American Scandal

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Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

The Feds vs. the Activists | COINTELPRO | 5

The Feds vs. the Activists | COINTELPRO | 5

Tue, 17 Nov 2020 10:00

From the mid-1950s to the early '70s, the FBI employed a secret program known as COINTELPRO. It aimed to disrupt a wide range of social activism, from anti-war protests, to the fight for racial justice. At the time, Clayborne Carson was on the front lines of the battles for civil rights. He’d go on to become the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, at Stanford University. He and Lindsay sit down to discuss the FBI's investigations of civil rights leaders. They also discuss how those events echo what's happening now between law enforcement and activists.

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From Wondering, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scan. Today we wrap up our series on the Feds versus the Actvists. By the mid-1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. had faced his fair share of threats. The civil rights leader had been attacked by an angry mob, stabbed in the chest and nearly died. His home was bombed while his wife and child were inside. Yet in many ways, those attacks paled in comparison to the threat the FBI had become. King learned that the FBI was investigating him on suspicions that he was associating with communists. But King did not know he was also the subject of a secret FBI program known as Cointel Pro. This campaign was used to destroy civil rights leaders through spying, harassment, and psychological warfare. Cointel Pro was overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful FBI director who deeply distrusted King. Under Hoover's leadership, the Bureau tried to destroy the influential civil rights leader. The FBI began by spying on King, but soon resorted to blackmailing him, threatening to share a recording of him cheating on his wife. The Bureau suggested that the only way he could avoid embarrassment was to kill himself. King refused to yield and continued his activism until his assassination in 1968. My guest today is Claiborne Carson. He's both studied and witnessed the way the US government has erected barriers to civil rights activism, from the March on Washington to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Carson is the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and the author of the book Malcolm X, the FBI file. I'll speak with him about the FBI's investigations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and how those events echo what's happening now between law enforcement and activists. Here's our conversation. Peloton isn't just about bikes and treadmills. It's a team of instructors ready to motivate you 24-7. 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We've almost over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together. And we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. Dr. Carson, welcome to American Scandal. You're going to be here with you. American Class citizenship, disenfranchisement, intimidation, violence. These were all regular parts of the Black American experience since the end of the Civil War. Entrenched and normalized in American culture. And unfortunately codified into law for close to a century when the Civil Rights Movement, as we know it, began. What do you think was special about the post-World War II era that made this movement possible? Well, I think the war itself was one of the things that made it possible of Black soldiers, like my father who thought in World War II came back with a new attitude about not wanting to accept the world as it was before, especially in the United States, the Jim Crow system. I think there was an expectation that things would be better and a willingness to fight to realize those expectations. And what were those expectations? What did the movement seek? Well, I think that just equal treatment. Within the military, they had got somewhat better treatment, but certainly somewhat more opportunities. But after the war, I think that there was a sense of we're not willing to accept second class citizenship anymore. And I think that there was a desire to build upon the achievements of wartime, because during that period, the United States had needed Black Americans. We had been necessary for the war effort. And I think that was true throughout the world. During the Second World War, Britain needed its colonies. France needed its colonies. Not just African Americans, but colonized people thought on the side of the Allies. And I think that was one of the reasons why almost immediately, you know, within a few years after the end of the war, India gains its independence. And the colonized people of the world began to move forward. And that was reflected in the United States. In fact, I think we were inspired by what Gandhi had achieved in India and what the anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia were representing for us. So the fight for freedom abroad then turned into grand disappointment. And this disappointment, I suppose, spawned the movement and this movement spawned some leaders. One more of the actions that leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X called for the US government to take specifically. I mean, equality is a very broad measure and it can't happen overnight. Well, after the war, there were obviously a number of leaders before King and Malcolm who began to assert this, and double ACP, the largest organization for black civil rights began to assert itself more and gain the Brown versus Board of Education decision. So people like Thurgood Marshall and other leaders of the NAACP were pushing forward and someone like Martin Luther King began to push on the local level, particularly after the Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954. So I think that all of these evidence, the potential for progress, inspired people, but also the incidents that occurred after the war of soldiers in uniform being harassed and beaten and sometimes killed when they came back home and found that they were not respected. And the killing of Femme Till in 1955 was a major event. There were just a number of signs that despite the war, the Jim Crow South wanted to put black people back into the same position as before the war. And that just wasn't acceptable. So there was a groundswell of desire to expand the movement. So I think that that was the start of it. And of course, with the Montgomery bus boycott, it reached a new stage because there was a movement that was started at the grassroots level. And the boycott, that was sustained for 381 days over a year of not writing the buses. And Martin Luther King was among those who were arrested during the boycott movement along with other leaders. And despite this harassment, despite imprisonment, the movement went on. And I think it served as an inspiration to a whole generation of leaders of that age, but also younger people like myself. This was a sign that black people stuck together and acted militantly. They could achieve a great victory as they did at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott. And there was definitely progress, a groundswell at the local level, and then slow progress in the courts and in Congress at the federal level from Brown v. Board in 54 to the Civil Rights Act a decade later. But there were other branches of the federal government that had a very different response to Civil Rights activism. What was the FBI's attitude toward the Civil Rights movement as a gain momentum through these years? I think again, you could trace that back before. And you know, J. A. Grover and the FBI had been hostile to any form of black militancy going back to the time he came into the government in the years after World War One when the targets were immigrant radicals. And one of the targets was Marcus Garvey, one of the most successful black leaders of that era. And J. A. Grover developed a strategy for dealing with any kind of black militancy and that is labeling it as communist inspired or the result of alien foreign influences. And he was certainly dangerous and targeted Marcus Garvey and actually forced him into exile. And he was one of the most successful leaders of the 1920s. And so when he did a job for J. A. Grover, that was that was so success and that was the strategy that he used going forward of whenever there was there were signs of black militancy begin to investigate it. And this was also supported by people in Congress, the House on American Activities Committee. And all of this was really a way of making black assertiveness or militancy, something that was dangerous, something that had to be suppressed. And so you see that as a consistent pattern. Do you have any indication of where his suspicion and hostility towards civil rights leaders and many other subversive groups came from? Yeah, I mean, it was racist. It was, you know, you didn't need to posit the influence of communists and subversives and foreign ideas to explain why black people were dissatisfied and wanted to fight for a better, better life. And yet that was the pattern. That was the pattern starting then. And to some degrees still today, I mean, even after the end of the Cold War, is that tendency to see militancy as something that just couldn't come from black people's dissatisfaction with injustice? It had to be somehow influenced by nefarious sources that had to be suppressed. So I think that that tendency was there from the beginning. I think it was best represented by J. Edgar Hoover because he was the most effective at it. That's how he built his power base by presenting to Americans. I am protecting you against danger, the danger of subversion. And please give me more money to do it. And so that became his strategy for remaining a powerful person for decades. One place Hoover spent that money was a secret program called Cointel Pro. What was the initial purpose of that program? The initial purpose was focused on the Communist Party. He was among the first to see that during the Cold War, one of the ways in which he could build more influence and more power was to emphasize the danger of communist subversion within the United States. It wasn't simply an external threat. It was an internal threat. And that among the aspects of that threat was racial militancy, black militancy. And that's things that we wouldn't even consider militancy today. For example, the Montgomery bus boycott. Even at that early stage, when it was simply a movement by black people saying, we're not going to ride the buses in Montgomery. And he's already labeling it as potentially dangerous movement led by this guy, Martin Luther King. You know, certainly Martin Luther King would not have recognized that he would be investigated by the FBI in 1955 when he was just a Baptist minister who had been selected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association. But as King developed into a most prominent black leader of his generation, Hoover became more and more concerned about him, particularly because he attracted support from people with leftist backgrounds. And this was true from the very beginning of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that impulse to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came from Stanley Levison, who was a white lawyer who printed King and became one of his main advisors and fundraisers. And it happened that Stanley Levison was at, had been a member of the Communist Party. Now, that's surprising in the sense that if you are of a certain age and you supported black equality, what party would you have been influenced by? Not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party of that era. Both of these parties, the Democratic Party was basically run by southerners. It was segregated. Black people did not participate in the party conventions of the Democratic Party during the 20s and into the 30s. It would begin to change under Roosevelt. And similarly, the Republican Party did not really welcome black members, even though it was the party of Lincoln, and it had been black Republicans since the beginning of the party. But by the 1920s, they had decided that having blacks in prominent positions would harm the party in terms of getting white support. So in both cases, black people who were, I guess, which you would call militant, are very assertive about getting rights often were influenced by communist movements, which themselves wanted to build support among black people. And that's what happened during the 1930s and 40s. You wanted to be part of the civil rights congress or a number of other organizations. It was very likely that you were working together with people who had communist backgrounds. Hoover had kind of an infectious disease notion about communism that once you're infected with it, you always have it. And like a virus, you can spread it to other people that you influence. So that was true for a number of people around King who would then once affiliated with communist movements had broken away from them and had decided for various reasons that the Communist Party was not very effective, not very useful in terms of gaining black civil rights. And nonetheless, that background that according to the virus theory once you have it, you can never get rid of it. You can never renounce it. And then anyone you affiliated with, anyone who you spend time with or advise is also infected with. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together. And we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the Evil Genius Bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. So this affiliation with early and renounced communist certainly brings Hoover's attention to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. in particular, but also Malcolm X. They were both targeted by Coental Pro. So what were some differences in how the FBI handled each of these two civil rights leaders? Well, ironically, it was with Malcolm X. This is happened as much later. I mean, I wrote a book Malcolm X, the FBI file. And looking through the FBI files, the FBI was not really that interested in the nation of Islam. They saw it as a kind of a religious cult. There had been some history of black people involved in religious organizations that they took somewhat of an interest in. There really isn't very much in the FBI files about Malcolm until about 62, 63 as he begins to see that he wants to play a leadership role in the expanding civil rights struggle. That gains him a lot more attention. And then when he travels abroad and begins to develop his own black nationalist orientation, you know, then, then, of course, there's a lot of attention from the CIA, the FBI and other organizations because they see him as a potential leader of a massive black struggle. And someone who would be representative leader militancy than Martin Luther King. So that's when they really stepped up their attention using surveillance, tapping his phone, you know, things like that. But again, that was more later in the struggle. They were much more concerned until then about Martin Luther King, quite frankly, because Martin Luther King had much more of a following. He was seen as the main black leader of his time. So of course, they're going to devote more attention to him, particularly when they know that Stanley levyson is one of his advisors that Baird Rustin had been one of his advisors and still Baird Rustin is the organizer of the March on Washington. And you know, other people who similarly had communists or socialist affiliations in the past. And the fact that these people were close to King, you know, that set off alarm bells, you know, from 1962 on. And you know, King's idea was I don't really care a lot about what you did in the past. As long as I see you as being dedicated to the struggle that we are in. So I think that King and I think most people in who are civil rights activists kind of had that attitude that, you know, the Cold War was less important to them than the struggle for civil rights in the United States. And by this time, by the way, it's not just the Communist Party, but all the organizations that had established over time, or at least influenced over time. So I think there were more than 200 organizations on the FBI's list of subversive groups. So if you had an affiliation with any one of those 200 groups. And no matter whether you still had an affiliation, it was again, kind of this infectious disease model, you know, that once you had been infected, then you were dangerous. And you would remain dangerous, even if you had made a point of breaking with one of these groups. You mentioned Bayard Russins part in organizing the March on Washington. You were a part of that event. At the time, how were you involved in civil rights activism? I mean, I was 19 years old, and this was, you know, I'd heard about the freedom writers in this sit-ins of 1960. And I was inspired by, you know, young people, my age who are taking leading roles. And I remember going, you know, I come to college and I went to a meeting of the National Student Association. And I met Stokely Carmichael, who was representing Howard University at that time. So this is right before the March on Washington. And I wanted to be like them. You know, I wanted to be like Stokely Carmichael. I wanted to be like Bob Moses, who I've met later. So this was my chance to take part in a, you know, see 200,000 people, probably more people than, well, definitely more people than I'd seen in my entire life. I mean, you mentioned Bayard Rustin, who was the main organizer. And again, this was something that bothered J. Edgar Hoover. And to some degree, I think it was kind of a filip Randolph as a labor leader. Rustin had been kind of his protege during the 1940s. So he was the one who came up with the idea of March. It wasn't Martin Luther King. And he wanted Bayard Rustin because he was the best organizer in the country. And 20 some years of experience behind him. So he wanted to have someone like that. And in fact, during the 1940s, a filip Randolph had proposed to march on Washington as the way of pushing Franklin Roosevelt to end discrimination in the war industries. Black people being involved as soldiers, you know, a lot of opportunities opened up because of the need for workers. So World War II was a time of many gains in the black community in terms of opportunity. Well, speaking of 20 years of experience, it was 20 some years from the March in Washington that in 1985, you were approached by Kerediscott King, Dr. King's widow. She asked you to organize and edit her late husband's work. What was that call like? Well, first of all, a surprise. I had written a book about the student on violent coordinating committee. And part of my purpose in writing the book was to make the point that the movement would have happened even if King had never been born. You know, because the people who I worked with during that time and not the people I admired, they admired King, but they were not followers of of Martin Luther King. They they were blazing their own path. They thought of themselves as in the vanguard of the struggle. And the King was in some ways following them. They were the ones who initiated the sit-ins of 1960. They were the ones who initiated and took part in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Martin Luther King played no role. He was more of follower than a leader during that period. I wanted to emphasize that that it was young people younger than Martin Luther King, who was young himself, but a new generation that I identified well. So when credit called, I was surprised. That interested. You don't get a call like that every day. And you know, I it wasn't that I disliked King. I thought that he was a wonderful person and admired him. And so ultimately it was it was a matter of why wouldn't I want to edit the papers of Martin Luther King? Why why not? You know, I looked at the movement from one side from the bottom up. Why not look at it from the top down? I don't have any regrets about that decision. You mentioned looking at the movement from the bottom up because you are probably part of that the base of the pyramid there. What were your personal opinions of MLK? Were you a follower and admirer or suspicious? Were you on the vanguard? I did think see him as someone who was following us rather than you know, those of us following him. You know, I think all of us admired Martin Luther King. He was had many many admirable qualities among them being the most articulate person I think I've ever seen. So I think that he played a role that all of us recognized was important. You know, one of the things about Martin Luther King is that when he came to a place, you know, snake had been working in Albany when he came to Albany attention came with him. Press came within concern of the federal government came within. Because all of them recognized that he was the central figure in this movement. And so it wasn't that we were fighting against King. It was more just that we felt maybe he was a little bit too cautious and maybe needed a stimulus to make him less cautious. So we were always seeing ourselves as pushing him. You know, one of the things about my activism was mostly in Los Angeles. And the group I worked with nonviolent action committee was really modeled on snake. It was it was modeled on that kind of militancy where you're using civil disobedience as a way of making gains. And we saw ourselves as a vanguard in the sense of we were looking at urban issues. The movement was not just the South that many of the problems that like people faced were in the North as well as the South. There were ghettos in the North. There were discrimination and housing and employment. And we took on those problems and felt that we were the vanguard in terms of doing that and that when King came to Los Angeles after what we call the Watts rebellion. He was following us. We weren't following we were already there. He finally made the decision that yes, after the passage of the voting rights act, he understood yes, the this is a national problem. That's when he moved to Chicago and began to work on those kinds of issues that those of us were who were in Los Angeles that been working on for a number of years. So to take up those issues, he was really dealing with issues that are still with us today. That's why he wrote his last book. Where do we go from here after the passage of civil rights legislation. Now that we have a voting rights act, now that we have a civil rights act, where do we go from here? How do we deal with these festering issues of poverty, segregation, all of the inferior schooling, all of these inequities in American society? How do we address them? And he's saying we still need to decide that. Obviously, there's a wave of activism that's happening right now. I was wondering if there are any parallels between Coentill Pro and the FBI of then and perhaps how the federal government and local government authorities are reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Yeah, I think one of the things that has strengthened the Black Lives Matter movement is that we're gradually getting over the Cold War. So calling something communist dick or socialistic doesn't have the same bite that it still isn't a way of putting something down. But it doesn't call upon government agencies to do what they did with the counterintelligence program that is disrupt and destroy these organizations. Instead, it's more of a political issue. I mean, I think there's still that sense of investigating potential sources of disorder and cities. And maybe the FBI should be doing that. There is always a potential that any kind of demonstrations can get out of hand. But I think the kind of undercover surveillance, what became known during the 60s is dirty tricks that trying to disrupt and destroy people and organizations. I don't think that that's happening now. Maybe I'm maybe I'm naive. One of the things that's probably true is that there's a recognition that both groups on the left and groups on the right can both be disruptive and dangerous. And it doesn't do anyone any good to see the source of that is some kind of an alien threat America is, you know, we're a country that had a civil war. We're a country that has a history of violence. And I think what we see now is that that's been brought out into the open. We can assume that because we're all Americans, we all agree about certain basic things. We might we see them through different lenses and the potential for pulling the country apart is always there. You mentioned that the Cold War is over and the label communist has lost its sting. But maybe it has been replaced with a new one just extremist. You know, I think that there's always a sense of trying to put a label on what are what are the threats and extremists. You know, that's that's another label does it clarify. I think to a certain degree, I would say the defining issue that should be addressed as violence prone. You know, is a group willing to use violence to achieve its ends. And that that's a concern of the FBI or any other police agency. Yeah, you have to be aware of someone's saying to you, my my cause is so precious to me that I will kill people or destroy property and do a number of other illegal activities. And then, yeah, that's why we that's where we have police. I think that when it gets dangerous is when those labels are applied to people who are not dangerous, not violence prone. And I think that often happens, you know, that we don't we're still kind of uncomfortable as a society with the notion of civil disobedience of protest, even though that's our first amendment. The right to protest is in brained in American history. That's that's why we are an independent nation today. So I think that, you know, trying to draw that line is something that is necessary. Yeah, we're going to deal effectively and listen to legitimate grievances without labeling them in a way that means that we don't have to take seriously what they have to say. You've spent a lifetime participating in and studying the civil rights movement and and we've certainly seen in recent months a new wave of it. What's striking most when you see black activists today? The scale of the movement now when I was 19 and saw 200,000 people at the March, I thought that was the most impressive event that I could have imagined. And but yet when George Floyd was was murdered within days movement, 10 times that size was was already being organized by mostly by young people. So I think that what has happened is that what used to require the best organizer of this generation, they had rusted to organize, take months to organize the March on Washington. Now five kids with social media skills can bring together a larger demonstration than the March, you know, all of these movements have had an impact on young people, just the same way the civil rights struggle had an impact on me as a as a teenager. They've grown up with the idea of the Occupy movement that there's a basic inequities in American society, they have been, you know, influenced by all of the concern about mass incarceration and police behavior. So this is this is a new generation that has defining itself through their protest activity and they've shown that they have the ability to mobilize on a local scale and they're not going away. They'll be around for a while. Dr. Carson, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been a pleasure. That was my conversation with Dr. Claiborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Junior Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, an author of the book, Malcolm X, the FBI file. Next on American scandal in 1979, disco was a dominant force in American music. It took the top spots in the Billboard charts and sold countless records. But with its culturally diverse audience, disco faced a major backlash. And that would lead to a crisis one evening in July of 1979 when a prominent event at a baseball game turned to a right. From wondering, this is episode five of five of the feds versus the activists from American scandal. In our next series, in the 1970s, a new man is called the Unibomber. It would injure 23 people and kill three with sophisticated homemade bombs. A man hunt to find him would become the longest-lasting case in FBI history and it only ended with a gut-wrenching decision. American scandal is hosted, edited and executed produced by me, Lindsey Graham for Airship, audio editing by Molly Bach. This episode was produced by Audrey Noe. Our senior producer is Gabe Ribbon. Executive producers are Stephanie Jenns, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and her non-lopes for Wondering.