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Vol. 75/No. 13      April 4, 2011

How FBI targeted teachers
for firings in 1960s
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom by Nelson Blackstock, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for April. The book provides an in-depth look at the covert and illegal FBI counterintelligence program code-named Cointelpro. It targeted socialists, Black rights fighters, and anti-Vietnam War activists. Most of the FBI documents reproduced in the book were obtained through a lawsuit filed by the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance in 1973 against spying, harassment, and disruption by the FBI and other federal cop agencies. The documents show not only the surreptitious methods of the secret police. In spite of the snitches’ intent, the papers also provide pieces of the history of efforts to build the communist movement in the United States. Copyright © 1975 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In 1968 the FBI took special pride in railroading Walter Elliot out of his hobby. As scoutmaster of Troop 339 in Orange, New Jersey, the FBI reasoned that he posed “a distinct threat to the goal of the scouting movement.”

Why? Walter Elliot was married to a socialist.

In the view of the bureau, this necessitated a Cointelpro operation to counteract his “strong influence in shaping the minds of young boys.” The agent in charge of the effort called Elliot’s removal a “successful application of the disruption program for a worthy cause.”

The FBI sanctimoniously claims a special duty to “protect young minds.” Protect them, that is, from ideas unpopular with the FBI. Teachers prove an obvious target with their strategic “access” to “fertile young minds,” as one memo put it….

Prominent in the ranks of teachers victimized by the FBI is Morris Starsky. In 1970 the FBI encouraged Starsky’s dismissal from his job as a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University. The Phoenix office of the FBI sent an anonymous letter slandering him to a faculty committee reviewing his teaching contract.

In a memo dated May 31, 1968, the Phoenix FBI noted that local targets for Cointelpro were “pretty obvious… . It is apparent that New Left organizations and activities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have received their inspiration and leadership almost exclusively from the members of the faculty in the Department of Philosophy at Arizona State University (ASU), chiefly Assistant Professor MORRIS J. STARSKY.”

To that description of himself, Starsky adds that he helped organize the first antiwar teach-in at ASU; he led a campus free speech fight; he helped lead a successful campaign to win campus recognition for SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]; he participated in campus activities to support striking Tucson sanitation workers and a union organizing drive by Chicano laundry workers; he served as a presidential elector for the Socialist Workers party in 1968; he helped to reestablish the ASU chapter of the American Federation of Teachers; and he was the faculty adviser of the Young Socialist Alliance [YSA] and the Student Mobilization Committee.

All that provoked quite a furor among right-wing state legislators and university regents. The Faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (whose members received the FBI’s slanderous letters) held a hundred hours of public hearings on whether Starsky was entitled to teach at ASU. Three thousand students and over 250 professors signed petitions supporting Starsky’s right to academic freedom.

The committee’s members were not duped by the FBI’s anonymous slanders, although they expressed surprise five years later when they learned that “A Concerned Alumnus” was really J. Edgar Hoover. The committee voted unanimously against dismissing Starsky. But the regents refused to renew his contract and he lost his job in June 1970. Starsky says that “it’s sort of like being found innocent and executed anyway.” Since ASU he has lost two teaching jobs in California for political reasons.

Starsky calls the FBI drive against him an attack on the rights of everyone. “What teacher is safe?” he asks. “What ideas would not subject a teacher to this kind of attack?—only U.S. government approved ideas.”

Starsky has spent the past five years fighting for his rights in and out of court. He has won one damage suit already. And an Arizona court ruled that the ASU action violated his civil rights. Meanwhile, the FBI refuses to turn over to Starsky some of its files on him on the grounds of “national security.”

“I’ve taught a couple of logic courses,” he says, “but I had a hard time figuring out how my seeing my own files would harm national security. After I read the Cointelpro documents it became clear: ‘national security’ means the FBI’s security from the nation finding out the vicious things it does in violation of people’s civil liberties.” …

In still another poison pen episode, the FBI tried in April 1969 to get Maude White (now Wilkinson) “separated from her employment” as a preschool teacher in Washington, D.C. The local FBI sent an anonymous letter signed “A Concerned Citizen,” purporting to be from Wilkinson’s neighbor, to the superintendent of the D.C. school system. The letter said that “Miss White has held weekly meetings of a socialist youth group” in her apartment.

After expounding upon the classical FBI distortions of the YSA as a group supporting “violent activities against established authority,” the letter continues, “I bring this information to your attention in order to protect the D.C. School System from the menace of a teacher who does not have the interests of the children or the country at heart.”

But it was precisely the interests of the children and the American people that led Wilkinson to become a socialist: “Being a teacher, especially in the D.C. schools, I saw how rotten the schools were, how much money was spent on war and how little on education,” she says.

Wilkinson’s files also document the three-way collusion between the FBI, the intelligence unit of the Washington police, and the school administration. According to an FBI memo, one local cop was delegated responsibility for conducting intelligence investigations within the D.C. school system at the direction of the assistant superintendent of schools in charge of personnel. Information on Wilkinson compiled by the D.C. police was forwarded to the FBI.
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