Stokely Carmichael and SNCC

Stokely Carmichael

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Chen, Hans H. "LBJ Targeted Black Power Radicals." (May 15, 2000). Retrieved February 20, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

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LBJ Targeted Black Power Radicals

Files Show FBI Secretly Checked Stokely Carmichael's Draft Status

May 15, 2000

By Hans H. Chen

WASHINGTON ( -- The 1966 election of Stokely Carmichael to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee so alarmed President Lyndon Johnson that he ordered the FBI to send him reports on the "black power" activist several times a week, and even inquired about Carmichael's draft status.

The FBI's release of a part of its files on Carmichael fuels the long-standing suspicions of SNCC members that the government sought to silence the civil rights group by sending its leaders to the front lines of the Vietnam War.

Carmichael's FBI file numbers over 18,000 pages and would ordinarily take years to review and release, the FBI said. But after negotiations with, the agency agreed to expedite the publication of the file's first 282 pages.

'Good coverage' wanted

Those pages reveal a pattern of government suspicion, observation and infiltration at the highest levels. Three months after Carmichael's election to lead the civil rights group SNCC, Marvin Watson, a key Johnson aide, called the FBI asking for information on Carmichael and the SNCC.

"Watson stated that the President would like to be reassured that the FBI has good coverage on Carmichael," wrote one of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's aides. "I told him we had excellent sources within this group. Watson also stated that the President would like to have, at least several times a week, a memorandum on the activities of Carmichael and his group."

The level of FBI interest surprised even Julian Bond, the SNCC's former communications director and today the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It seemed obvious to us that the FBI and state and local police had movement people under surveillance," he said, "but I don't think we imagined it was so extensive."

Carmichael died in November 1998 in Africa, where he had lived since 1969. For one year he led SNCC, founded 30 years ago last month, before leaving to join the more radical Black Panthers. To replace Carmichael, the SNCC elected H. Rap Brown, who later changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He became a community activist, but he now stands accused in a March 16 killing of a sheriff's deputy in Atlanta and faces the death penalty.

Under the rallying cry of black power, Carmichael rejected the philosophy of nonviolence that had first motivated the SNCC's founders in 1960, and he called on blacks to win economic and political self-sufficiency. After Carmichael's election, SNCC expelled its white members and abandoned the political alliances earlier civil rights activists had formed with the Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.

Activists felt betrayed by Democrats

Johnson's surveillance of the group also reflected the mutual distrust between Carmichael and the mainstream, white-dominated political system. Two years before Carmichael's election, Johnson had prevented 60 black activists at the 1964 Democratic Presidential Convention from replacing the state's segregationist, all-white regular delegation. Johnson did, however, dispatch 30 FBI agents to monitor every move the SNCC made at the convention, according to Robert Dallek, a Johnson biographer.

This sort of political intrigue, along with the lackadaisical protection the FBI offered civil rights workers, contributed to SNCC's radicalism.

"These kind of events, and the kinds of violence that was put upon workers, made it very clear that if we assumed we had a friend in the White House, that we were probably mistaken," said Cleveland Sellers Jr., who served as SNCC's national program director.

White House's secret request

Carmichael's FBI file also hints at more sinister government machinations. On Sept. 9, 1966, Johnson's secretary called the White House asking about Carmichael's draft status.

"Mrs. Stegall [Johnson's secretary] said the White House was interested in determining precisely what the Selective Service status of Carmichael is and what the facts were which prompted various changes in classification," an FBI official wrote later that day. "She emphasized that under no circumstances was it desired that it be known the White House is interested in [sic] and this should be handled most discretely."

The FBI satisfied Johnson's curiosity by quoting the psychiatrist who performed Carmichael's pre-draft screening in 1965. Carmichael's various arrests for civil disobedience "seem not evident of any inherent anti-social or criminal traits, and I feel from our standpoint, he would rate a 'waiver recommendation.' However, there seems to be homo-sexual tendencies as well as hetero-sexual relationships. I would like to follow this case more closely as far as his further conduct is concerned."

That exam downgraded Carmichael's draft status from I-A, which meant he had been available for military service, to IV-F, meaning he was not qualified.

But nothing else in the declassified portion of Carmichael's file indicates any further evidence of "homo-sexual tendencies," and a second exam in 1966 upgraded his draft status to I-Y, which meant he was only eligible for military service in time of war or national emergency.

To Sellers, who spent four months in jail for draft evasion in 1967, Johnson's inquiry confirmed the feeling at the time that SNCC members were being made available for the draft as retribution for their outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War.

Attacking SNCC with military service

"All of a sudden, it seemed as if all the young men in SNCC were being drafted," Sellers said. "So it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that, systemically, SNCC was under attack by the administration to draft us into the armed services."

Bond said his draft officer even once admitted to a magazine: "'That [expletive] Julian Bond, we let him slip through our fingers.'"

"We always assumed this was a mixture of just local draft boards acting on their own initiative and some kind of orders from on high, saying, 'Get those guys, get those people, get them off the street,'" Bond said.

The FBI documents currently available do not show that Johnson expressly asked for SNCC activists to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, only that Johnson showed an unusual interest in their draft status.

At home, a 'kind of war going on'

While many of SNCC's leaders have gone on to become leaders in mainstream society, many more conservative Americans of the 1960s looked at the SNCC's radicalism, rejection of nonviolence and opposition to the Vietnam War with alarm. Carmichael's file includes several letters from Americans who called on Hoover to arrest or deport Carmichael, who was born in Trinidad but had been naturalized as a child.

Many at the time also feared SNCC's growing black separatism would lead to even worse racial conflicts. Riots had already erupted in several cities by 1964, including Philadelphia and New York. The mostly black Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles went up in flames one year later.

Johnson had embraced the mainstream civil rights movement and pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But he, too, feared that the SNCC could foster more violence and believed it had been infected by communism. To Johnson, these beliefs justified the group's surveillance, said Dallek, the author of a two-volume biography of the former president.

"In the context of what was going on in the country and in the context of the suspicions that had been generated in the administration, you had this kind of impulse to investigate and probe and look over people's shoulders and keep track of those they thought had ties to radicalism," Dallek said. "There was kind of war going on, a kind of domestic civil conflict."

Hans H. Chen is an staff writer (

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