In the wake of the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection by supporters of then‐President Donald Trump, you can pretty much bet if you make even a clearly joking reference to “going after” House or Senate members, there’s a vastly increased chance you’ll get a visit from the FBI. As we prepare to close out Black History Month for 2021, it’s worth remembering that the lives of all House and Senate members were not valued equally in an early time.
Today, I have a piece up on the DRAD blog about the first African American House member elected to Congress in the 20th Century: Oscar De Priest. De Priest was the son of freed slaves, and as you can read in my DRAD blog piece, he got exactly the kind of racist treatment from Southern Democrats like John Rankin (D-MS) and Thomas Busby (D-MS). What made his Congressional experience even worse was getting a death threat from an anonymous, avowed KKK member warning De Priest to “leave this town right away” or else. As I noted on the DRAD blog:
On March 3, 1930 (the same day he received the threat letter), De Priest forwarded the correspondence to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, telling him “Any consideration or investigation given this matter will be appreciated by me.” Three days later, Hoover wrote back to De Priest to tell him that “Inasmuch as this matter is one coming within the jurisdiction of the postal authorities, I have taken the liberty of forwarding your communication to the Chief Post Office Inspector.”
Hoover’s referral to Chief Post Office Inspector W. R. Spilman reflected indifference, not a sense of urgency that a sitting member of the House of Representatives had received a threat of violence in the mail. “There is attached hereto for your information and for such action as, in your discretion, may be deemed appropriate…” Hoover wrote Spilman, giving no indication the Bureau was paying any further attention to the threat.
As I further note in the DRAD blog piece, the FBI definitely continued to keep tabs on De Priest even after he left Congress. According to an October 30, 2020 FOIA response I received from the FBI, at least two additional Classification 100 (Domestic Security) files dealing with De Priest were transferred to the National Archives; I have a FOIA pending for those files.
The sad reality is that the FBI’s penchant for monitoring people on the basis of their skin color is not simply a historical artifact from the 1930s when De Priest was in the House. As the extract below from the FBI’s Classification Guide (also obtained via FOIA by Cato) shows, contrary to prior FBI claims they have not expunged characterizations such as “Black Separatist Extremists” from its IT systems.