The History of Linking Black Rights Movements to Russia

Karla Ann Coté
U.S. News /05 Nov 2017

The History of Linking Black Rights Movements to Russia

In September, news broke that the Russian government purchased over 3,000 Facebook ads during the US presidential election cycle. Among those ads was one Black Lives Matter ad that was specifically targeted to Baltimore and Ferguson. The apparent intention behind the purchase of these political ads was to sow discord and chaos within the US.

While concerning that a foreign entity would attempt to influence our election process, equally concerning is the emerging narrative regarding black activists in relation to Russia. Last month a spat of articles appeared in publications ranging from DailyKos to The Atlantic, all carrying the same troubling implication that black activists were merely ‘duped’ into a frenzy over institutional racism and police brutality by the Russians. The overarching theme in these narratives is that the racial divisions in the US are more the product of Russian propaganda than anything else and that groups like Black Lives Matter are merely Russian conduits trolled into caring about racism in America.

There’s no denying that Russia attempted to interfere in our election, but to go from Russia bought a BLM ad to claiming that BLM is a Russian psy-op and that racial tensions in the US were almost entirely manufactured by the Russians takes a considerable leap… one that’s infused with racism.

Last month, writing in an article for the Atlantic, Julia Ioffe not only argued that BLM and like groups were tricked by the Russians, but also that Russia has historically been at the core of race wars in America. Her implication is that black activists only began caring about black lives, the US criminal justice system, and police brutality because the Russians tricked them into doing so.

In what is essentially nothing short of anti-communist screed committed to undermining the plight of African Americans for political gain, Ioffe attempts to rewrite history in a most disingenuous and racist fashion. For example, she points to the Communist Party USA’s early work in fighting for black liberation, not as a party fighting for liberation for blacks and black workers, but as a convoluted ploy by the Russians to spread global Marxism. Ioffe’s attempt to link recent black activism to Russia is not a new tactic and there is a long history of such tactics. For years, opponents of both civil rights and communism have tried to make the link between black rights movements and Russia.

One example that Ioffe uses in her article is the Little Rock Nine. Of this, Ioffe argues that the problem was not inherently that governor Orval Faubus deployed National Guard troops to bar nine black students from entering an integrated school, but rather how the Russian media spun it to attack the US. A central theme of Ioffe’s article is that the problem with racial tensions in the US historically, was not the racial discrimination actively employed by the US government and society, but how the Russians used that discrimination to portray the US negatively. She quotes Mary Dudziak, a legal historian at Emory, who stated, “Early on in the Cold War, there was a recognition that the US couldn’t lead the world if it was seen as repressing people of color.” Again, the problem, according to Ioffe, was not so much that the US was repressing people of color, which it was, but how the Russian government and media portrayed that fact. To Ioffe, the problem isn’t slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, or police beating and turning dogs and firehoses on African Americans, it was how the Russian media exploited that racism in America to ‘undermine western democracy.’

In the 1920s and 1930s while communists and socialists were fighting to help blacks secure civil rights after WWI, there was an effort in light of the Red Scare to link all black liberation movements to communism. In the 30s, the Ku Klux Klan began hanging posters in Alabama which read; “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings.” The Poster ends by requesting that blacks in Alabama, “tell the communist leaders to leave. Report all communist meetings to the Ku Klux Klan.” By rooting out communists who were strongly committed to the black struggle, the KKK and those opposed to black rights could squash any attempts by blacks to try and gain civil rights. The reality is, the CPUSA worked hard to fight for black rights during the 1930s and 1940s at a time when even many Democrats were resistant to joining the cause. Earlier this year in the New York Times, Sarah Jaffe wrote of the CPUSA’s involvement in the fight for black liberation during the Great Depression, “Many of its members came out of the Socialist Party, the labor movement and even anarchist activism, but the party also found a base among African-Americans when Communists proved willing to take on their struggles for self-determination.”

In 1959, during an integration protest by proponents of segregation, a well-known photograph emerged. In the picture, white men can be seen carrying signs that read, “Race Mixing is Communism!” By forcibly connecting racial integration and civil rights to communism, opponents of both could claim that the fight for civil rights was merely a Russian Trojan Horse to spread communism in America, much like we are now seeing with the news of Russia buying Black Lives Matter ads on Facebook.

In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace told the New York Times that President Kennedy, “wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of Pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations.” Wallace was of course one of the fiercest opponents of civil rights in the 60s and played right into the American fears of Russia by trying to paint Dr. King and his movement as being communist. In 1964, when Yale presented Martin Luther King with honorary degree, one self-described “disturbed parent” penned a letter to the Dean of Yale expressing concern with presenting an honorary doctor of law degree to someone who had “violated the law and been in jail all over the country.” At the end of his letter they added, “I am enclosing a picture showing Martin Luther King at a Communist Training School.”

The picture the ‘concerned parent’ was referring to, was an image of Martin Luther King at a Highlander Folk School event, which was then turned into an ad that was posted throughout the South. According to the Briscoe Center for American History at UT-Austin, “the White Citizens Council posted over 200 similar billboards throughout the South in 1965 in an attempt to discredit King by associating him with communism.”

As recent as 2014, Snopes published an article with the headline “Communists Secretly Organizing Black Lives Matter Protests?” The obvious intent to undermine the very real and harsh realities of police brutality could not be more transparent. As Gabby Del Valle wrote in an article for The Outline, “this sensationalized reporting helps no one –– except, of course, those who have a political interest in discrediting valuable, valid, activism.”

History is replete with attempts to undermine black activism and those fighting for civil rights by linking them to Russia and portraying civil rights as a Russian plot to spread communism. To say that blacks only began caring about black lives because of Russia is not only racist, but it also ignores the very real and rampant racism that still exists in America. By asserting that black activists and groups like BLM are merely Russian plants, allows people to dismiss and accept the grotesque injustice that exists within our justice system and police departments as well as in everyday institutions from universities to boutique shops. Using Russia to spread fear and silence movements is a long and tired tactic that has historically been used against labour movements, anti-war movements, and black rights movements. The resurrection of this racist tactic, especially among liberals, should be concerning to all. Police brutality is real. Institutional racism is real. Ask the families of Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, or Terence Crutcher if police brutality is a Russian front designed to create division…

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