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Resisting Repression: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Age of Global Surveillance

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Scholar in Residence, W.E.B. Du Bois Center, UMass Amherst

To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of W. E. B. Du Bois’s death in 2013, New York City artist Ann Messner created an installation at UMass Amherst titled “DuBois: The FBI Files.” Messner’s work addressed federal surveillance of the black radical scholar in the McCarthy era of ferocious anticommunism. She downloaded and printed all 800 pages of Du Bois’s file for the project. Her exhibit featured nearly 500 feet of Du Bois’s file placed on a long, slender 22-foot rectangular wooden table. The singular sheets Messner chose for the exhibit present some of the most heavily redacted, or inked out, parts of the file. The heart of her piece literally excised the redactions, what she called “the removal of the removal.” Messner placed the redacted lines of excised paper next to the rectangular holes her excisions made. The visuality of the removed redactions served as a reminder that the attempted erasure of Du Bois’s radicalism carried out by the FBI is a history that cannot be erased.


Messner’s stunning art provides a point departure to draw on Readex’s recently digitized Twentieth-Century Global Perspectives collection which also renders visible, to an even greater extent than his FBI file, Du Bois’s encounters with the surveillance state. In what follows, I explore the history behind federal surveillance of Du Bois during the Cold War. By “federal” in this essay I refer to the FBI and the CIA, but most especially open source intelligence files that Readex digitized, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Reports (FBIS) and the Joint Publications Research Service Reports (JPRS). I organize my historical analysis around the idea of being watched, or what literary scholar Simone Browne terms “the surveillance of blackness” in her book Dark Matters.[1]



My article has two parts. The first portion considers what it means to say that the U.S. government watched Du Bois. What does the historical record of Du Bois’s surveillance files unveil about federal interest in this black radical intellectual? What exactly did they watch, and how did they keep tabs on Du Bois’s words both in print and in person? How did they track the political and cultural circles in which he moved, especially the communist and socialist circles of his second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, whom he had wed in 1951? The second half of my essay explores what I call the “subjectivity of surveillance.” Through Du Bois’s writings it chronicles the existential and psychic burden of being watched while examining the emotional and intellectual sustenance provided by supporters and comrades.


Federal surveillance of Du Bois began during World War I. The Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s progenitor, along with the Military Intelligence Division targeted his criticism of racism in the U.S. Army and investigated other militant African Americans over fears about pro-German sentiments. Officials within the U.S. Army possessed deep anxiety about potentially subversive material published in The Crisis magazine, the NAACP’s main publication for which Du Bois served as editor from 1910 until 1934. They feared that publicizing racial grievances of African Americans in the Armed Forces—all stoked by radical magazines like The Crisis—could generate disloyalty and potentially foster antiwar and increase antiracist opinion.[2]

According to its files, the FBI’s documented surveillance of Du Bois began on May 1, 1942. At the time he was 74 years old and worked as a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. There in classes he taught and through research he conducted Du Bois refined his leftist commitments to economic democracy and political equality through incisive thinking about socialism and Marxism, an orientation about which the FBI took a keen interest during the Cold War. The Bureau observed that Du Bois “leans to the writings and beliefs of the Socialist.” They found that “he is impressed with the success of Russia and of Communism.” 

A lecture trip to California over a decade later in 1953 illustrates the degree to which the FBI kept eyes and ears on his movements. In February, at events sponsored by the Southern California Peace Crusade he delivered several talks organized around a Negro History Week theme. A speech in Los Angeles addressed the subject of peace and freedom in Africa and its relationship to the black freedom struggle in the U.S. While in the speech he offered a brief overview of black political history in the U.S., he cautioned that political progress without economic equality spelled destruction. In communitarian perspective, he observed that the fate of freedom movements abroad, especially decolonization struggles in Africa, determined the future of freedom for black people in the United States. Du Bois recommended the pursuit of “united social effort for the common good so that decently fed, healthy, and intelligent people can be sure of work, not afraid of old age, and hold high their heads to think and say what they damn please without fear of liars, informers, or a sneaking FBI.” While the topic of Du Bois’s presentation referenced world peace and Africa, he also tied the subject of revolt to the domestic arena by putting the surveillance state in his intellectual crosshairs through a resolute proclamation of freedom of speech and thought.

Du Bois’s convictions about speaking truth to power, and his involvement in the peace movement and antinuclear activism in the 1950s prompted the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and the Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) to sweep up information about him. The FBIS and JPRS established listening and research posts throughout the world to intercept non-English language radio transmissions about the United States. Daily reports translated, transcribed, and then disseminated transmissions to various agencies and partners to carry out U.S. government planning and operations during the Cold War and thereafter. Starting in the early 1940s, the FBIS operated under the umbrella of the Federal Communications Commission. During World War II and the Cold War, it became part of the U.S. Army’s intelligence operations and eventually part of the CIA. The JPRS was a Cold War era creation that functioned first as part of the Department of Commerce’s technical operations to intercept a wide variety of information about subjects like science, business, and education. Eventually the FBIS and JPRS merged under the broad umbrella of U.S. surveillance.[3]


A large amount of intercepted transmissions from the late 1950s document how federal assets tracked W. E. B. and Shirley’s movements across the planet. They commenced a world lecture tour and study of global conditions during 1958 and 1959 that included stops in places such as London, Holland, Russia, and China. The Du Boises delivered addresses and lectures during their travels. The met with national leaders, heads of state, and prominent intellectuals and scholars. Hosts held dinners in their honor, and toasted their scholarship, activism, and unwavering devotion to freedom and liberation. Such reception of two black radicals in Communist nations during the Cold War stoked grave concern in the eyes of the U.S. federal officials. Readex’s digital collection Propaganda and the Chinese Press offers a rich archive of materials related to the W. E. B. and Shirley’s visits to China in 1959. The expansive primary sources in this collection reveal how the U.S. government watched Du Bois in China.

According to one FBIS report, at a welcome dinner in Peking the host announced that “Dr. Dubois had made great contributions to the struggle for world peace, against racial prejudice, and for the progress of mankind . . . The Chinese people have always cherished respect and warm love for Dr. Dubois.” The reciprocal respect between the Du Boises and their Chinese counterparts also included “toasts for friendship between the Chinese, American, and African peoples, and to the Negro people in the United States.” While such gestures befit formal state dinners, intercepted transmissions of proposed alliances between Africans, Chinese, and African American radicals during the Cold War invited increased scrutiny from U.S. officials. After Shirley’s words of welcome at the dinner, the report stated that the Du Boises broke into a duet of “I Ain’t Going to Study War No More.”


A highlight of the Du Boises visit to China was a massive 91st birthday celebration held for W. E. B. in late February 1959. The FBIS transmission reported that Chinese “symbols of longevity” flooded the banquet hall. Speakers lauded Du Bois’s anti-imperialism and his advocacy for peace and socialism, especially highlighting activities of his career during the 1940s and 1950s. China Peace Committee director Kuo Mo-jo linked Du Bois’s Asia visit to a Cold War, transnational context. “In such an inclement political atmosphere marked with deceit and tyranny,” he stated, “Dr. Dubois has struggled relentlessly for several decades. This is a brilliant demonstration of the desire of the American people for peace and righteousness.” Du Bois had an equal depth of affection for Kuo Mo-jo. He dedicated his poem “I Sing to China” to him.[4] Another FBIS briefing two weeks after this celebration noted Du Bois’s lecture at Peking University on the history of Africa, and praised W. E. B. and Shirley’s inquisitive disposition during their visit. 

While the FBIS and JPRS reports document the U.S. surveillance state’s global reach to trace Du Bois’s movements, records from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Du Bois’s papers at UMass Amherst disclose yet another level of international scrutiny under which he lived. Records show four memoranda from the CIA to the FBI, one from April 1954, two from 1962, and another from mid-1963, only weeks before Du Bois died. Two of the reports were interagency courtesy communications of newspaper clippings that covered Du Bois’s return visit to China in 1962, and his decision to request Ghanaian citizenship in 1963. The other reports relayed intelligence from informants about Du Bois’s Pan-African philosophy and activities that aimed to create political alliances between African-descended people throughout the world. The Agency expressed concern over plans for another Pan-African congress, what it feared was the “brain-child of the American Negro, Dr. Du Bois,” who the CIA described as someone “well-known for his Communist sympathies.” The accumulated focus of the CIA records disclose that federal eyes and ears were apoplectic about Du Bois’s black radical international connections, and the power his opinion held across the world among people of color.[5]

If Du Bois’s FBI file, as well as CIA records, offer several ways to contemplate what it meant for the federal government to watch him, another fruitful avenue of understanding is to humanize the experience of surveillance. The remainder of my essay accounts for what I call the subjectivity of surveillance—in other words the existential and psychic labor Du Bois performed in response to being watched.

Towards the end of his posthumously published Autobiography, which he subtitled A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, Du Bois reflected on how the close eye of federal officials shaped the subjectivity of surveillance. “The secret police swarmed in my neighborhood asking about my visitors; whether I entertained and whom,” he wrote of the Brooklyn home in which he resided throughout the 1950s. “My mail was tampered with or withheld,” and “A whispering campaign continually intimated that some hidden treason or bribery could be laid at my door. . . I was classed as a ‘controversial figure.’” References to the surveillance of Du Bois’s home, tampering with his mail, and domestic spying were not the ramblings of a paranoid person; they disclosed the ongoing psychic cost of living under a federal microscope for possessing socialist convictions in a rabidly anticommunist society.[6]

The FBI often shuffled through Du Bois’s mail to ferret out his travel schedule and speaking engagements, or better determine the wide circle of peace groups with which he was involved. Postal problems plagued Du Bois into his 90s. Seven Seas, a German publisher, only received the manuscript for his book ABCs of Color after six months of correspondence between the U.S. Postal Service in both Brooklyn and Washington, D. C. in which he requested a track on the overseas package he sent by certified mail.[7]

Upon returning to New York in 1959 from the global trip discussed above, Shirley met W. E. B. at the airport. She became very concerned when it took her husband an especially long time to get through Customs. In her book titled His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois, she recalled that for two hours “he had been taken into a small room and searched—every item removed from his bags; every piece of paper scrutinized.” When Shirley pressed him on the difficulty of that moment, he downplayed its severity matter-of-factly. “Stop worrying, darling,” she remembered him saying, “I haven’t been harmed. Such things happen in a police state. This is a fact we have to face.”[8]

While the effect of privacy violations was a burden that Du Bois bore, comrades who stood with him in struggles for freedom lifted his spirits and energized his efforts towards peace. Several poems he received in 1951 uncover the integral role creative encouragement played in his subjectivity of surveillance.

Nat Bond of Durham, North Carolina, a Communist Party member and writer for Paul Robeson’s magazine Freedom, sent him an 8-stanza poem, “To W. E. B.—From the People.” Bond placed Du Bois—a “Bard of Freedom”—within a broad roster of American political heroes (e.g., Tom Paine, Emerson, Whitman, etc.), but specified his relationship to black history. “Through your life the deeds of Douglass reign/In your voice, we hear so clear/The quiet rush of Harriet’s Freedom Train.”[9]

Jewish feminist and literary icon Eve Merriam’s poem deployed nature imagery to depict the strength of Du Bois’s political convictions as a “freedom tree” and a “topmost tower of peace,” a moral fastidiousness that was no match for “the lyncher’s knife nor the bayonet greased by gold.” She depicted his supporters who “with our hands in working brotherhood” will create a “green archway to the future,” thus ending on a note of possibility. [10]

As the records of W. E. B. Du Bois’s relationship to federal surveillance document, being watched is a form of insidious intrusion with deep historical roots and contemporary significance. The FBI and CIA, along with the FBIS and JPRS, cast a sprawling network of informants who eventually created a massive record of his thoughts, words, and travels, in essence a surveillance archive of the wider black radical international networks of which he was a part. At the same time, the subjectivity of surveillance mounted a heavy psychic load that required grappling with constant federal obtrusion and fear of recrimination. Attempts to squelch Du Bois’s socialist convictions ultimately proved fruitless. However, in true dialectical fashion, his indomitable mind and insurgent spirit defied federal efforts to silence his voice. In the end, during the era of Cold War surveillance, Du Bois’s freedom dreams resisted repression.



I thank audiences at Sam Houston State University, Mason Library, and The Governor’s Academy for insightful comments and questions on previous versions of this article. I also thank Edward Carson, Bernadette Pruitt, Jeff Littlejohn, and Stephany Rose for their thoughtful feedback as well. Finally, I’m grateful to Ann Messner for permission to use an image from her artwork on Du Bois.


[1] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[2] Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., “Seeing Red”: Federal Campaigns against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 54-75; Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Investigate Everything: Federal Efforts to Compel Black Loyalty During World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 132-148, 273.

[3] “Records of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service,” National Archives,

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, “I Sing to China,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers Digital Archive, University of Massachusetts Amherst

[5] CIA Memorandum to FBI Director, April 1, 1954; CIA Memorandum to FBI Director, December 7, 1962, Box 269, Folder 1, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[6] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1968]), 255.

[7] W. E. B. Du Bois to United States Postmaster General, May 16, 1951, W.E. B. Du Bois Papers Digital Archive, University of Massachusetts Amherst,

[8] Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1971), 322.

[9] Nat Bond, “To W. E. B. Du Bois—from the people, 1951,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers Digital Archive,

[10] Eve Merriam, “For W. E. B. Du Bois, February 12, 1951,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers Digital Archive,

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is the Scholar in Residence at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst. He also teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately African American school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is a scholar of American religious history and African American studies. His recent books are Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (University of Missouri Press, 2014), Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015), and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Sinitiere’s Du Bois scholarship addresses the topics of religion, literature, historical memory, Pan-Africanism, journalism, socialism, anticommunism, and peace.

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