Surveillance, State Power, and the Activism of Shirley Graham Du BoisRoundup
tags: African American history, anticommunism, Shirley Graham DuBois
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.
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.
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