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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“Black Religions, F.B.I. Surveillance, and the Rise of Black Ethnics in the Early Twentieth Century”

Presented by Professor of Religious Studies Sylvester Johnson
Nov. 14, 2007

Three theoretical issues led Professor Sylvester Johnson to the connection between black religions and the rise of "black ethnics" in the early 20th century and the F.B.I.'s surveillance of the phenomenon. Those issues were the relationship between "social death" and the nation-state; the problematic nature of democracy as rule by a minority; and constructs of ethnicity.

Johnson noted that there were many "nations" within the U.S. in the early 20th century, all of which were ruled by the U.S., which amounted to colonialism within this country. As various movements — Garveyism and Nation of Islam, for example — began to emerge in reaction and in protest against this situation, their claims as distinct peoples and rejection of race defined by skin color incited the F.B.I. surveillance. These modern nationalists were ethnic in orientation as well as anti-colonialist, which led to their interest in religions that were less anti-black than Christianity, such as Islam and Judaism.

By the mid-20th century, their sense of peoplehood was established, with increasing importance being placed on identifying the characteristics of blackness. The F.B.I., mandated to preserve Anglo-Saxonism, acted on its white leadership's strategies to eradicate black cultures. Johnson cited the example of the Moors Science Temple, which was "sent by Allah to Negroes" (Moorish Americans), to illustrate the struggle between the opposing "nations," or, what came to be termed "ethnicities."

At this time, the idea that non-white people might collaborate to bring an end to white colonialism and to U.S. apartheid was spreading. (The Moors Science Temple even wanted victory for the Japanese as a way to speed that end.) But by 1931, the Philadelphia office of the F.B.I. was clamping down on the Moors Science Temple, calling them fanatical, anti-American, and a threat to national security. The bureau infiltrated the group and eventually suppressed it.

Johnson noted that, while the F.B.I. was pursuing its agenda of white supremacy by dubbing the Moors Science Temple "anti-American," the group was, in fact, anti-American because its goal was an end to prevailing American colonialism. "Ethnicity" was a strategy in that battle, just as "whiteness" was for the opposition.