Maryland NLG member Chip Gibbons recently published an excellent article on the history behind no-fly lists in Jacobin Magazine. From the introduction:
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, an organization closely affiliated with the Communist Party (CPUSA), drew up a petition to deliver to the United Nations (UN). Entitled “We Charge Genocide,” the 237-page document laid out, with extensive corroboration, the lynchings, wrongful executions, and voter suppression African Americans endured.
There was just one problem: the petition’s two most prominent signatories, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois, had both had their passports revoked by the US State Department for their outspoken radicalism and couldn’t make the trip to France. When African-American Communist William L. Patterson finally hand-delivered the document, the US government announced its intention to seize his travel documents as well. Patterson fled France, but was detained in the UK, on order of the US government. Upon his arrival in the US, Patterson had his passport physically taken.
A decade later, the State Department’s penchant for restricting the travel of dissidents would take a particularly Kafkaesque turn. After becoming the first American journalist to report from post-revolution China, William Worthy of the Baltimore Afro-American had his password revoked.
But unlike Robeson and DuBois — who missed out on a number of political conferences and other professional opportunities because of government restrictions — Worthy refused to comply. In 1961, he traveled, sans passport, to Cuba to report on the revolution and interview Fidel Castro. Unable to invalidate his passport again, the State Department tried something else — they charged Worthy, an American citizen, with illegally entering the country.
The US government’s midcentury travel crackdowns have important parallels with today’s “no-fly list.” While the two policies have different purposes — passport revocation was meant to prevent people from reaching their destinations, while the no-fly list is supposed to protect other passengers — both expand the state’s capacity to put the squeeze on radicals and other disfavored individuals and groups.
And based on some of the no-fly lists’ targets, it appears that’s exactly what has happened.