Sixties scholarship and the internet

Sandra Hollin Flowers (flowers_s@MERCER.EDU)
Thu, 22 Jan 1998 01:28:11 -0400 (EDT)

The thread on identifying African American sixties activists has been
thought-provoking to me on several counts. First, being black,
middle-aged, and having a history of involvement with "subversive"
(depending on who's doing the categorizing) organizations and individuals,
I ought to be ashamed to admit how naive, how trusting, I was in my youth.
It was the mid '70s before I found out about COINTELPRO, but even then I
was still of the school that believed "our government wouldn't do _that_!"
Now that I have students of that trusting persuasion, I myself (proof
personified of how little knowledge it takes to be a dangerous thing) lean
more in the opposite direction: "our government would do that and more."

When I said in the early days of this thread that the FBI had all the
information anyone could want on black activists, I was, perhaps, guilty
of hyperbole. After all, no organization, including the FBI, is
infallible, nor is any body of information flawless. Nevertheless, having
gotten involved belatedly in sixties scholarship, I'm still in the rabid
stage of having lost my intellectual innocence and feel as though I'll
never again be completely trusting or feel absolutely certain that my
privacy or anyone else's is not subject to violation of all kinds.

So Doug Norberg's comment that "The request for SNCC and Black Panther
membership lists may be coming from a totally benign motivation, but maybe
not" is full of meaning for me. It reminds me, for instance, that the
internet is extraordinarily conducive to the kinds of intelligence
gathering that used to be much harder to conduct and that lists of this
kind are particularly vulnerable. This is especially true of archived
lists, as I found out after being traced from a comment I posted that
subsequently ended up in some form or other on a usenet group.

On the other hand, I don't want to become so self-conscious that I'm
afraid to say anything or request information publicly. Too, I'm
encouraging my students to use lists as research sources and as a way of
becoming comfortable using and interpreting professional discourse. At the
same time, I recognize that most of them (undergraduates) are overwhelmed
with the plethora of information on the sixties. They, others like them,
and scholars new to any given field may not know how to ask for
information or what information they can "legitimately" ask for. Thus, I
like Doug's suggestion for seeking information via discussion lists and
will use it myself as well as pass it on to my students:

> publicizing the nature of the information needed or research being
> done, with its projected uses, and calling for those who participated
> in the historic events to step forward voluntarily as subjects for the
> research.

Having said all that, I'm still inclined to over-estimate rather than
under-estimate the extent of the FBI's information on black American
activists. We are so accustomed to seeing covert operations dramatized in
the movies and on TV and in fiction that I suspect the operations still
have an apocryphal or mythic aura--if not being seen as the product of
paranoid, guilt-ridden minds--for the public at large. Certainly this
latter image prevailed among people I knew years ago and even the very
thought of surveillance of private citizens is still greeted with
skepticism by more than a few of my current acquaintances.

Sandra in Maconga

Sandra Hollin Flowers
Associate Professor of English Voice: (912) 752-2813
Mercer University Fax: (912) 757-4956
Macon, GA 31207