Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

Redacted photograph of Elijah Muhammad arriving at Airport in New York and Guarded by [redacted] and Fruit of Islam Men (Wikimedia Commons)

Surveilling religion

The FBI and the Nation of Islam

Shifting this week from mostly-internal viewpoints of early-to-mid 20th century religio-racial movements to mostly-external surveillance of mid-to-late 20th century religio-racial NRMs. There’s so much more going on here than we’ll have time to cover — please let me know if you’re interested in further readings!

You’ll see these files referenced a lot in today’s readings, for example:

You might also want to revisit the Baldwin essay we read at the beginning of the semester to compare his description of NOI with some of the archives and analyses we’ll be looking at for this conversation.

What we’re reading

  • Johnson, “Red Squads and Black Radicals”
  • Gin Lum and Martin, “The Rise of Internal Security”
  • Evanzz, “The FBI and the Nation of Islam”

Johnson, “Red Squads and Black Radicals”

The material records that document repressive measures of statecraft also function to elucidate the lives and complicated experiences of those working from the underside of power. (Johnson 2020, 388)

Standard questions to get us started:

  • What is Johnson arguing in this article?
  • How does he support his argument? What evidence does he use and what archives does he draw on?
  • Why is Johnson’s argument significant? What are the stakes here?

(Hint: like Weisenfeld, Johnson is a deliberate and deft writer and researcher. You should be able to answer all of these questions just by reading the abstract.)

In an effort to render an account of repression, it is tempting to focus on powerful states to the near exclusion of their victims’ effective strategies to the point of producing narratives that might inaccurately present state actors as ineluctably overpowering their targets. (Johnson 2020, 404)

This piece is part of a roundtable discussion of Weisenfeld’s New World; you read her response to these articles for last time. Here, Johnson uses Weisenfeld’s analytical framework — specifically her insistence that members of religio-racial movements make meaning of their own Blackness, rather than having their religious and racial identities defined solely by white actors in power. Again, always, this is a question of agency, and an imperative to remember that disenfranchised people are capable of acting, even as they are acted upon.

How might scholars discern and represent the power of people who, despite being killed, criminalized, incarcerated, and impoverished, nevertheless produce often transformative (for good or ill) actions that run afoul of state efforts to contain or obliterate them? (Johnson 2020, 390)

Drawing on a number of other scholars, Johnson offers a sophisticated definition of agency in this piece. In your own words, how does Johnson define agency? What is significant about his definition?

The archival record evidences that Black radical activists implemented an astounding if unlikely success, delivering an unstoppable movement against which state actors at multiple levels of government proved no match. (Johnson 2020, 388)

Emphasizing religio-racial movement members’ agency is not to deny harm done to them, Johnson insists. But at the same time, we cannot and should not overlook the persistence of movements like Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Poor People’s Campaign in spite of powerful state actors trying to discourage and destroy them.

This does not mean activists were unscathed or unharmed; many lives were literally destroyed (the Chicago Police Department coordinated with the FBI to murder Fred Hampton and his allies, for example) or thrown into disarray, dealing consequences that haunted the lives of people for years following. (Johnson 2020, 404)

We might also understand Johnson’s analysis as an extension of Weisenfeld’s critique of charisma: if religio-racial movements could really be understood as the product of a leader’s compelling personality, those movements would crumble after the leader’s death. But the SCLC and PPC did not cease to exist after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. or Fred Hampton, because movements — as Weisenfeld convincingly argued in New World — are more than their leaders. Movements are communities, in which members fashion their identities on their own bodies, with the reinforcing influence of other members, and in the context of outside skepticism and criticism.

State practices of domination targeted Blacks as highly vulnerable people to relegate them through racial brutality, classification, and formal as well as informal discrimination. Yet, as Weisenfeld argues, these same Blacks exercised their own agency and even shaped their distinct racialization strategies to advance a particular order of things rooted in their vision of power, community, and identity. (Johnson 2020, 388)

Johnson says Weisenfeld “leverag[es] the ambivalent capacity of state archives to display powers of the state and to preserve the actions of peoples targeted by its violence,” (2020, 390). What does this mean? In your own words, how is Johnson applying Weisenfeld’s theory of religio-raciality in this article? How has Weisenfeld helped you better understand the relationship between religion and race, and how do you see that relationship negotiated in Johnson’s essay?

The mighty acts of state power that produced the archive are thoroughly attested in what can easily be experienced as an overwhelming exercise of power. It is nevertheless important to consider how, albeit unwittingly, this same historical material evidences the transformative nature of radical activism by non-state actors who were the targets of White supremacist state repression. (Johnson 2020, 399)

This article is as much about archives as it is about agency. How is Johnson — who, as he says, is drawing on Weisenfeld — reading the records of state actors who tried to repress and eliminate Black resistance movements? Why were these law enforcement records created, and what else can we learn about surveilled movements beyond that intended meaning?

Gin Lum and Martin, “The Rise of Internal Security”

“The emergence of autonomous Black religious communities came to be seen as a threat to the nation’s internal security.” (Gin Lum and Martin 2017, 24)

Big picture first: what do Gin Lum and Martin argue about the relationship between American religion and the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Why does this relationship matter?

Also, this article uses the term “civil religion” a bunch. Civil religion posits that “the state [is] a unifying object of worship” for residents of a nation (Gin Lum and Martin 2017, 19–20). Conversations about civil religion often discuss material culture, like flags or statues and monuments. We’re not going to spend much time on this concept, in part because it obscures the white Protestant Christian roots, justifications, and aesthetics of American so-called civil religion.

TL;DR: civil religion pretends it’s religion-esque secular nationalism; American nationalism is not now, nor has it ever been a-religious (or particularly civil, for that matter).

That said — given how much Kelly J. Baker’s thinking informs my own, I was surprised to see the Klan described as a kind of civil religion in this chapter. Granted, this is the first Klan; Baker’s work focuses on the second, and much more explicitly religious, iteration. Still, given what we know of how religion and race have co-created one another throughout the history of what is now the United States, can we consider the Klan (of whatever iteration) truly secular? Why or why not?

If you’ve been following the news this year, you know that public — and heavily policed — clashes between groups supporting an America for all people and groups supporting a white nationalist Lost Cause are anything but history. How are the dynamics Gin Lum and Martin describe still playing out in what’s now the United States?

Evanzz, “The FBI and the Nation of Islam”

“Virtually every Black celebrity and every civil rights organization in the nation found itself under surveillance.” (Evanzz 2017, 162–3)

I assigned this in large part so you could put a surveillance-driven external account of the Nation of Islam in conversation with Weisenfeld’s largely member-driven internal account. So: how does Evanzz’ depiction of NOI differ from Weisenfeld’s? Do they overlap in meaningful ways?

Related (CW for anti-Black hate speech):

Compare the external narrative to what Malcolm actually said:

Also, I would have loved to see a LOT more analysis of the COINTELPRO memo Evazz includes in his chapter, especially this bit:

“Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” (FBI as quoted in Evanzz 2017, 164)

Note references to martyrs and charisma here as well. This is such a Christian framework for thinking about Black liberation movements. What might this tell us about how the FBI viewed so-called Black religion more broadly? (I know Evanzz doesn’t get into this, but you’ve done a lot of reading here — how could our research on Mother Catherine Seals or our engagement with Fauset, Hardy, Weisenfeld, and Johnson help us answer this question?)

On a related note, I cannot freaking wait to see this movie:

Friday we start Peoples Temple and thinking about the Jonestown massacre. This is a big, important, challenging conversation. Please take care of yourselves while reviewing these materials.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin


author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults