State Repression in the Black Power Era

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Crime and Violence; Race


Three decades ago Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s landmark collection, The COINTELPRO Papers, carved out a space in scholarship on the 20th century Black Revolt to interrogate state repression. More recently, scholarship from Mark Krasovic, William Corson, Annelise Orleck, Kenneith O’Reilly, Robyn Spencer, Alan Altshuler and others have opened lines of inquiry into local urban police departments and red squads, welfare departments, military intelligence, and the longer history of the FBI’s assault on Black freedom efforts. Not just FBI director J. Edgar Hoover but also red squads, welfare bureaucrats, beat cops, and elected officials all brought the full and often violent weight of the state to bear upon every dimension of the Black Revolt.

This panel sees itself in concert with this growing body of scholarship. Now that the state, in various guises, is widely understood to have played a pivotal role in the suppression of Black Power and related movements, scholars must turn their attention to the localized dimensions of state suppression and connect the dots across local, state and national borders. The four papers of this panel will interrogate the dimensions of state repression in the Black Power era, while the chair and commentator will make those connections. Burgin’s paper takes a long view of Judge George Crockett, Jr.’s experiences by connecting the repression he experienced as a defense lawyer during the first Smith Act trial to the state’s interference in his bids for public office in the 1960s. As a student-activist and Newark native Komozi Woodard studied the contest between Black liberation and several counter-revolutionary strategies; he will reflect on these experiences which he sees as essential to understanding the history of the Black Revolt. Levy’s paper examines the death of Ralph Featherstone, the SNCC leader who was killed by a car bomb on March 9, 1970, in Bel Air, Maryland, where H. Rap Brown’s trial for inciting a riot had been moved and was scheduled to begin the following day. Though government officials immediately claimed that Featherstone and his compatriot, William Payne, had blown themselves up, a wide array of activists contended he had been assassinated and charged local, state, and federal officials, with covering up the truth. Hill’s paper explores the repression of the Nation of Islam chapter in Rochester, NY, part of a broader campaign of repression launched by local authorities against black activists.

All told, by attending to localized efforts, these papers speak to many of the strategies that historians have discovered were central to state repression – including infiltration, violence and surveillance. However, they also insist on a plethora of other strategies that included developing cozy relationships with media outlets and conservative groups, the disruption of democratic processes inside and out of the US, and crossing nation-state borders to do all of the above.

Papers Presented

Reflections on Counter-Revolution and Repression

I’ve been researching repression of Malcolm X and the black power movement (including myself) as one of three prongs in a strategy of counterrevolution in response to the black revolt: when I was a school boy, I stumbled upon an old pamphlet on agent provocateurs and then Henry Bienen’s Violence and Social Change: A Review of Current Literature (1968). In brief, the political establishment studied our strategies and in turn we studied theirs—that needs to be factored into the history of that period in the black revolt.

Presented By
Komozi Woodard, Sarah Lawrence College; History, Public Policy & Africana Studies

State Repression of the Nation of Islam in Rochester, NY, and Beyond

In 1963 the city of Rochester, New York put fifteen members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) on trial for charges ranging from felonious riot to assault. Two months prior, police had forced their way into an NOI mosque, disrupting a religious service. Police claimed they were responding to “an anonymous tip” of “a man with a gun.” When members of the NOI attempted to block the police and their dogs from entering, the police arrested the two Muslims on the spot, while a grand jury would later indict seventeen more. This incident was an opening salvo in a larger campaign of state repression meant to drive the burgeoning Rochester chapter of the NOI out of existence. Local police and fire officials would continue to harass the men at their services, demanding entrance, while the courts would try these men no fewer than four times over the course of a year, adding unlawful assembly charges when it seemed they would not be able to convict on the assault and felonious riot charges. While the police state in Rochester claimed it was responding to a crime wave instigated by the Nation of Islam, the larger black community saw an attempt to curb the newly emboldened and unified black movement. Locally, that movement had instituted a Police Review Board (1962), made inroads with Malcolm X, and on the state level, lent support to NOI inmates who were suing New York State for constitutional protections for their religion in the prison system.

Presented By
Laura L Warren Hill, Bloomfield College

Of Judges, Agents, and the Citizenry: Repressing George Crockett Jr.

This paper examines the state repression experienced by George Crockett Jr. during his work as a defense attorney, law partner, civil rights movement counsel and elected judge in the 1950s and 1960s. Crockett made a name for himself as the only African American lawyer to defend Communist party leaders in the Smith Act trials that began in 1949. When Judge Harold Medina cited Crockett and all other defense attorneys with contempt of court at the trial’s end, Crockett rose and declared that he “regarded it as a badge of honor to be adjudicated in contempt for vigorously prosecuting what I believe to be the proper conception of the American Constitution.” Thusly he met with his first major experience of state repression. Over the next two decades, the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept close tabs on Crockett, surveilling the interracial law firm he helped found and frustrating his attempts at elected office. When he ran for a Common Council seat in 1965 in Detroit, the FBI’s Detroit office mailed anonymous letters to conservative groups, providing them fodder with which to red-bait him. Crockett’s bid failed that year. The state aimed to kill his campaign again the following year when he ran for Detroit’s Recorder’s Court, but Crockett emerged the victor. What the long history of Crockett’s experiences with state repression reveals, I argue, is that the executive branch could not subdue political activities on its own. It needed judges, police officers, media outlets, and eager citizens.

Presented By
Say Burgin, Dickinson College

Who Killed Ralph Featherstone? State Repression, Media Complicity, and the “Neutralization” of the Black Left

On March 9, 1970, Ralph Featherstone and William “Che” Payne were killed when a bomb exploded in the car they were driving, in Bel Air, Maryland, where H. Rap Brown’s trial for inciting a riot was to convene the following day. Almost immediately, state and federal authorities, including J. Edgar Hoover, declared that Featherstone and Payne had blown themselves up and cast their deaths as part of a broader wave of bombings instigated by radicals. Although a wide swath of civil rights figures challenged this explanation and demanded an in-depth investigation into the bombing, none was forthcoming. Several scholars, from Clayborne Carson to Akinyele Umoja, have touched on Feathersone’s death but, to date, none have investigated it thoroughly or placed it in the context of broader efforts to neutralize the black left. Building on previously classified documents, this paper will explore the state’s and the media’s role in Featherstone’s death. There can be little doubt that state officials resisted launching a thorough investigation of the bombing, lest it lead to questions about its repressive efforts. Concomitantly, the national media, often cast as a defender of civil liberties and rights, served as an accomplice. Carl Bernstein, soon of Watergate fame, wrote the Washington Post’s initial story on the bombing but pursued the story no further despite clear flaws in the state’s explanation. And numerous prominent journalists fed the frame up that Featherstone was an out-of-control revolutionary who had blown himself up.

Presented By
Peter Barbin Levy, York College of Pennsylvania

Session Participants

Chair: Michael O. West, African diaspora
Michael O. West is professor of Sociology, Africana Studies and History at Binghamton University. He has published broadly in the fields of southern African history, pan-Africanism, African studies, African diaspora studies, and African American studies. His current research centers on the Black Power movement in global perspectives.

Presenter: Say Burgin, Dickinson College
Say Burgin is an Assistant Professor of History at Dickinson College. Her research and teaching interests include race, gender and social movements in the 20th century US, particularly the women’s liberation and Black Power movements. She is currently writing a book on the Black Power movement and the myth of white ejection. Her work has appeared in the Journal of American Studies, the Women’s History Review, the Journal of International Women’s Studies, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, and the edited volume The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South (NYU Press, 2019). She is a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society. With Jeanne Theoharis and Jessica Murray, she co-created Rosa Parks’ Biography: A Resource for Teaching Rosa Parks (, a digital humanities project and tool for educators. Burgin graduated from St. Olaf College with a BA in English and Women’s Studies in 2006, before working as a community organizer on Pittsburgh’s Northside for two years. She received her MA in Race & Resistance in 2009 and PhD in History in 2013 – both from the University of Leeds, England. After teaching at the University of Leeds for four years, she joined the faculty at Dickinson College in 2017.

Presenter: Laura L Warren Hill, Bloomfield College
Laura Warren Hill is an Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Bloomfield College, in Bloomfield, NJ. She is the author of Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: Rochester’s Black Freedom Struggle, 1940-1970 (Cornell University Press, April 2020). She is the co-editor (with Julia Rabig) of The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism and Corporate America in the Postwar Era (University of Rochester Press, 2012). She authored “We Are Black Folks First: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY and the Making of Malcolm X” published in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. Professor Hill has also contributed a chapter entitled “’Let Those Negroes Have Their Whiskey’: White Responses in a Decade of Racial Unrest” to The Strange Careers of Jim Crow: Segregation and Struggle Outside the South, eds. Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis, with Komozi Woodard (New York University Press, 2019).

Professor Hill frequently attends and presents at conferences, including the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH); the Urban History Association (UHA); the Organization of American Historians (OAH); and Researching New York, among others. She has authored posts for Black Perspectives, the online blog of the African American Intellectual History Association and served as a reviewer for several presses and journals. She has written book reviews for The Black Scholar, the Oral History Review, the Journal of African American History, Enterprise and Society, and the Journal of American History

Professor Hill was selected as a participant in the NEH Summer Seminar, Rethinking Black Freedom Studies from the Jim Crow North to the Jim Crow West in 2015, organized by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward.

Presenter: Peter Barbin Levy, York College of Pennsylvania
Dr. Peter B. Levy is Full Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at York College of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on Recent America, the Civil Rights Movement, and Race and Justice. He is the author of numerous books and articles His most recent publications include: The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s (Cambridge University Press, 2018), The Seedtime, The Work, and The Harvest: New Perspectives on the Black Freedom Struggle In America, edited by Littlejohn, Levy, and Ellis, (University Press of Florida, 2018), “The Media and H. Rap Brown: Friend or Foe of Jim Crow” in The Strange Careers of Jim Crow, edited by Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis (NYU Press, 2019), “Gloria Richardson and the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland,” in Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, edited by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (NYU Press, 2005), and “The Dream Deferred: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Holy Week Uprising of 1968,” in Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City, edited by Jessica Elfeinbein, Thomas Hollawak, and Elizabeth Nix (Temple University Press, 2011. He has been the recipient of the a variety of awards and honors from two NEH Summer Seminars, at the W.E. B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University (2014) and Sarah Lawrence College and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (2016), respectively to an NEH Institute on Doing Digital History, held at George Mason University (2015). Levy earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University (1986) and his B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley (1978).

Commentator: Quito Swan, University of Massachusetts Boston
Quito J. Swan is a Professor of African Diaspora History at Howard University. The author of Black Power in Bermuda (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), his scholarship is focused on twentieth century Black internationalism. His forthcoming book, Pauulu's Diaspora (University Press of Florida, 2020), explores the global relationships between Black Power and environmental justice. His next book project is titled Pacifica Black: Black Internationalism and Oceania (New York University Press, Black Power Series, eds. Ashley Farmer and Ibram X. Kendi). Swan's research has received national fellowships from Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Indiana University, and UT-Austin's Harry Ransom Center. He is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he is completing Oceania’s Rising, a public policy and book project on environmental justice, social movements and climate change in contemporary Oceania. Along with Keisha Blain, he is the co-editor of the University of Illinois's Black Internationalism book series.

Presenter: Komozi Woodard, Sarah Lawrence College; History, Public Policy & Africana Studies
Komozi Woodard is Professor of History, Public Policy and Africana Studies at Sarah Lawrence College; he attended Princeton, Andover, Dickinson, the New School, Rutgers, Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania. Woodard was managing editor of Unity & Struggle and Black Newark newspaper and radio program in the Black Power Movement, Main Trend journal in the Black Arts Movement and Manhattan’s Children’s Express before writing and editing these volumes:A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics; The Making of the New Ark; The Black Power Movement: Amiri Baraka from Black Arts to Black Radicalism, Freedom North, Groundwork, Black Power 50 and Want to Start a Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle?. Komozi Woodard & Jeanne Theoharis curate Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Culture and Research in Harlem.