For Generations, African Americans Have Led Global Antiracist MovementsRoundup
tags: Cold War, African American history, human rights, political activism, Pan Africanism
Brenda Gayle Plummer is a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in African American history, the history of U.S. foreign relations, race in international affairs and Caribbean history. She is the author of several books, most recently of In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974.
This year’s Black History Month comes in the aftermath of last summer’s global uprisings after the police killing of George Floyd. That event unlocked an unprecedented global wave of rage and repulsion. Police killings of Black Americans are nothing new, and they haven’t ceased in the months after Floyd was laid to rest. Yet the global response in 2020 was notable — and it stemmed from more than a century of international anti-racist activism undertaken by African Americans.
African American international activism began early. Faced with the cruelty of slavery, those who had escaped it began seeking support abroad. After the United Kingdom abolished slavery in the 1830s, Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass traveled there to persuade the English and Irish publics to take a stand against the institution in the United States. When the collapse of Reconstruction brought growing political violence against the newly freed, Black journalist Ida B. Wells’s lectures in Britain aimed to enlist allies against the crime of lynching terrorizing the Black South.
As the colonial powers tightened their grip on Asia and Africa in the early 20th century, African Americans, Caribbean islanders and Africans organized Pan African congresses to amplify their opposition to colonial institutions based on racial domination and economic exploitation. Resistance to anti-Black racism was already international by the turn of the 20th century.
Later, World War I and World War II presented new opportunities to address racial injustice and imperialist practices in the United States and elsewhere. Western leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, vetoed Japan’s attempt to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations’ charter and would not recognize the claims of other people of color for self-determination and fair treatment. Somewhat better luck attended the founding of the United Nations after World War II. In this instance, the U.S. government encouraged popular interest in the new organization and gave such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council of Negro Women token parts to play as observers to the founding conference in 1945.
Policymakers were taken aback, however, when such organizations as the NAACP and the radical Civil Rights Congress took the initiative, and in petitions to the United Nations accused the United States of human rights violations. The interest displayed in the petitions by the Soviets and others led more perceptive officials to recognize that the country’s foes could readily exploit a racism problem that could not be easily explained away.
Cold War competition with the Soviets dictated a better response, especially as the white supremacist violence plaguing the civil rights movement in the 1960s met global condemnation. The State Department and other agencies subsequently focused the question of racial discrimination on how best to manage the way that foreigners perceived it, rather than on how to implement change.
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