In the early days of the Cold War, the CIA launched journals, concerts, and co-opted high-profile African-American NGOs.
BY DR. SUSAN WILLIAMS
The absence of a goodwill communiqué from America to the All African People’s Conference in Accra had been noted with regret by the delegates. Then, just before the final session, a message arrived from Vice President Nixon. He had been advised of the bad impression created by America’s silence and was seeking to put this right. Even so, one of the American delegates described the telegram as ‘a lukewarm statement quite out of keeping with the spirit of the conference’. In any case, his telegram arrived too late: the hardworking committees did not have time to read it out. However, the US had, in fact, been well represented throughout the conference— in covert and unforeseen ways.
Nearly forty Americans went to Accra in December 1958 — African Americans and white Americans in fairly equal numbers. Some of them attended as individuals in their own right, such as the civil rights activist Congressman Charles Diggs Jr of Detroit. Others represented nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), such as the African-American Institute, the American Society of African Culture, the Harlem- based United African Nationalist Movement, the Quaker organisation known as the American Friends Service Committee, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations(AFL- CIO) and the Associated Negro Press. Although they all shared an interest in Africa, they came from varied backgrounds and had different political points of view.
Those who were Nkrumah’s personal friends had a history of involvement in the Council on African Affairs, which had been created in 1937 in the US as a way of supporting the struggle against colonialism and racism in Africa. Its headquarters were in Harlem in New York City. The first executive director was Max Yergan, an American intellectual who had been among the first Black YMCA missionaries in South Africa. Horrified by the racism of South Africa, he had eschewed the more mainstream civil rights organisations in favour of communism. In the council, he worked closely with Paul Robeson. Other members included Eslanda Robeson, W E B Du Bois, Shirley Graham, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Ralph Bunche and William Alphaeus Hunton, a former professor at Howard University.
The council published the monthly bulletin New Africa, which shone a spotlight on injustices in Africa with articles by scholars including Du Bois and Hunton. The council created a successful public profile and organised mass meetings, including rallies attended by tens of thousands in Madison Square Garden and at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Nkrumah participated in a conference in 1944 , organised by the council to project an international programme for the postwar liberation of Africa.
Yergan was ousted as executive director in 1948. He had become openly anticommunist and from 1952 started to collaborate with the FBI against the council. By then, the council had become a casualty of the Cold War: the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused members of the council of being communist and pointed to the fact that some, like Paul Robeson, had visited the Soviet Union. In 1954, Executive Director Hunton was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury and was forced to surrender all the council’s documents relating to their communications with the African National Congress of South Africa. Th e council, effectively crippled by the investigations of the HUAC, was dissolved in 1955. Meanwhile, Hunton served six months in prison for refusing to reveal the names of the contributors to the Civil Rights Bail Fund.
Yergan, who had been surveilled by the FBI, was named as a communist and called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. There, he disowned his earlier political convictions, vigorously denying any willing association with communism. His biographer, David Henry Anthony III, refers to the ‘relentless, still largely secret pressures to which he and his family were subjected by the intelligence community’. Only Yergan himself and those who convinced him to ‘turn’ knew precisely what forced his hand. ‘It is not to be found in the Yergan papers’, observes Anthony. ‘It is hinted at in his FBI file, however, where among bowdlerized and redacted documents lie the traces of betrayal or vengeance or other emotionally laden acts by which sensitive material was leaked to the Bureau’. It is likely, adds Anthony, that Yergan feared not only for himself but also for his children, for whom ‘he was willing to sacrifice anything and everything’.
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When the Council on African Affairs was dissolved, it left a substantial and signifi cant gap in American society that, from the point of view of the CIA, needed to be filled safely by individuals who were not susceptible to communism.
The Council on African Affairs had taken a position of active political and practical support for African liberation, a stance not adopted by the African-American Institute (AAI), which sent members to the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958. The AAI had been established in 1953 by a multiracial group of academics and by businessmen with powerful mining interests in central Africa. The academics included Horace Mann Bond, who had been president of Lincoln University when Nkrumah was attended the AAPC the following year. By then he was the dean of Atlanta University; he had been forced to resign from Lincoln University in 1957 because of concerns about his management.
The stated aim of the AAI was to establish closer bonds between the peoples of Africa and the United States; it organised scholarship programs, teacher placements in Africa and a variety of lecture, information and visitors’ services. The AAI headquarters were in New York City, where it had plush offices at 345 East 46th Street, only a four-minute walk from the UN General Assembly, which facilitated access to United Nations delegates and events. It also had an office in Washington, centrally located at 1234 Twentieth Street, and an office in Accra. It published a monthly magazine titled Africa Special Report (later Africa Report), which was edited by Bob Keith.
But the AAI was not what it seemed. This fact emerged in 1967, less than ten years after the AAPC in Accra, when the Washington Post revealed on February 26th that a number of American organisations were fronts created by the CIA and were funded secretly through an array of ‘pass-through’ channels and foundations. One of these fronts was the AAI.
Th e exposure of the CIA was picked up by the radical magazine Ramparts and the Saturday Evening Post, which fleshed out the details. ‘Like electricians tracing out the underground wiring of complicated circuits’, reported one journalist in 1969 , newsmen dug deeper and ‘examined hundreds of foundation tax records and grant lists. Again and again, to their amazement they succeeded in making connections between a labyrinth of non-profit organisations and a hidden generator. This generator was demonstrably the CIA’.
A congressional and press firestorm swept across America, unearthing a mass of secret information. Eventually, more than 225 different organisations— operating in many parts of the world— including Africa were identified as direct or indirect recipients of CIA funds. Some of them were specially created by the CIA, while others had been set up independently from the agency and were then sponsored and funded by it.
Bob Keith, the chief editor of the AAI journal, Africa Special Report, was registered at the AAPC in Accra as an American press correspondent. In a dramatic moment, Keith was found hiding in the Accra Community Centre during a closed session of the conference, which was off limits to the press. He was arrested by Ghanaian police, who discovered recording equipment on his person. Keith tried to justify why he was there; he said he had entered the building in order to obtain photographs from the centre’s official photographer. Several decades later, Kojo Botsio, then Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs, was asked about Keith’s secretive behaviour. Botsio laughed as he remembered the occasion: ‘Yes, Yes I think he was a journalist who wanted to get [to] the place, where he could record everything, he had a recording machine on him, at that time it was a very silly thing to do’.
The AAI had already put down roots in Accra. In 1957, it had established its West African office there, under the leadership of Emmett Jefferson ‘Pat’ Murphy, a historian of Africa who was the AAI’s executive vice president. On the evening of Monday 8 December 1958, the AAI held a reception for the conference in Murphy’s family home. This was an ideal opportunity for the AAI to network with the delegates.
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Another CIA front that sent representatives to the AAPC was the American Society of African Culture. Known as AMSAC, it had been established in 1957 as a kind of American version of the Société Africaine de Culture (SAC), which was based in Paris. The SAC, led by Alioune Diop, a Senegalese philosopher who also attended the AAPC, had been publishing literature on négritude since the founding of its cultural review magazine Présence Africaine in 1947; the négritude movement had been started during the 1930s by the poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor as a celebration of African culture in the francophone world.
When AMSAC was first set up, its New York headquarters at 16 East 40th Street were shared with the Council on Race and Caste in World Affairs (CORAC), which was yet another front organisation established by the CIA. CORAC claimed to examine ‘the extent to which the communists were capitalising on racial conflicts globally’. In 1958, CORAC and AMSAC merged.
The professed aim of AMSAC was to expose African Americans to their African heritage, and the organisation was ‘explicitly anti- Communist, albeit avowedly apolitical’. As well as offices in Paris and New York, it had an apartment on Fifth Avenue to host guests. It gave scholarships to African students and published its own journal, African Forum. It also had an ambitious cultural and educational program; in 1961 it organised a music festival in Lagos, Nigeria, which lasted two days and nights and featured the cream of African American musical talent, including Nina Simone. Because of its abundant resources, AMSAC was dubbed by some as ‘Uncle Moneybags’. But the artists benefiting from AMSAC’s largesse at that time did not know it was a covert CIA front. AMSAC sent three representatives to the AAPC. One of these was its president, Horace Mann Bond, who was also representing the AAI. Another representative was Will Mercer Cook, a scholar of francophone literature; he was on the faculty of Howard University but lived in Paris. The third AMSAC delegate was John Aubrey Davis, who was the executive director of AMSAC and a political scientist at City College, New York (CUNY); he was also a commissioner in the New York State Commission against Discrimination. All three were among the group of five African Americans who had founded AMSAC.
Davis sent AMSAC at least two detailed reports on the speakers and events at the AAPC, with careful analysis. They gave an account not only of the African delegates, but also of the other Americans who were at the conference. To one of the reports he attached various Ghanaian newspapers, which listed the names of the conference delegates with their pictures.
These reports were sent to James Theodore ‘Ted’ Harris Jr, who was the assistant executive director of AMSAC and had been the National Student Association’s second president in the late 1940s. In 1967, it was revealed that the National Student Association had been covertly used by the CIA; Harris had operated as an embedded CIA agent. According to the New Yorker, the National Student Association ‘functioned as a glove that concealed the American government’s hand and allowed it to do business with people who would never knowingly have done business with the American government. These people thought that they were dealing with a student group that was independent of the government. They had no idea that the NSA was a front’.
After the exposure of covert financing by the CIA, AMSAC’s funding apparatus was dismantled. This left the organisation scrabbling about, looking for money. Membership declined sharply; people believed they had been fed lies and that their goodwill had been abused.
The leaders of AMSAC claimed to have been the victims of official deception, but this is contradicted by evidence analysed by Hugh Wilford in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Wilford records that Adelaide M Cromwell, a sociologist at Boston University and a cofounder of its African Studies Program, was a member of AMSAC’s executive council. In February 1967 she wrote a memorandum to the other members which suggests, notes Wilford, ‘a widespread state of wittingness within AMSAC’. Th e memo stated, ‘I remember the exact time and place almost eight years ago when such a possibility was first confided in me and by whom. Several years later further and more detailed confirmation was given me by another friend. Around the edges were frequent innuendoes and asides. None of this was documented, understandably so’.
Wilford also refers to an illuminating report by Yvonne Walker, the managing director of AMSAC. One day, according to this report, two members of the CIA ‘showed up for an appointment with Dr. Davis. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but they . . . called me into the office and explained to me what was going down, and that they would require me to take an oath’.
Subsequently, Walker and other officers of AMSAC met with their CIA case officers in hotel rooms, usually in New York, but also in Washington. ‘They [the CIA officers] were kept fully informed . . . by Dr. Davis on everything that was going on’, she recalled, ‘and I’m sure that they helped to steer some of the plans’.
Wayne Urban, the biographer of Horace Mann Bond, tackles the issue of whether his subject was witting or unwitting—whether or not he knew that the AAI and AMSAC were CIA fronts. ‘There is ample evidence’, he writes, ‘for concluding that, if he did not know, he did not want to know’. And if Bond did not know of these links, he adds, ‘he should have known’. Urban also points to a letter from Bond to Nkrumah in which Bond asked for an invitation to the AAPC for AMSAC members and described the organisation as ‘concerned with intellectual studies and artistic attainment. It is not a political organisation’. This was not candid, argues Urban, since a ‘distinct part of AMSAC’s agenda was the pursuit of the political goals of American foreign policy’.
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Excerpted from White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa by Susan Williams. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.