1960s US civil rights official revealed as FBI informer

23 Nov 2012 10:55:01.893


New research by an American historian at The University of Nottingham could rewrite the history books on the US civil rights movement during the 1960s after revealing that a key racial equality official was also an FBI informer.

Herbert Hill was the highly respected national labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for more than two decades and is traditionally remembered as a major force in the fight to eliminate racial discrimination within the American trade union movement.

The shocking revelation that at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s Hill informed on socialists he knew in his youth has come to light during Dr Christopher Phelps’ analysis of Freedom of Information Act releases now digitally archived and publically available on the FBI website.


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A surprising liaison uncovered

The research, just published in the journal Labor History, focuses attention on memoranda in the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or Counter-Intelligence Program, to disrupt and neutralize the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which the federal government had classified as “subversive.” Hill belonged to the SWP during the Second World War and after, resigning in 1949.

In May 1962, W.C. Sullivan, head of domestic intelligence for the FBI, wrote to another high-ranking FBI official that an ‘SWP member during the period 1943-1949 who is currently employed by the NAACP as a labor relations official’ had been ‘contacted on several occasions by New York Agents and has been cooperative.’

Phelps, Associate Professor in the University’s Department of American and Canadian Studies, said that while Hill’s name was redacted in the documents, every indication points to him alone as the cooperative informant referred to by top FBI officials. Phelps conducted tape-recorded interviews with Hill, who died in 2004, before the FBI connection was known, in which Hill supplied corroborating information used by Phelps to draw the connection.

‘Extensive federal monitoring’

Dr Phelps explained: “That a key official of the mainline civil rights organization in the United States was assisting the FBI in pinpointing political radicals is a significant revelation that shows how extensive was the federal government’s monitoring of social movements, including within the civil rights movement — so often taken to be a shining example of American democracy.” 

“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,” said Phelps.

Dr Phelps observed that political dissenters in the 1950s and 1960s often lost their jobs, faced deportation, or experienced other reprisals when identified by the FBI as radicals, so that many chose to refuse to cooperate with its investigations.

An anonymous call

In addition to informing on socialists, documents show that Hill was unwittingly used by the FBI in a 1962 attempt to obstruct a suspected fraternisation between the moderate NAACP and the more militant Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants (CAMD), an organization initiated by SWP members in support of the controversial black advocate of armed self-defence Robert F. Williams and the movement he led in Monroe, North Carolina. The FBI feared that the CAMD, a group formed to help Robert F. Williams and other black defendants in a complicated racial riot and kidnapping case, would gain legitimacy and power through support of the NAACP. 

The Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the New York FBI office advised his fiercely anti-Communist FBI boss, J.Edgar Hoover, in 1962, that an anonymous telephone call should be placed to Hill complaining about the SWP’s involvement with the CAMD: ‘It is felt that as a disruptive tactic, considerable damage could be done to the SWP by having the NAACP aware of the controlling influence over the CAMD.’

Phelps said, “The FBI’s attempts to make use of Herbert Hill supply a vivid example of the FBI’s general practice under J. Edgar Hoover of actively but covertly opposing the civil rights movement and of sowing dissension within it, especially between black militants and moderates.”       

This new revelation comes in the wake of controversy in the United States over a journalist’s revelation that a Japanese-American member of the Black Panther Party (an African-American socialist revolutionary party advocating black armed self-defence), Richard Aoki, was a paid FBI informer.

Dr Christopher Phelps’ research paper, ‘Herbert Hill and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’ is available from the contacts below.

A video interview with Dr Phelps is available on The University of Nottingham’s YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKzzyYw2aUY  and iTunesU http://itunesu.nottingham.ac.uk/media/Culture/History/video/Herbert_Hill.mp4  

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Christopher Phelps, Department of American & Canadian Studies, christopher.phelps@nottingham.ac.uk

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