FBI Surveillance and Undercover Police Agents
It is well known that CORE was being investigated and infiltrated like any other of the major civil rights organizations. It has become generally accepted that it did not face the same scrutiny as the Black Panther Party (BPP), Nation of Islam, Revolutionary Action Movement or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Such Black nationalist groups were under heavy attack by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police agencies which ultimately had a significant effect on these groups.
To this date, however, there still is no knowledge of the true extent of such actions against CORE.
Although it was rare, a few members even suggested that I could be the FBI or some such. This even included a friend of my father from Harlem CORE who in telling me this was attempting to explain the paranoia of the times - everyone suspected everyone at one point or another.
Since I know that I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a local, state, or national law enforcement agency, that only makes the research even more interesting. Why would these CORE people who I knew to be sane, sober and of sound mind say such a thing? And if what they were saying was true, how did they get so much good work done?
As more and more information comes out about current National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and entire mosques being targeted as terrorist organizations by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the topic becomes even more relevant and significant. Certain aspects of such surveillance would have been illegal in that it violated for example several first amendment rights.
A few years back, I made a Freedom of Information request with the FBI for whatever they had on CORE in NYC. I received the results of previous such requests from other historians, a few hundred pages of documents that had already been cleared and released (shout out to 'Greg' at the FBI). I was also told that there were many documents that the FBI had not released yet because they had not been cleared.
What it was
Under investigation seemingly from the start, FBI records on CORE go back to the early 1940's. Undercover informants were already in place and being used to report. The FBI stated it was principally looking for evidence of communist infiltration and domination. Communists at the time were seen as potential agents of a foreign government. Both the Internal Security Act and The Communist Control Act of the early 1950's outlawed the Communist Party (CP) here in the United States (U.S.). Support for the CP or like organizations was seen as something subversive that had the potential to work against democracy.
In 1945, CORE was under investigation for violation of the Sedition Statute, but prosecution was deemed not warranted. In1953, 1958 and 1961 there were official security investigations of CORE at the national and local level, including New York CORE. While the FBI did find evidence of a few individual members having a history of being members of or affiliated with the Communist Party (CP), the FBI repeatedly commented in its reports found no evidence that CORE 'participated in subversive activities or is under Communist Party control'. (1)
Regardless, CORE was kept under surveillance before and after the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's. With the increase in CORE's activities by the 1960's only came an increase in such surveillance even though the FBI admitted to itself it could never find any evidence, going so far as to refer to CORE as 'anti-communist'. The historian Kenneth O'Reilly argues that it was not necessarily fear of communism that was motivating the FBI but racism. (2)
There was certainly a strain of anti-communism in CORE from the 1940's all the way to the mid 1980's. CORE's internal documents show that it was also concerned with the issue of communist infiltration. How serious these concerns is not known at this time, but I would suggest its concerns were two fold: the disruptive influence it felt that members of the (CP) could have on its meetings and activities which some members did have a reputation for; the desire to portray itself as being aligned with patriotism especially during the time of the McCarthy hearings.