the only group to come to the defense of the defendants in the famous Scottsboro rape case), the black populace, distanced by the party’s anti-religious standing and its emphasis not on race but on social classes, rarely followed any of its Marxist teachings. The CPUSA was never able to gain a strong, or even a meager, following in the African American populace.
But, in the 40’s and 50’s, there were some prominent African American communists in the early stages of the movement, but they were sparse and usually were not dedicated members. Paul Robeson is one the most prominent cases of this. A famous singer, heartened by the racial equality that he saw upon a visit to the Soviet Union, Robeson strove for Civil Rights while also defending the right of communists, including joining in protests against the oppression of CPUSA leaders. As a result, many prominent Blacks, probably fearing for there own safety, condemned Robeson in front of HUAC. Other prominent African Americans with communist ties included W.E.B. DuBois, who was kicked out of the NAACP for his Marxist views. This was typical of many communists who tried to champion civil equality for Blacks, as many organizations and people were fearful of being seen as communist sympathizers. As a result, many civil rights organizations were stunted in their growth. At one point, according to Ofari, HUAC had cited 41% of the executive members of the NAACP. Ofari argues that much of the burden of the failure of the CPUSA was due to HUAC and Governmental repression, and he leaves the impression that without these burdens the CPUSA would have succeeded in recruiting blacks. But Ofari neglects the ideological difference between the heavily religious Black populace, who saw their status in society as a function of there race, and the CPUSA, which challenged religion and saw the capitalist class structure as the chief impudent against the proletariat in society. Repressive McCarthyism effectively destroyed any chance that the Civil Rights Movement had to succeed in the early to mid 1950’s, by using communism as a way to purge the movement of any effective leadership.
As Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came into the public foreground in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the threat of McCarthyism repression had passed, but the fear of being affiliated with communism had not. Michael Friedly, in his book Martin Luther King, Jr.: The FBI File, argues that “the [civil rights] movement…suffered both because of the external preoccupation with the machinations of the Soviet Union…and because of the internal paranoia of communist infiltration that pitted one American against another” (88-89). This sounds accurate, except that Friedly puts it into context not with the McCarthyism 50’s, but with the more regretful and open ’60’s. The environment of the 60’s made it difficult for J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, when he tried to use the communist infiltration as a direct reason to thwart the Civil Rights Movement. King was openly anti-communist. He claimed that it was a “firm policy that no person of known Communist affiliation can serve on [SCLC’s] staff, executive board or its membership at large” (91). King was aware that any affiliation with any communist would undermine his organization and his goals. Friedly claims that there was no real communist influence in the Civil Rights Movement and that its leaders were fervently anti-communist and did everything they could to distance themselves from that menace.
But communism had already made ties with civil rights, and this was an image that was hard to lose. Communism was still a charge of many pro-segregationists, and of J. Edgar Hoover. Friedly believes that “the charge of communist infiltration [in] the civil rights movement was a weapon more than a legitimate concern” (91). This accounts for the actions of many segregationists, but does not quite fit into the paranoia of Hoover and the FBI. Friedly believes that Hoover was a rabid anti-communist who really believed that communism was a threat to the US government. Friedly cites references from a few of Hoover’s books on communism, including his belief that only a few communists were needed to overthrow the Government. Hoover also stated that it took only one communist to taint an organization, but it is questionable as to whether he truly believed this statement or if he was using it to justify his investigation of many various organizations, including the SCLC. The FBI was flooded with letters of citizens asking whether Martin Luther King was indeed a communist, and the FBI strangely enough remained largely mum on this question. Friedly gives no reason for this, and it undermines his argument. Possibly it was pressure from the White House or the lack of authentic evidence that caused them to take this stance. Hoover’s accusations about a communist infiltration left a stain on the Civil Rights Movement and probably also hurt its influence.
The evidence, both from the FBI files compiled by Friedly and the data provided by Ofari show that there was no communist influence at all in King’s movement. In early 1962 the FBI found what they thought they had been searching for, a link from King to a potential communist. This potential communist was Stanley Levinson, a close friend of Dr. King. Kenneth O’Reilly, in his book Black Americans: the FBI Files, believes that Levinson was once a communist, which he determines from his analysis of FBI documents, but that he had cut his ties with the party and was not an active member nor a spy. Ofari, in his research of the CPUSA, argues that Levinson was never a communist, and that the ties between him the CPUSA were loosely based on his attending a few meetings in the early 50’s. Ofari bases his research on sound sources, while O’Reilly gets caught up in the exaggerations of communist infiltration that he is trying to repute, though to him this particular issue is not a large concern. Hoover exaggerated the evidence fourscore when he claimed that Levinson was still an active member and that he was using King to promote communist propaganda. There is absolutely no evidence backing up these statements, and it is questionable whether Hoover actually believed them himself or was doing as other pro-segregationists had done and using communism as a weapon with which to attack the Civil Rights Movement. Levinson’s affiliation with the CPUSA was iffy at best, and did not warrant his being booted off the SCLC nor did it warrant the wiretaps readily authorized to spy on the SCLC.
King usually agreed with the Government on breaking ties with those who were thought to be communists, as he did with Hunter O’Dell, but with his close advisor Levinson he made a different decision. Hunter O’Dell held a relatively weak position in the movement, and he was dismissed due to fear, reminiscent of the 50’s, of being associated with communism. But concerning Levinson, King’s personal legal advisor and close friend, King claimed that he had “far more reason to trust Levinson than to trust Hoover” (O’Reilly, 24), and he probably did. But this only added fuel to the FBI’s belief that Levinson was actually a communist and that he held some considerable control over King. King simply refused to act against his friend. King’s denial of Hoover’s accusations is not an admission of guilt but the value of a strong friendship and trust.
So was the FBI right in their accusations? Was Levinson a communist? Was there a communist infiltration in the Civil Rights Movement? Was there, at the very least, enough evidence to warrant the FBI mounting such a large investigation on Dr. King and his associates? From an examination of the FBI files used by O’Reilly and Friedly, and others obtained via the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI website, it is clear that the FBI was actively searching for links between Levinson and communism throughout the 60’s, even while they claimed that Levinson was a secret CPUSA member. Many documents refer to various meetings between Levinson and King, and sometimes others, and are often about plans to wage protests, or other pertinent issues with the movement. Almost every memo has, in its title, a phrase similar to “Communist Party, USA. Negro Question. Communist influence in racial matters” (Friedly, 121). Many documents also refer to Levinson “[as] a secret member of the Communist Party, USA” (FBI). There is no evidence to back this statement up, and most of the documents have nothing to do with communism at all. The FBI documents show that the evidence was lacking and that the Bureau was, throughout the years of the movement, searching for any evidence to back up the claims of their Director.
In the midst of this scarcity of evidence, J Edgar Hoover continued to press the FBI to search, blindly, for communism. Hoover was an interesting figure, and he wrote numerous books about communism. In his book J Edgar Hoover: the Father of the Cold War: How his Obsession With Communism Led to the Warren Commission Cover up and Escalation of the Vietnam War, author Andrew R. Kiel writes about the influence that Hoover exerted through the US Government. When Hoover desperately wanted a wiretap or permission to continue an investigation, he would threaten to quit his position, and he would often get what he wanted. He did this to get a wiretap authorized for Dr. King, though the FBI then proceeded to add numerous other illegal wiretaps onto King’s family, associates and friends. Kiel blames Hoover for the escalation of the police state of the 60’s and for the murder of not only King, but President John F. Kennedy as well. He documents the numerous disagreements between Hoover and Kennedy, who tried to stunt Hoover’s power and made remarks about possibly shutting down the FBI. Hoover’s complicated relationship within the US Government added to his paranoia and makes it even more difficult for us to understand what his true motives were.
We will never know how far the Civil Rights Movement might have gone if it had been allowed to progress without communism and the Cold War impending it. Perhaps African-Americans would have gained true equality. We will also never know how much Hoover’s accusations hurt Dr. King. But what we do know is that communism was never a real threat in the movement. If McCarthyism had never occurred, this might not have been the case, but as it was, communism was attacked upon and repressed within the Civil Rights Movement just as severely, if not more, as it was outside the movement and in the Government. Communism, which never had even a meager following in the African American populace, provided J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI an illegitimate and weak scapegoat to attack the Civil Rights Movement and attempt to stop it dead in its tracks.