Thurgood Marshall and the FBI

By IWB, World Socialist Web Site, 16 December 1996

IN THE controversy surrounding the revelation that former NAACP leader Thurgood Marshall regularly pro vided information to the FBI, a column which appeared in the December 10 New York Times is particularly significant.

The article, written by Denton L. Watson, a former public relations director for the NAACP, is an exercise in red-baiting worthy of the crudest of Cold War witch hunters. It says a great deal about the political role played and social interests served by the NAACP, both past and present.

Not only does Watson admit that Marshall informed on Communist Party members, socialists and other radicals active in the civil rights movement, he boasts about it, claiming that Marshall's actions are a sign of his “legendary integrity and historical greatness.” His column amounts to a resume of the organization's services in the war against what the author calls “Thurgood Marshall's red menace.”

Watson goes back to the 1930s to explain why the NAACP was more than willing to work with the FBI. “In 1933,” he writes, “Communists greatly embarrassed the NAACP by taking over the defense of the Scottsboro Boys,” the nine black youth from Alabama who were framed on a rape charge and sentenced to death. “The Scottsboro Boys case,” Watson continues, “alerted [the NAACP] to the Communists' real goal: to organize blacks as a fifth column in the international struggle to undermine capitalism and to get the West to disarm.”

Watson utilizes the phraseology of the professional anticommunist, who attributes any struggle by opponents of the capitalist system in defense of the democratic rights and social conditions of the working class to the nefarious machinations of a global conspiracy. Like all red-baiters, he falsifies history to suit his own purposes.

In point of fact, the Communist Party came to the defense of these young men when the arrests took place in 1931, while the NAACP ignored the case. Thousands of CP members and supporters conducted an international struggle which saved the Scottsboro defendants from the electric chair.

The official civil rights leaders, for fear of offending the political establishment, refused to say a word about the Scottsboro Case for months. They only made it an issue when it became clear that their silence was undermining their support among blacks and politically conscious workers and intellectuals of all races. Even then, their central goal was to discredit the CP. “After that,” as Watson states in his New York Times column, “the association waged a long and ultimately successful battle to keep Communists out.” Praise for the purges

Next Watson praises one of the most sordid chapters in the history of the NAACP. He approvingly reports that the 1949 convention voted for a resolution “directing and instructing the board of directors to take the necessary action to eradicate” Communists from local branches. He admits that nearly 20 percent of the delegates voted against this witchhunting measure.

Watson also acknowledges, “Communists made strong inroads in chapters in Midwestern industrial cities and on the West Coast.” But the only explanation he provides for the growth of CP influence is that “the Communists … were expert parliamentarians and organizers.” In fact, large numbers of black workers and many intellectuals were powerfully attracted to the program and ideals of socialism. They grasped the connection between the racial injustice they suffered and the class exploitation at the heart of the profit system, and they looked to the militant struggles of industrial workers of the 1930s and 1940s as the basis for uniting all workers and oppressed people across racial and national lines.

For definite historical reasons, most radicalized workers mistakenly associated the ideals of socialism with the Soviet Union under the Stalin regime and did not understand the irreconcilable opposition between the revolutionary principles which underlay the 1917 Revolution in Russia and the monstrous dictatorship which arose in the latter part of the 1920s and consolidated its grip through the mass terror of the 1930s.

The treacherous policies carried out by the American CP, in accordance with the counterrevolutionary line of the Kremlin, did much to alienate black workers and greatly facilitated the efforts of the Cold War witch hunters in the leadership of the unions and organizations like the NAACP.

The fundamental concern of the latter was always to subordinate the strivings of the black masses for equality and justice to the requirements of the capitalist system. This political program expressed the interests and outlook of the social layer that dominated the organization from its foundation—a small stratum of privileged, middle class blacks, whose goal was to abolish the legal and social impediments blocking its rise to economic and political influence and power within the system.

While claiming to speak for all blacks, the NAACP jealously and nervously sought to protect the interests of a narrow minority. This was the essential source of its virulent anticommunism. It looked with horror on the potential for a mass socialist movement uniting both black and white workers. Marshall's political role

Thurgood Marshall, who had become the director and chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1940, played a leading role in the organization's purge of Stalinists, socialists and other left-wing elements. Watson reports that “at the local level, the branches' lawyers invariably turned to Thurgood Marshall for legal advice on how to keep out the Communists.”

Marshall headed up the NAACP's legal campaign against Jim Crow segregation, arguing many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including the watershed case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, but he stood on the right wing of the civil rights movement. He was the chief proponent of relying on the capitalist courts, rather than organizing an independent struggle of the masses.

History shows that the major gains made in the period after World War II were achieved precisely through the methods of popular resistance, without which court decisions would never have been implemented. Despite the severe, and ultimately crippling limitations of Martin Luther King's reformist program, it is to his credit that he rejected the policies of Marshall and the rest of the NAACP leadership and set about organizing thousands of workers and youth to fight for the dismantling of legal segregation.

The FBI documents shed light on how deeply Marshall was opposed, at least initially, to the mass upsurge of workers against segregation. According to one FBI memorandum, in early 1956, while King was leading the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott against segregation in public transportation, Marshall was meeting with J. Edgar Hoover to discuss “an unspecified matter in Alabama,” as well as “the Communist Party's effort to get into the NAACP.”

This was the same Hoover who had informants in the South like Gary Thomas Rowe—men who participated in the beating of freedom bus riders and the murder of civil rights activists such as Viola Liuzzo, at the same time that they were working for the FBI. By virtue of his refusal to defend the constitutional rights of young people who risked their lives fighting to register black voters in the Jim Crow South, Hoover was complicit in such crimes as the 1964 murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

But for Marshall then and Watson today, Hoover and the FBI represented a far lesser evil than the threat of socialist revolution. As Watson states, “Mr. Marshall may have cooperated with the FBI, but he did not do so as Hoover's stooge. He was trying to protect the NAACP from the greatest threat within its ranks.” To the Supreme Court

A staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, Marshall was rewarded for his services to the ruling class with top judicial appointments. In 1961 President Kennedy appointed him to the Court of Appeals and in 1967 Lyndon Johnson named him to be the first black Justice of the US Supreme Court. Over the next 24 years, he was part of the liberal wing of the high court, but he could always be relied upon to defend the immediate needs of big business, as well as the long-term interests of American capitalism.

By the time he retired in 1991, Marshall's perspective of gradual social reform within the framework of capitalism was in tatters. The Court had become the major instrument of the ruling class for rolling back civil rights reforms, undermining constitutional guarantees of civil liberties and lifting all legal limitations on the naked pursuit of profit by big business. Over this period the living standards of the working class, both black and white, drastically declined.

The fact that Watson resorts to the crudest anticommunism in response to the revelations about Marshall sheds light on the further evolution of the NAACP over the past two decades, along with the whole semi-official civil rights establishment of which it is a part.

The Times column is a direct appeal to the American bourgeoisie from an organization which is increasingly rejected by the younger generation. The NAACP has faced years of internal political turmoil and mounting debts. Under conditions in which both capitalist parties have repudiated even the most modest social reforms and the ruling class as a whole has moved sharply to the right, the NAACP is incapable of offering any coherent or credible perspective to black workers and youth.

Thus Watson turns openly to the ruling class, urging it, in effect, to rescue the NAACP from its crisis and underwrite the social position of the privileged layers of upper-middle class blacks who form the base of the organization. He wants to remind the powers that be of the important services the NAACP has rendered in the past and is prepared to render in the future against any threat to the profit system.

He is none to subtle in his choice of words. “The NAACP has received little recognition for its long struggle against Communism,” he complains. “Even J. Edgar Hoover … acknowledged the group's efforts in this regard.”

Watson's column expresses the outlook of a definite social stratum. These are people who have found a place in the political machinery of the capitalist state, the Democratic Party and the trade union bureaucracy. They have benefited from various government handouts to the black middle class which began with Nixon's “black capitalism” program and continued under subsequent administrations. Like their counterparts among the most privileged sections of middle class whites, this layer has moved sharply to the right, glorifying the capitalist market and expressing growing hostility to the working class, black and white.

Watson's article has the virtue of demonstrating how bankrupt the old leaderships of the civil rights movement are today. It underscores the fact that the struggle against racial discrimination and oppression, as well as social inequality and injustice, falls to the working class, which must be organized as a united and independent political force in its own mass party, fighting on the basis of a socialist and internationalist program.