In April 1978, Kemba Maish, a 33-year-old psychology professor at Howard University received a call from the CIA. Several calls actually, from an agent named Roy Savoy, who left a few messages on her machine. When Maish called back, the person who answered said, “Personnel, CIA.”
“I was very curious as to why Personnel, CIA, was trying to get in touch with me,” Maish told an interviewer at CovertAction Information Bulletin.
Maish was upset. She’d never heard of this guy Savoy and even being contacted by the CIA could “raise questions with friends and colleagues.” She was “very active in black organizations” and her doctoral dissertation was on Black Power and Pan-Africanism.
“I decided to sit back and relax and hear what he had to say. I wanted to hear his whole program. He said that he was black, which was very clear from our conversation, and that he was the director of some section of the CIA which was recruiting black people, specifically black psychologists, to go to Africa and develop profiles on foreign nationals. I asked him what he meant by foreign nationals. Did he mean develop profiles on African people? He said no, that I would just be developing profiles on communists that were in Africa, so I wouldn’t have to worry about spying on my own people. He went on to talk about paying me a fantastic salary, paying my way to Africa, all kinds of very enticing programs.”
Maish asked how he had gotten her name. It had come from two of her colleagues, including someone she had worked with closely for years and who knew her “interest in issues related to the liberation struggles of all African people.” Maish listened to Savoy’s pitch. And then she let him have it:
“When he finally finished, I told him he was a traitor to the African people. I went through the whole thing, about the connection between the FBI and the CIA, about what the FBI had done with the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, within this country. Then I mentioned how in Africa the CIA had organized a coup against Kwame Nkrumah* and had actually murdered Patrice Lumumba. I went on down the line. I said, how could you possibly do this?”
The agent said he was sorry and that he wouldn’t bother her again. But Maish wasn’t satisfied. If they thought they could convince her to spy for them, someone who so clearly wouldn’t accept their offer, “a black psychologist who knows African history, African politics, and who had been involved in political organizations for some time,” surely they were recruiting others.
“They’ve obviously bought other people,” she said. “So after I thought about it, it began to make a little sense. I thought they would think, well, even if she says no, she wouldn’t go public because of all the paranoia. But my feeling was that it is better to be in the open about it. I felt I had to let African people know what is happening so that they can protect themselves.”
Maish organized an interview with WHUR, the Howard University radio station, so she could tell her story and warn others that the CIA was trying to recruit black professors to spy on Africans. The show was recorded, but sometime that night, the tape went “mysteriously missing.”
So then she went back and spoke to the guy who had given her name to Savoy, another black psychologist named Oscar Barbarin. “I went to see him, and I was furious. He knew what it was about; he was physically upset: he knew why I was there.”
“I asked him how he could do it, how he could give the CIA my name? He said that a number of government agencies come to him for names and information; he saw the CIA as just another government agency. I was shocked that he would even say that. I told him that he was supposed to be politically aware, that he had to know what the CIA has been doing, not only in Africa but also around the world. And he said he never stopped to think about it. He said that after he gave them my name he realized maybe he shouldn’t have done it but then it was too late.”
When the interviewer asked Maish if Barbarin knew what sort of criteria they had in mine, he said, “they were looking for black people who wanted to go to work in Africa.” Barbarin didn’t think she’d be interested but that she might know people who were, given her background.
“I told him that was even worse,” said Maish. “Not only was he acting as an agent for the CIA, but he was assuming that I would also act as one. I told him that he had no idea what he was doing, that he could get me killed, just by having my name on a list.”
Now Barbarin apologized, though he was pissed that she had called him a CIA agent. But Maish wasn’t about to back down.
“I told him that was the role he was playing, whether he realized it or not. That’s the key point to me. A lot of people don’t realize what they are doing, and they are getting a lot of other people involved in something they have no idea about. Or they are closing their eyes to it; they don’t want to face the fact that if they turn down the CIA, they might jeopardize some funding or grants. Perhaps they want to cooperate so it won’t interfere with the development of their careers.”
Next, Maish called up the Association of Black Psychologists, and told them the CIA is recruiting black psychologists to go to Africa. She wanted to make sure everyone knew what was happening. “They’ve already used black people from this country to infiltrate liberation movements and progressive groups both in Africa and in the Caribbean, basically using one group of African people against another.” She refused to turn a blind eye to any of this.
In August that year she went to one of the Association’s conferences and saw that Savoy was registered to attend. She got him kicked out.
“People must understand that they are not doing a service to us in America, they’re doing a service to the large corporations and to the American government, and to maintain profits—but in terms of our lives, all the FBI and CIA have done for us as a people is to kill us and our leaders and to destroy our organizations, not only here but around the world. They’re doing it through our institutions, through our black organizations—they’re recruiting us and we think we’re doing a service to our people when actually they’re helping to destroy our people.”
Maish was only one among many black academics being contacted by the CIA, but she was the one who went public. “I know of about ten people at Howard and other places who had been contacted, and not one of them had said a word,” she told the interviewer.
She also discovered that there were CIA programs to recruit foreign students, who would then go back to their home countries as agents. “These students need to be alerted, need to understand whose agents they are if they work with the CIA. They will not be working in the interests of their people, but working against them,” said Maish.
The CIA tried to recruit the wrong black psychologist. Maish could not possibly have been more aware of the “black against black” operations the CIA were running in Africa. The interview concluded with these words:
“We must not become the enemies of our people. We must organize against all CIA activity. We must fight the CIA.”
Better luck next time.
*The first president of Ghana.