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  • Baldwin once called Hoover

    Baldwin once called Hoover "history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur." | Photo: MDC Archives

Published 20 June 2017

Baldwin was part of the upsurge of writers and artists that were tied to the Black Liberation struggle. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had a 1,884-page file on prominent writer and LGBTQ icon James Baldwin, collected between the 1960s and early 1970s.

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It also collected documents on other writers, like a 110-page file on Truman Capote and 276 pages on Richard Wright. The size of the file apparently depended on activism and links to other radicals. Baldwin's file is half the size of Malcolm X, for instance.

Baldwin first piqued the FBI's interest in 1960 for being “connected with several Communist Party front groups,” among other reasons. But he was also targeted for his links to the Black liberation movement and his sexual orientation. Baldwin's 1963 polemic essay, "The Fire Next Time," became a manifesto of the Civil Rights Movement.

Baldwin’s bureau file was collected between 1958 and 1974 and is deemed as one of the most exhaustive and detailed accounts of the Black writer-activist. The FBI ghostreaders documented minute details such as his international travels, his sexual and political affinities, and his literary output, also noting the purchase of many of his titles for the FBI library.

Institutionalized surveillance by the FBI, CIA and the NSA over the years has been actively used to suppress political dissent. According to a 1968 document, Baldwin “had joined a growing movement of prominent individuals supporting the struggle of Oakland’s Black Panther Party.”

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He was friends with the most prominent Black activists and thinkers of the time like Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone. Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI opened files on some 250 artists, in its efforts to contain the growing Black Liberation movement through its covert Counter Intelligence Program or Cointelpro, that was launched with the aim of infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting the anti-government organizations and activists.

Baldwin was extremely vocal against state surveillance. Early in 1945, Baldwin wrote an essay, "The Devil Finds Work," about his experience of being accosted by two agents, how they walked him out of a diner, stood him against a wall and showered verbal abuse at him, under the pretense of trying to track down a deserter from the U.S. Marines. Hoover is famously quoted saying, “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”

Baldwin once called Hoover "history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur."

In 1963, he wrote, "A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana: A Tragi-comical Memorabilia of HUAC" (House Un-American Activities Committee), in which he referred to the committee as "one of the most sinister facts of the national life." The same year, Baldwin told the New York Times, “I blame J. Edgar Hoover in part for events in Alabama. Negroes have no cause to have faith in the FBI.”

U.S. surveillance continues today, with people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning courageously revealing the insidious role the CIA and the NSA continue to play in the lives of internet users.

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