Revealed: How UK targeted US civil rights leader in secret campaign | black power movement

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The UK government has targeted US civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael and sought to weaken the Black Power movement with covert disinformation campaigns, recently declassified documents have revealed.

The effort was the work of a secret unit known as the Information Research Department, based in London and part of the Foreign Office, which created and distributed literature from false sources in the part of a larger effort to destabilize Cold War enemies.

Although focused primarily on the Soviet Union and China, left-wing liberation groups and leaders the UK saw as threats to its interests, the findings reveal that the IRD of the late 1960s also sought to counter more diverse targets.

“We can see a large-scale attempt to shape events overseas, but one that moved away from communism and targeted entirely new areas. It shows the scale, scope and scale of Britain’s covert information operations,” said Rory Cormac, an expert in the history of subversion and intelligence who found the material while researching his recent book, How to Stage a Coup: And Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft.

Carmichael giving a speech on Black Power at the Conference on the Dialectics of Liberation at the Roundhouse in London in 1967. Photography: © Horace Ové/Courtesy Horace Ové Archives

The effort against Carmichael, an incendiary orator who traveled to West Africa in part to escape harassment by US law enforcement, was aimed at portraying the prominent Black Power leader as a foreign intruder in Africa who despised the mainlanders.

Based mainly in Guinea from July 1969, the 28-year-old activist had become a strong proponent of socialist and pan-Africanist ideologies, which worried British officials.

The documents show that the IRD created a bogus West African organization called The Black Power – Africa’s Heritage Group, which produced a pamphlet calling Carmichael an “unwitting prophet of America” ​​who had no place on the continent.

“Enough is enough – why Stokely has to go! – and do his thing elsewhere,” the pamphlet read, alleging that Carmichael was “tracing a bloody trail of chaos in the name of Pan-Africanism” and was controlled by Kwame Nkrumah, the pro-independence leader and former president of Ghana who was overthrown in a coup in 1966.

Stokely Carmichael attends a nonviolent student protest in Alabama in June 1967.
Carmichael attends a nonviolent student protest in Alabama in June 1967. Photography: Bettmann Archives/Bettmann

The IRD effort did not attack Carmichael as a pro-Soviet or communist stooge, a hitherto frequent line of attack. Instead, the unit sought to portray its target as a traitor to other Black Power activists with a condescending attitude towards African people.

Coming to Africa, Carmichael had “abandoned the cause” to the United States “which needs him more than we do” and had been arrogant in preaching Black Power to a continent “where it already truly belongs”, the pamphlet states. He also claimed that Carmichael was a “burning zealot”, who seemed to imagine Africans as “savages” and compared him unfavorably to other radical activists who had recently arrived on the continent from the United States, such as Eldridge Cleaver. , one of the first leaders of the Black Panthers. , who lived in Algeria.

“We are able to formulate our own plans for our part in the fight for equal rights and freedom for black people everywhere…and when we launch ‘Black Power’ it will be our own brand ‘African Power’ and not the African-American”. brainchild that Stokely is trying to impose on us,” reads the misrepresentation.

The smear operation against Carmichael received enthusiastic approval from officials at the IRD and elsewhere in the UK government, including the West Africa department of the Foreign Office. It came amid growing concern in Whitehall about the Black Power movement elsewhere in the world as well. The IRD is particularly concerned about the potential influence of the movement in the Caribbean.

Stokely Carmichael at City College of New York, December 1968.
Carmichael at City College of New York in December 1968. Photography: David Fenton/Getty

In February 1969, the IRD learned that a Black Power conference would be held in Bermuda the following August and decided that rather than banning the event, it should attempt to discredit it. British intelligence was asked to provide information on Black Power leaders and any evidence of Soviet, Cuban or Guyanese links to the movement. This was only available through US intelligence services which had begun investigating links between black radicalism in the Caribbean and supporters of Black Power in the United States from around 1968.

The IRD then prepared a series of articles for distribution to newspapers in the Caribbean and elsewhere. These accused the Black Power movement of being exploited by Havana and claimed that the next conference would ruin Bermuda economically.

The IRD also prepared and disseminated an article on Black Power leaders targeting Trinidad. This suggested that the communists were behind the aspirations of Black Power on the island and that outside powers were operating “with the collusion of ambitious locals seeking their own ends”.

Some tactics in Bermuda were rejected for fear of stoking racial tensions, and local Caribbean officials did not support the campaign. “There were limits to what the IRD was prepared to do. In the Caribbean, there were fears that racial tensions could lead to riots and disruption to tourism and thus the wider economy. In general, the IRD was happy to insinuate something without proof but not with an outright lie,” Cormac said.

In 1969, the IRD also created a new fake group: the Organization of African Students for African Power. This was supposed to be based in East Germany and embraced the contemporary radical ideas of the new left, “proclaiming both a scourge” for the capitalist west and the Soviet bloc.

The IRD felt this offered a better platform to “damage opponents” than the outdated nationalist approach, while being difficult to trace back to Britain, as many similar groups had genuinely sprung up by the end of the 1960s. The group attempted to link a wave of assassinations in Africa to the Soviets.

Stokely Carmichael, center, circa 1960-1966.
Stokely Carmichael (centre) circa 1960-66. Photography: Boston Globe/Getty

The British were not the only ones to use such tactics. The KGB committed significant resources to disinformation campaigns throughout the Cold War and achieved significant success. A pamphlet produced by the Soviet service reported accurate American statistics and real cases of racial crimes in order to turn the African public against the United States. It was designed to look like it was written by an African-American organization campaigning against the Ku Klux Klan.

The CIA built extensive networks across sub-Saharan Africa and used cultural ambassadors such as Louis Armstrong as a “Trojan horse” for intelligence gathering.

The agency continued to take an interest in Carmichael after he fled the United States in 1969 and “wrote typed notes on [his]overseas travel during a period when he had disappeared from public view,” revealed a summary of activities published by the agency in 2007.

“The UK effort was much smaller than the American or Soviet effort and more restricted too, but it was far reaching. The UK was doing this all over the world,” Cormac said. information were seen as a force multiplier. Clearly there was an acknowledgment that we were small and in decline, but that it was a smart way to maintain a global role at little cost.

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