By David Kurlander
On November 30th, Texas Congressman Ronny Jackson argued on Twitter that Democrats were manufacturing the Omicron variant: “Here comes the MEV – the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots.” On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Disinformation and Democracy,” Joanne Freeman reflected on Jackson’s false accusation, saying, “Not that I didn’t see something like this in the press all over the place, [but] it was a Congressman on his account saying very authoritatively that this was a fact.” Back in 1957, another Congressman uttered a piece of disinformation that set off a conversation about truth, vetting, and bigotry.
On June 7th, 1957, Dixiecrat Mississippi Congressman Thomas G. Abernethy spoke on the House floor in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Abernethy, a 15-year veteran of the House, had signed the Southern Manifesto the previous year, a notorious document objecting to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools. Now, President Eisenhower was pushing a bill designed to better enforce Black voting rights, to set up the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and to create the permanent, non-partisan Commission on Civil Rights.
Abernethy began his remarks by painting a shockingly rosy picture of race relations in Mississippi: “For nearly two hundred years we have lived in peace with our Black brethren in the South.” He then pivoted to lambasting Northerners for perceived hypocrisy: “There the colored man is shunted further away from the white society than he is in the most segregated southern community; and when he does settle in a northern white community the whites flee the neighborhood in frenzied horror.”
In the middle of his screed, Abernethy suddenly shifted tone again, blaming the bill on communist puppet masters. “This civil-rights business is all according to a studied and well-defined plan,” Abernethy suggested. “It may be news to some of you, but the course of the advocates of this legislation was carefully planned and outlined more than 45 years ago.”
Abernethy then introduced an alleged 1912 quote by Israel Cohen, “a leading communist in England,” who Abernethy said had written something called A Racial Program for the 20th Century. He read this supposed Cohen quote in full:
“We must realize our party’s most powerful weapon is racial tension. By propounding into the consciousness of the dark races that for centuries they have been oppressed by the whites, we can mould them in the program of the Communist Party. In America we will aim for subtle victory. While inflaming the Negro minority against the whites, we will endeavor to instill in the whites a guilt complex for their exploitation of the Negroes. We will aid the Negroes to rise in prominence in every walk of life, in the professions and in the world of sports and entertainment. With this prestige, the Negro will be able to intermarry with the whites and begin a progress which will deliver America to our cause.”
A coterie of colorful far-right figures quickly picked up the “quote.” One adapter, Gerald L.K. Smith, was a one-time ally of Louisiana populist politician Huey Long. He had moved into the religious right fringes and was in the process of building a still-kind-of-active religious shrine in Arkansas, complete with a 65-foot “Christ of the Ozarks” statue. Smith referenced Cohen’s “plan” in a pamphlet entitled “Arkansas—the Hungary of America.”
During a Pasadena, Texas speech, Kenneth Goff, an anti-flouride advocate who in 1954 had published a work of Holocaust denialism called Hitler and the Twentieth Century Hoax, referenced the Cohen “master plan.”
And in Los Angeles, failed screenwriter Myron Fagan, famous for producing blacklists of alleged Hollywood communists, invoked Israel Cohen in a January 1958 City Council meeting about fair employment practices, even highlighting that the quote was from the congressional record.
By this time, Herman Edelsberg, the director of the Washington Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith, had started investigating the provenance of the quote. Edelsberg quickly found that there was no reference to the Cohen work in the Library of Congress or in the British Museum. Moreover, the terminology “Communist Party” wasn’t even in use in 1912.
Edelsberg’s research dovetailed with that of New York Democratic Representative Abraham Multer, who revealed the dubiousness of the quote on the House floor on August 30th, 1957 and asked that his correction be referenced in any subsequent reference to Abernethy’s remarks.
Abernethy and his staff said that they got the quote from a Letter to the Editor published in The Washington Star in March 1957. The Star, while losing relevance due to the ascendance of The Washington Post, was still one of the nation’s most influential papers.
Edelsberg teamed up with The Star to chase down the hoax’s origins. They did find an Israel Cohen, who had served as general secretary of the World Zionist Organization from 1922 to 1939. Cohen was in his late seventies and living in London. He had written over twenty books on Jewish issues, but never any that touched on Black Americans. He had first traveled to America in 1931, had never been a Communist, and was serving as a correspondent for the Glasgow Herald in 1912.
The investigators contacted the author of the Letter to the Editor, who eventually led them to several papers that had published the quote before The Star. The first was the right-wing publication The Virginian, out of Newport News, where an advertisement with the quote had run in December 1956. “This space sponsored by a Christian Virginian and a Marine Corps Veteran,” read text underneath the ad.
The Virginian agreed to work with Edelsberg and The Star, and the advertiser, and eventually uncovered that the original source of the quote was the pen of anti-Semitic conspiracist Eustace Mullins, who had sent it around to various reactionary groups.
As a young conservative, Mullins became friends with the Nazi-sympathizing poet Ezra Pound. In the early 1950s, he served briefly at the Library of Congress, aiding Senator Joe McCarthy’s attempts to locate dirt on suspected communists. But even the House Un-American Activities Committee had their limits, and in 1954 HUAC labeled Mullins a “neo-Fascist” for writing a 1952 article called “Adolf Hitler: An Appreciation.”
In the years before the Israel Cohen hoax, Mullins had written a series of panicked, decidedly hateful monographs on American finance, including the popular Secrets of the Federal Reserve. He wrote widespread columns, including a June 1955 piece in the Women’s Voice in which he accused Jonas Salk, “Yiddish inventor of a so-called polio vaccine,” of attempting to “Mass Poison American Children.”
He had also propagated a similar hoax about a bogus 1952 conference of Soviet Rabbis in Budapest. Mullins gave the lead Rabbi, Emanuel Rabinovich, parallel goals to Cohen.
The Star reached Mullins at what he called the American Humane Church in Huntley, Illinois. Mullins was serving as Director of the “Society for the Propagation of the Human Faith.” Mullins acknowledged that he had “researched” Cohen, but he claimed that he had lost his Cohen files. “At any rate, Mr. Edelsberg seems determined to make a political issue of the matter and the church feels that I should devote my time to religious problems,” Mullins told The Star. Before hanging up, Mullins asked The Star to join his church’s crusade against “the barbarous Hebrew method” of slaughtering meat animals.
On February 18th, 1958, The Star released their exposé and apologia, entitled “Story of a Phony Quotation: A Futile Effort to Pin it Down.” The Star detailed their collaboration with Edelsberg and their discovery of Mullins’ authorship. They also explained their motivations in commenting on the false Letter to the Editor, writing, “The statement will doubtless continue to circulate. This recital of The Star’s experience in trying to trace its origin may help to prove that it is a fraud.”
The Star was prescient. Three years later, in July 1961, The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a letter to the editor, “The Peril of Racial Progress,” that quoted from Mullins’ Cohen hoax. The Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Committee called out the resurgence of the post, writing, “The hoax was clearly calculated to revive the old ‘Communist-Jewish plot’ libel, long used by enemies of American democracy.”
The Cohen hoax mostly dissipated after Cincinnati, although race-baiting Southern pamphlets occasionally included the quote through the 1960s, even changing the phantom Cohen’s name at times to Leo Kahn. The pattern of dissemination, however—using fringe figures to boost hateful and dangerous disinformation into the Halls of Congress—is clearly just as dangerous and widespread in 2021 as it was in 1957.
For a fascinating—but not altogether objective—piece of ephemera about various right-wing disinformation campaigns (including the Israel Cohen hoax) during the Civil Rights era, read Communist Party official Morris Kominsky’s 1970 The Hoaxers: Plain Liars, Fancy Liars, and Damned Liars.
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