November 27, 2012

Herbert Hill: NAACP Official And FBI Informant

For those who throw around the term "Ultra Left" in relation to being FBI informants, it may be a cautionary tale that the informant in this case was an official in a reformist organization like the NAACP.  It also of course shows how extensive and repressive the State Police apparatus is and has been in the United States.

Herbert Hill was a respected National Labor Secretary of the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP) for 20 years.  He was known for his work to eliminate racial discrimination in the trade union movement in the U.S.

In the 1960's he informed on Socialists he knew in his youth.  This is now exposed by Dr. Christopher Phelps who has done an analysis of Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) releases publicly available on the FBI website.  Phelps is an historian of Modern American Political and Intellectual Life at the University of Nottingham.  His research was just published in the journal of "Labor History".

Phelps focused attention specifically on the FBI COINTELPRO to disrupt and neutralize the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which the government classifies as "subversive".  Herbert Hill belonged to the SWP during the second world war and resigned in 1949.  Phelps discovered that in May of 1962 W.C. Sullivan, Head of Domestic Intelligence for the FBI, wrote to another official that an "SWP member from 1943-1949 who is currently employed by the NAACP as a labor relations official, has been contacted on several occasions by New York agents and has been cooperative."

Phelps says that while the name was redacted, this points to Hill alone as their informant.  Besides the specific description in the report (NAACP had only one labor relations official), Phelps had tape recorded interviews with Hill before he died in 2004 and Hill gave him other corroborating information. 

Dr. Phelps:  "That a key official of a mainline civil rights organization was assisting the FBI in pinpointing radicals shows how extensive was the federal government's monitoring of social movements.  It is laden with irony that an official dedicated to civil rights for racial equality could simultaneously provide assistance in naming names that would contract political and civil liberties."
Dr. Phelps noted that in the 50's and 60's political dissenters often lost their jobs, faced deportation or other reprisals when identified to the FBI as a result many refused to cooperate.

An Anonymous Phone Call And Monroe, North Carolina

The documents show that Hill was also used by the FBI in their 1962 attempt to obstruct work between the moderate NAACP and the more militant Committee To Aid The Monroe Defendants (CAMD).  This was an organization initiated by SWP members in support of the controversial black advocate of armed self defense Robert F. Williams and the movement he lead in Monroe, North Carolina.

The FBI feared that CAMD would gain legitimacy and power through the support of the NAACP.
The FBI Agent In Charge advised J. Edgar Hoover that an anonymous call should be placed to Herbert Hill complaining about the SWP's involvement with CAMD.  "It is felt that as a disruptive tactic, considerable damage could be done to the SWP by having the NAACP be aware of their controlling influence in CAMD.  Phelps comments, "The FBI's attempts to use Howard Hill is a vivid example of the FBI's practice of opposing the civil rights movement and sowing dissension within it, especially between the militants and moderates.

As a member of the SWP during the 1960's and early 1970's my perspective tends to go to the big picture of which this is a part.  But maybe there is a lesson for the left in these types of revelations.
The SWP was always proud of their upfront work as socialists in the mass movements of the time. Believing in the importance of not being forced to go underground and use codes and secrecy.  Those of us today can see with curiosity the work of the FBI COINTELPRO that we were a victim of and the ultra lefts and reformists who gladly informed on our meetings, our changes of address and their  attempts to sow dissension.  Of course we knew all this but continued doing the work that needed to be done. The SWP is now a different organization and considerably smaller than it was but there are complex reasons why that is but none of them have to do with the attempts by the government to disrupt. All of us who are still around learned the lessons of the time from the prior generation.  That it is important to talk about your ideas, run election campaigns in your own name and always be aware of the betrayals that will come from the reformists.  This is also why those of us who came from that period of history are the best builders of Defense Committees both for ourselves and others.  We will continue to try to be the best builders of the mass movements of our time and whatever organization we are with now will benefit from our knowledge and experience.

1 comment:

ethnicguy said...

A few random thoughts on this issue.

*Hill was a white man living in a Black world, for the most part, and he did a great deal of scholarly work on Black affairs and Black history.

*Hill jumped from the SWP to taking a staff job with the Steel Workers' union. I have met many former Trotskyists who followed the same path.

*The NAACP was officially anti-communist in the late '40s, I believe, and certainly in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hill didn't create the policy.

*Hill's work against discrimination in unions was invaluable to us in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). He relentlessly pursued the racist leadership and practices of the ILGWU and paid a price for it. It's worth noting that in taking on the ILGWU officialdom he was at odds with many former Trotskyists who had gone to work for the union's international affairs department. That department collaborated with the CIA, which seems like a geater sin than informing to the FBI.

*Hill continued to work with the "Third Camp" New Politics magazine for quite awhile. Was NP and the "Third Camp" ultra-leftist? It zig-zagged, I think, between ultra-leftism and social democracy.

*"Labor History" marks the centrist or right wing of modern labor history and its editors have seemed to feel the need to settle scores with anyone who challenged labor officialdom over the years. They are certainly anti-communist. This is not an objective source. Not that "objectivity" is realistic, but we should know what the biases are at work here.

I'm not sure that I have an exact point here, except to comment on how complicated this is. I suppose that one lesson is that the further you got from supporting the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s the greater was the danger of becoming an opportunist.