Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)Monday was the 40th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
In late 1963, at age 20, unable to maintain a peripheral involvement in the struggle for human dignity, James Earl Chaney joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and began organizing voter education classes in Meridian, Mississippi. He served as liaison to Michael Schwerner and was responsible for COFO's (Congress of Federated Organizations) Voter Education program in the backward, heavily Ku Klux Klan stronghold counties of southeast and east central Mississippi.This and other of the murders of civil rights workers and African-American residents in the south make this piece by David Cunningham in Sunday's New York Times Magazine particularly outrageous and hard to fathom. Cunningham's article, presumably a precis of his recent book, compares FBI counter intelligence programs (known as COINTELPRO) against New Left political organizations and against the Ku Klux Klan. He states:
On June 16, 1964, armed members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan "Fire bombed" the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a rural community in notorious Neshoba county. Weeks earlier, James Earl Chaney had earned the trust and respect of church leaders and convinced them to allow Michael Schwerner, the director of the Meridian, Mississippi COFO office, to speak at the church. After many meetings, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and church leaders made plans for the church to be used as a training site for voter registration classes for the disenfranchised Black community in rural Neshoba county.
Not until one week later, June 21, 1964, did James Chaney and Michael Schwerner have a chance to investigate the ruins of the Mount Zion church. With them was Andrew Goodman, a young Jewish volunteer from New York, who was to coordinate the Neshoba county voter registration project. After investigating the ruins of Mount Zion church and before starting their return trip to Meridian, Mississippi, the three civil rights workers visited some parishioners who were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan on the night of the fire bombing.
"THE NIGGER WAS FOUND ON TOP" read the August 5, 1964 headlines of the Meridian Star, a local newspaper. While enroute to Meridian, Mississippi the three civil rights workers were stopped by a Neshoba County sheriffs' deputy and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. They were murdered and their bodies buried in an earthen dam. The 44 day search for their bodies was national and massive. The body of James Chaney was a "mangled mass". The injuries, besides the bullet holes, it was said "could only occur in a high speed airplane crash!"
(The James Early Chaney Foundation)
While the F.B.I.'s campaign against antiwar ''subversives'' was largely ineffective, a considerably less ardent campaign against the Ku Klux Klan and its allies proved devastating. In the late 60's and early 70's, membership in white hate groups dropped as much as 70 percent; paranoia over infiltration reached such heights that the national Klan leader, Robert Shelton, threatened to use polygraph tests and truth serum to gauge members' loyalty. While the F.B.I. sought to dismantle the New Left, it merely hoped to control the white right. And yet its activities did far more damage to the racists than to the radicals.Cunningham has some strange ideas about what made these programs "effective" and about what constituted "damage." It seems to be true that the FBI had a role in dissipating the membership and activities of the Klan. But the FBI was an abysmal failure in its duty to pursue Klan members who were responsible for viscious, violent crimes.
In the case of the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman murders, seven Klansmen were convicted for violating the civil rights of the three young men and sentenced to three to ten years in prison, none of them serving more than six years. No one has ever been charged with the murders of the three civil rights workers. There have been murder convictions in the earlier case of the 1963 murders of Denise McNair, Addle Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, the four young girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: in 1977 Klansman Robert Edward Chambliss was convicted of one count of murder in Carol McNair's death, and in 2001, Klansman Thomas Blanton was found guilty of four counts of first degree murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The woeful delay in these convictions was the clear fault of the FBI, which had all the evidence necessary for them but would not release it when prosecutors asked for the FBI documents pertaining to the case. There were also others implicated in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing who were never charged with any crime. In 1961, when Klansmen and other white supremacists ambushed and brutally beat Freedom Riders in Birmingham, it was on a tip from the FBI and with cooperation from the Birmingham Police.
These are just three reasonably well known cases. The depth and breadth of FBI involvement in and support of the Klan's violent suppression of African-Ameicans and their allies requires a book length catalog. Suppression of African-American militancy was a shared goal of the FBI and the Klan. (In fact, stemming African-American militancy was a career-long objective of J. Edgar Hoover from as early as the 1920s.)
Bureau intelligence "assets" were neither neutral observers nor objective investigators, but active participants in beatings, bombings and murders that claimed the lives of some 50 civil rights activists by 1964. . . .By what measure does 50 deaths of civil rights activists by 1964 count as minimal damage? The Senate's Church Committee, which investigated COINTELPRO, found that
The FBI was instrumental in building the Ku Klux Klan in the South, "setting up dozens of Klaverns, sometimes being leaders and public spokespersons. Gary Rowe, an FBI informant, was involved in the Klan killing of Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker. He claimed that he had to fire shots at her rather than 'blow his cover.' One FBI agent, speaking at a rally organized by the Klavern he led, proclaimed to his followers, 'We will restore white rights if we have to kill every negro to do it. . . .'"
The Klan's "supplemental" role, particularly as a private armed force sporadically deployed to arrest the development of movements for Black freedom, is best considered by comparison to other Bureau operations. Unlike other COINTELPROs, the "Klan - White Hate Groups" program was of a different order entirely. Senior FBI management and a majority of agents in the field endorsed the Klan's values, if not the vigilante character of their tactics; from militaristic anti-communism to extreme racial hatred; from ultra-nationalism to misogynist puritanism. . . .
FBI inaction in the area of civil rights enforcement wasn't simply a matter of . . . "FBI racism." Rather, FBI bureaucratic lethargy, when it came to protecting Black lives, underscored its mission against subversion for constituents whose privileges and power were threatened by a militant movement for Black rights.
Strikingly different from anti-communist COINTELPROs that enmeshed broad social sectors in a web of entanglements, FBI monitoring of the Klan was strictly confined to the organization itself. No serious efforts were made to explore the supplemental role of White Citizens' Councils, many of which were active Klan fronts, let alone investigate the obvious and widespread police complicity in racist violence. Bureau surveillance of the Klan was purely passive, hardly the directed aggression reserved for left-wing targets.
("COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story," a presentation of the Congressional Black Caucus to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, September 1, 2001.)
[t]he cases included attempts (sometimes successful) to prompt the firing of university and high school teachers; to prevent targets from speaking on campus; to stop chapters of target groups from being formed; to prevent the distribution of books, newspapers, or periodicals; to disrupt or cancel news conferences; to interfere with peaceful demonstrations, including the SCLC's Poor People's Campaign and Washington Spring Project and most of the large anti-war marches; and to deny facilities for meetings or conferences.By what measure were these covert action programs against the New Left "largely ineffective"? How many marriages had to be ruined, how many dedicated activists had to be ostracized after being falsely labeled as FBI informants, how many jobs had to be lost for the COINTELPROs against the New Left to be considered "successful"?
As the above cases demonstrate, the FBI was not just "chilling" free speech, but squarely attacking it.
The tactics used against Americans often risked and sometimes caused serious emotional, economic, or physical damage. Actions were taken which were designed to break up marriages, terminate funding or employment, and encourage gang warfare between violent rival groups. Due process of law forbids the use of such covert tactics whether the victims are innocent law-abiding citizens or members of groups suspected of involvement in violence.
Really COINTELPRO was not so much a program as it was a period in the FBI. The US Government has sponsored activities of the kind associated with COINTELPRO before the "program" was created and has continued such activities since the program's "demise." Throughout the COINTELPRO years and beyond, as the FBI has continued covert action against dissenting American citizens, cold-blooded murderers were left alone to enjoy life with arrogant impunity, some of them openly admitting their crimes with confidence that they would never be prosecuted. By what measure were FBI covert actions against the Klan "effective"?
If history shows us anything, it's that the agency's future successes won't come through increased surveillance powers alone. Instead, the bureau's success against the Klan was primarily a product of agents' ability to grasp the motivations, concerns and passions of everyday Klan adherents. Repeating that success today poses a steep challenge.Cunningham pays lip service to current concerns that a) the Patriot Act will lead to excesses in surveillance and b) US responses to terrorism have not shown an interest in addressing the causes of violent anti-US sentiment. Yet, taken as a whole, Cunningham's article reads more as an apologia for the Patriot Act. The challenge is not, in Cunningham's thinking, how to avoid the gross abuses under COINTELPRO but how to find the right balance between surveillance and study of the motivations of enemies to our American way of life.
Earlier in his article, Cunningham explains that
the bureau enjoyed certain advantages when it took on the white right. For one thing, Klan members tended to see themselves as strongly patriotic and vehemently anti-Communist -- and they admired J. Edgar Hoover for sharing those traits. Whatever their own views on civil rights, F.B.I. agents had a ready-made connection with their targets.The shared values among FBI agents and Klansmen were, as stated above, militaristic anti-communism, extreme racial hatred, ultra-nationalism, and misogynist puritanism. Cunningham implies these values are patriotic while the dissent of the New Left was not. As I've suggested before, the demands of Civil Rights Movement activists for a truer democracy through the application of American values to all Americans is one of the deepest forms of patriotism I know. It is this sort of patriotism, more than anything else, that continues to teach me about the positive meaning of my American identity.
Agents consistently exploited this connection when seeking out Klan members. Within only a matter of months, the F.B.I. was able to recruit hundreds of informers.
David Cunningham's article in the NY Times Magazine has been the only mention in the Times of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman this week of the 40th anniversary of their murders. Reading Cunningham, one might think that the main legacy of the three slain civil rights workers was that they inspired COINTELPRO-White Hate, which gave us much too little much too late. Their legacy is much more meaningful than this. Their legacy is the freedom they hoped African-American citizens of Mississippi could come to have. The taste of this freedom is the taste of freedom for all, freedom that does not require that some surrender their human dignity and personal safety or forfeit the rights and benefits of our wealthy society.
Listen to Ben Chaney, brother of James, on the Tavis Smiley Show. See the program of this year's memorial to Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman at the Mt. Zion Church, Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi. Read some coverage of the memorials and find out about Ben Chaney's Freedom Ride 2004. Learn about Freedom Summer and the Freedom Schools. Learn about the 1967 "Mississippi Burning" Trial.