In a nation built on the foundation of White supremacy, anyone the authorities perceive as threatening that foundation is considered subversive. This has always been true of African Americans who fought for racial equality, and is now equally true for an increasing number of people who speak out against this nation's state-sponsored violence and racism.
Witch hunts and federal surveillance are nothing new, a fact it is important for all of us to remember. Declassified U.S. military intelligence documents show that for decades this country spied on African Americans — from well-known ones such as W.E.B. DuBois and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, to farmers attempting to escape an oppressive sharecropping system.
In World War I, the U.S. government set up a special Military Intelligence Division to monitor people deemed dangerous to the government. One of its primary targets was African Americans, especially those in the press, and they routinely followed up leads on "dangerous" Black people. The title of their program showed the racist assumptions and fears that drove their actions: "Negro Subversion."
During the "Red Summer of Hate" in 1919, when race riots occurred in 25 cities and Black soldiers still in uniform were lynched, the government considered the soldiers a threat and made excuses for the lynchers. The Military Intelligence Division kept the government informed of "suspicious" Black people, meaning anyone who criticized the government or such White supremacist practices as lynching and the peonage of Black farmer workers.
The latter included Black sharecroppers in Arkansas who organized a union in an attempt to stop White farmers from cheating them. The government sent troops to help the White farmers put down this "rebellion," and after a deputy sheriff was killed, Military Intelligence Division officers helped local authorities prosecute and imprison the sharecroppers. Six of them were sentenced to die in the electric chair, and during the next five days, six more of the sharecroppers were condemned to death and 80 were sentenced to prison for terms of from two to 20 years.
Therefore, what the government is doing now against African Americans, Muslims and anyone else who challenges their policies, is nothing new. Black people have always lived in a post-Sept. 11 world when it comes to oppression, intimidation and White fear. Their fear that Black soldiers returning from Europe in 1919 would challenge the structure of White supremacy is the same fear that drove them to strike Black military men and women from the voting rolls in the 2004 presidential election.
According to a recent investigative report by the British Broadcasting Corp. (which, to my knowledge, has not been picked up by the so-called mainstream media in the United States), officials secretly and illegally struck Black military personnel from the voting rolls even while they were fighting for the United States in Iraq.
Republican National Committee officials, according to the report, sent letters to the soldiers' homes in the United States, even though they knew the men and women were overseas. The envelopes had printed on them: "Do Not Forward." Then, when the soldiers didn't respond to letters they never received, elections officials declared that they were falsely registered and struck them from the rolls.
And so, while the methods change, the game plan is always the same: to protect White supremacy, especially as it is manifested through economically and politically powerful White males, from the dangers of "Negro Subversion." The actions of today are simply the latest in a line that stretches back to the enslaved men, women and children of centuries past who fought back against their enslavement, and thus were considered "dangerous" and "subversive."
But somehow they held onto the belief that this country's promises were also meant for them and their heirs.
Clinton L. Cox is a journalist and student of Black history based in upstate New York.