The John Hope Franklin File: FBI Looked At Esteemed Historian For Communist Ties

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The celebrated historian John Hope Franklin was scrutinized by the FBI in the 1960s for supposed links to communists, particularly his opposition to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and his vocal support for W.E.B. Du Bois.

“Dr. Franklin is an apologist for the late Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent crusader for civil rights and a sponsor of communist fronts who joined the Communist Party at the age of 93,” wrote an unidentified FBI official in a letter to the White House in July 1965.

Franklin’s file, obtained by TPMmuckraker through the Freedom of Information Act, is mainly a collection of background checks conducted when he was up for presidential appointments (though the FBI withheld 18 pages of the 515-page file). The author of the classic From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, Franklin died in May at 94.

He was appointed by President Kennedy to the Board of Foreign Scholarships in 1962 and his background checks show universally glowing praise from friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

But that wasn’t enough for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Almost dripping off the pages are overheated Cold War suspicions about Franklin’s links, even two or three degrees removed, to communists.

Among the topics addressed in the files are: a favorable review of one of his books in the American Communist Party’s Daily Worker in 1956; Franklin’s signature on a petition against the McCarthy-era Committee on Un-American Activities, printed in the New York Times; his praise for a book by the Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker; his support for the Chicago school boycotts protesting segregated schools; and a 1968 speech he gave in Madison, Wisconsin, sponsored by Concerned Black People, a group with “Communist Party affiliations” that “openly opposed United States foreign policy in Vietnam.”

Of particular interest to the FBI was Franklin’s speech at a tribute to Du Bois at Carnegie Hall in early 1964, several months after Du Bois’ death in Ghana. Franklin’s presence generated a brief report by the bureau’s New York office. Then, in 1965, a memo from the FBI’s Chicago office, quotes Franklin’s remarks about Du Bois — who had joined the Communist Party in the last years of his life — to the black journal Freedomways and the Nation of Islam publication Muhammad Speaks.

“Dr. Du Bois has been an inspiration to me and to most members of my generation. … His impeccable scholarship, his fearlessness as a leader,and his determination to secure freedom for all peoples, were the hallmarks of his great and illustrious life,” Franklin said.

Referencing the failed prosecution of Du Bois for antiwar activism (under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), Franklin told Muhammad Speaks in 1964: “I wish I could eradicate from my memory the picture of Dr. Du Bois, handcuffed like some common thief, accused at eighty years of age of being the agent of a foreign power. Even his later exoneration cannot obliterate from my mind the impression that, perhaps he was the victim not merely of the fanatacism that characterized those years, but that he was being punished for what he had represented for more than half a century.”

For such statements, Franklin was viewed suspiciously by the bureau. One 1965 memo from the FBI director requesting an updated background check ends with: “Appropriate informants familiar with CP and communist front activities should be contacted during the investigation.”

Take a look at an excerpt from the FBI’s Franklin file here.

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