Why did he work with the FBI? Blacks should look at the suppressed history of Marshall's compromise

MANY PEOPLE were surprised by the recent revelation that Thurgood Marshall, the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, collaborated with the FBI against alleged "communist subversion" during his tenure as chief NAACP lawyer.

Today, there are so few "communists" and "fellow travelers" in the African-American community that there's an assumption that it's always been that way. So, it's natural that many of us wonder what compelled Marshall to join hands with the FBI, which under Director J. Edgar Hoover, had a well-deserved reputation for enmity toward champions of racial equality.


However, the initial premise is mistaken: Though this history has been buried in an avalanche of amnesia and misinformation, the fact is that at one time, the Communist Party had thousands of sympathizers and members among African-Americans.

The atrocity that was Jim Crow and racial segregation helps to explain this phenomenon: Extreme conditions often produce extreme reactions. The effort to break this alliance helps explain why the FBI collaborated with Marshall and, more importantly, sheds light on why civil rights concessions flowed when they did.


Often it is assumed that communist influence among African-Americans peaked during the 1930s and the struggle to free the "Scottsboro 9" - black youths arrested in Alabama, convicted and slated for execution. Certainly, the ultimately successful effort to free these defendants increased the popularity of the "Reds" among blacks; at this juncture few whites supported the idea of racial equality and those who did were often assumed to be communists. Often this assumption was false, but it added to the impression that communists were militant in their defense of black rights.

Communist influence among blacks did not die with the successful campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants. Indeed, anything, it accelerated during the 1940s. Recall that during World War II, the U.S. was in an anti-fascist alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler's Germany. The close ties of U.S. Communists to the USSR had been an impediment to the party's growth here because the relationship was viewed as unpatriotic, but the Washington-Moscow alliance from 1941 to 1945 helped to dissolve this feeling. In fact, the pro-Sovietism of U.S. Communists seemed prescient at that moment.

It was during this time that Warner Brothers produced its notorious film "Mission to Moscow," which portrayed Josef Stalin as a benevolent and wise leader of the Soviet Union.

It was during this time that the young lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, worked closely with the black communist lawyer, Ben Davis, on anti-Jim Crow initiatives.

Both attorneys, as well as other NAACP stalwarts like the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston, worked closely with the National Lawyers Guild - which soon was to be scorned as a "communist front." Davis and Houston were old friends, both having graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School. Houston, in turn, had been Marshall's mentor at Howard Law School.

It was during this time, 1941-45, that NAACP membership increased 10-fold to over 400,000 - a level it has had difficulty reaching since.

In 1943, Davis was elected to the New York City Council representing Harlem. This card-carrying Communist received support from the cream of the black artists and intelligentsia, including Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, and of course, Paul Robeson.

In 1945, Davis was re-elected to the City Council with a similar broad swath of support that included Jose Ferrer, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Langston Hughes and many others.


In the same period, communists and others organized the Civil Rights Congress, which was headed by the fiery African-American lawyer William Patterson. A close friend of Lena Horne and Langston Hughes, Patterson had led the fight for freedom of the Scottsboro defendants and in following years led struggles on behalf of Rosa Lee Ingram, Willie McGee, the Trenton 6 and other African-Americans who had fallen victim to Jim Crow justice.

But 1945 was to prove to be the high-water mark for communist influence among African-Americans. It would not be long before the NAACP and their leaders like Marshall and Roy Wilkins would feel obligated to collaborate with the authorities against more radical blacks like Davis, Patterson and Robeson.

This was a monumental turning point in African-American history and so personally and politically painful that, like "repressed memory syndrome," it has been purged from our immediate consciousness though it continues to influence our actions each day.

The conclusion of World War II marked the coming of the Cold War between the erstwhile allies, Moscow and Washington. No longer was pro-Sovietism deemed an asset; indeed, it was seen as the secular version of the mark of the devil. But the United States had a problem: How could it compete credibly for "hearts and minds" across the globe with the Soviet Union - which was then aiding Africans fighting a colonialism imposed by U.S. allies in London, Paris, Brussels and Lisbon - when the U.S. itself subjected African-Americans to a horrible Jim Crow?

Jim Crow also hampered the ability of Washington to charge Moscow credibly with human rights violations. As the brief of the State Department in Brown vs. Board of Education noted, Jim Crow hindered the effective execution of U.S. foreign policy.

But how could the obligatory anti-Jim Crow measures be pushed while ensuring that figures like Robeson and his closest friend and ally, Ben Davis - who had been lionized in the black community as combative foes of racial bias - would be out of the way and not in a position to receive any credit?


In 1948, W.E.B. Du Bois was fired from the organization he founded, the NAACP, for refusing to go along with the Cold War consensus. On the other side of the barricades stood the NAACP leadership that included Thurgood Marshall.

In 1948, Ben Davis was indicted for violating the Smith Act - a piece of legislation eventually deemed to be the ultimate in "thought control" because it barred the teaching or advocacy of Marxism. By 1951, he was in federal prison, where he was to spend a good deal of that pivotal decade. During this time, the passport of Paul Robeson was taken away and his earnings plummeted as he found it difficult to make a living by performing abroad.

Patterson too was jailed and by 1956 his Civil Rights Congress had been driven out of business by the Subversive Activities Control Board, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI and other government agencies.

Certainly Thurgood Marshall was not as enthusiastic about these developments as others in the NAACP leadership.

For example, it was his inclination to support the Hollywood Ten, the left-leaning screenwriters and directors who came under fire in the late 1940s because of their real and imagined communist )) ties. Marshall's position was understandable. After all, the screenwriter John Howard Lawson - a key member of the Ten - was one the few anti-racist partisans in the film industry and had penned "premature Afro-centric" lines in his epic World War drama, "Sahara." But Marhall's position was rejected by the NAACP leadership and he was obliged to comply with the consensus.

The die was cast at the pivotal 1950 NAACP convention in Boston, where a far-reaching resolution passed calling for a systematic purge of communists from the ranks. Thus, the NAACP did not support the historic initiative of Robeson, Patterson and the Civil Rights Congress as they filed a petition at the United Nations charging the U.S. government with genocide against African-Americans. This innovative maneuver received reams of publicity abroad and was a significant factor in pressuring the U.S. government to move forcefully against Jim Crow, but it received sharp criticism - not support - from the NAACP leadership.


The purge of the NAACP was particularly damaging. Their ousting of dues-paying leftists from their ranks did not assuage white ultra-right extremists, who continued to harass the association; if anything, it signaled that the NAACP could be pushed around easily and forced to ditch supporters. The murder of Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore was another signal that the purge did not appease the organization's enemies - only the liquidation of the NAACP would sate their appetite.

Because many white NAACP members often were assumed to be communists - or at least fellow travelers - this purge had a particularly devastating impact on the inter-racial character of the association. The NAACP had been founded in 1909 by a combination of black and white socialists, like Du Bois and William Walling. Hence, the purge was not only inconsistent with the original mission of the NAACP, it also swept away more militant whites and as the 1960s unwound it was easy for many younger blacks to think that white support for civil rights only came in a weak-kneed, moderate package.

Predictably, the FBI was not satisfied with these sweeping purges. In 1956, Thurgood Marshall was continuing to consult with the FBI about alleged "communist infiltration" of the NAACP. This was the year of the launch of the infamous counter-intelligence initiative of the FBI-COINTELPRO - where harassing tactics that had been "perfected" against communists were used on the burgeoning civil rights movement soon to be spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Few in the NAACP seemed to notice that eroding the civil liberties of communists would easily lead to eroding the civil liberties of non-communists.

By the late 1950s, Marshall and the FBI were collaborating in the campaign against the North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams, who had run afoul of the authorities because of his refusal to go along with the prevailing tactic of passive, non-violent resistance. Eventually, Williams felt compelled to flee the South and relocate to Cuba, where he set up "Radio Free Dixie" and broadcast messages back to the United States that the FBI labeled subversive. He left Cuba and went to China, then returned relatively recently to this country. He died in Michigan in October. As when Davis and Patterson were jailed, the black community was the ultimate loser when Williams was forced out of the country.

As therein lies the ultimate legacy of these revelations about Thurgood Marshall and the FBI. The eminent British historian Adam Fairclough has noted recently that the civil rights movement's promise was blunted when its agenda was detached from that of the "left-labor" movement that Robeson and his allies represented. This removed from the agenda the question of reparations or redistribution of wealth and guaranteed, as King noted ruefully, that blacks would have the right to eat at a lunch counter but not have enough money to buy a hamburger. African-Americans are overwhelmingly of the working class and as the "left-labor" movement was crippled, it was preordained that the AFL-CIO would not be able to deliver improved wages and working conditions; again blacks were hit directly in the pocketbook.

And what about Marshall himself? Should these revelations cause us to devalue the contributions he made? I don't think so. Even Robeson himself would have been hard-pressed to surpass Marshall's stellar performance on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he emerged as a staunch defender of civil rights and civil liberties.


However, we would be remiss by perpetuating the weakest aspect of Marshall's record by failing to re-examine critical - and misguided - decisions made by the NAACP leadership over the past half century. And if we fail to rectify these errors by not taking the path trod first by Robeson, Du Bois, Davis and Patterson, ultimately we would be jeopardizing Marshall's central legacy - the continuous expansion of rights and liberties. This is the paradox of this curious collaboration between Thurgood Marshall and the FBI.

Gerald Horne is a professor of history and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is the author of "Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party" and "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s."

Pub Date: 12/08/96