Shrinking the Planet

by Daniel LoPreto

 

THE WHITES CANNOT BRING THEMSELVES to treat [U.S. Negroes] as equals.” This critical observation from 1923 was not written by an American journalist or U.S.-based civil rights activist, although one can easily picture Langston Hughes or W. E. B. Du Bois uttering this sentiment. The declaration comes from the Swarajya, a Hindu newspaper. This particular issue of the Swarajya reported on a riot in Rosewood, Florida, during which roving white gangs killed at least eight black residents and burned the predominantly black town to the ground [1]. The Hindu newspaper described this event as a “great blot on American civilization” [2]. The Swarajya story was recorded in an issue of The Crisis – the official magazine of the NAACP – under the headline, “America’s lynching fame spreads over the world” [3]. The connection between a local riot in Florida and a Hindu paper published eight thousand miles away is just one example of the intimate connection between the civil rights struggle of Black America and Indian anti-colonialism—what historian Gerald Horne in his 2008 book, The End of Empires, calls the “umbilical cord” between colonized India and Jim Crow America.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, movements for liberation of “those with dark skin in Asia and in North America” worked in parallel, and frequently interacted [4]. Through these communications and cross-racial solidarities, activists in both India and the United States used their mutual historical situations to leverage their respective political systems in favor of anti-colonialism and civil rights.

Prominent civil rights figures like Channing Tobias, Howard Thurman, and Walter White travelled to India to forge anti-racist political unity. At the same time, an influx South Asians to America’s West Coast during the early twentieth century inspired the creation of one of the most prominent Indian independence movements prior to 1947: Ghadar. But the influence wasn’t merely the result of the migration of people—ideas moved, too. The Messenger, a prominent black socialist journal, published dozens of pieces about India throughout the 1920s. “The subjugations of the Hindus,” one article reads, “is carried on by British imperialism with ‘we must come to the aid of the backward races’ as a motto–the same excuse as that used here to justify exploitation of the colored man” [5]. On the other side of the globe, writers were thinking similarly. L.L. Rai – a prominent figure in the movement for Indian independence and a frequent correspondent with W.E.B. Du Bois – wrote that the faux-humanitarian rationales used by the British to justify their domination of India were strikingly similar to the claims made by slaveholders in the American south [6].

Both Washington and London were aware of these grassroots linkages, and while the dispossessed were building relationships, ruling elites tried to protect their mutually beneficial structures of white supremacy. Referring to White’s travels to India, one analyst in the British Embassy in Washington notes, “His visit to India and especially his wish to see Gandhi and Nehru raise very considerable misgivings” [7].

The globalization of the struggle for civil rights wasn’t simply a threat to colonial powers—it was also perceived as a weakness in America’s fight against communism. By the 1940s, with ideological battles raging against both Japan and the Soviet Union, Jim Crow functioned as a national security liability and a massive stain on the reputation of the United States. Civil rights activist Pauli Murray, writing on the eve of the Cold War, notes that the United States could not complete with Russia for “moral leadership over the world, unless she clean[ed] up this…stable of race” [8].

With the onset of the Cold War and a rearranging of global alliances among the great powers, organizations like the NAACP gradually deemphasized India and the fight against colonialism – although India continued the struggle by becoming a prominent critic of apartheid. Black political figures like Walter White were, as Horne notes, “now seeking to steer Black America toward a collaboration with the U.S. ruling elite against ‘communism’ in India” [9]. This transformation from global Black freedom dreams to nationally-focused campaigns for civic equality and political access has profound impact on late-twentieth century black politics.

In the past decades, scholars have pushed to expand the chronology of the American civil rights movement further back into the early twentieth century. The so-called “long civil rights movement” brings to light radical, globally-oriented strategies that were often ignored in previous narratives. Histories beginning in the ‘50s failed to appreciate radical potential of the early civil rights era activism. The writers and activists who evoked “black freedom dreams” during the early twentieth century were not simply concerned with attaining formal U.S. citizenship rights, but rather their movement focused on achieving true liberation, and this struggle often took anti-capitalist forms influenced by socialist organizations such as the American Communist Party [10]. Writing about the Scottsboro Boys – nine African American teenagers who were wrongly convicted after being accused of raping a white woman on a train in Alabama in 1931 – historian Glenda Gilmore notes, “The Communist [Party] legal defense of…the Scottsboro ‘Boys’…focused world opinion on antidemocratic practices in the South” [11]. This emphasis on the radical roots of the civil rights movement, and its global potential, is stressed throughout Horne’s book, which demonstrates “the reach of the anti-Jim Crow mission, the influence of the Communists who had made these Scottsboro defendants a global cause célèbre and the shrinking of the planet” [12]. Acknowledging and examining these radical roots allows us the better understand the frustration and criticism levied at post-segregation era Black political elites, many of whom traded the earlier pursuit of egalitarian interests for the largely symbolic politics of recognition [13].

This rich history is lost if we declare the beginning of the civil rights movement in Montgomery in 1955, or Greensboro in 1960, or Washington, D.C. in 1954. The ‘short’ civil rights movement, as Nikhil Pal Singh argues, “cannot provide a full picture of the genuine creativity and political gravity of black movements during this period, nor of the ultimate defeat of their most profound, animating visions” [14]. The over-simplification and domestication of the struggle is on display every third Monday in January, when the politics of Martin Luther King Jr. are reduced to platitudes about respect and bending the arc of the morality toward justice. Missing from this story, as noted recently by Asad Haider, is the King who “advanced an internationalist and socialist politics, who spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War and American imperialism, who saw the continuation of the struggle for civil rights in the Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation workers’ strike by AFSCME Local 1733, which he had gone to Memphis to support when he was murdered” [15]. Restricting our understanding of the movement to the boundaries of the United States makes the history even more tame: it claims the struggle for civil rights as a purely national effort, when in reality it was fertilized by ideas from abroad. 

But things are changing. Just this past summer the Democratic Socialists of America voted to endorse the international BDS movement [16]. In the last year, the Movement for Black Lives has started to explicitly situate itself in global terms. It’s mission statement reads: “We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism” [17]. Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza has demanded “an end to the war on black people, in this country and around the world” [18]. This language hearkens back to the radical roots of civil rights that, according to the editors of a newly released volume on black radical thought, “echoes the Black Radical Tradition’s insistence on political imaginaries beyond Eurocentrism” [19]. Anthropologist Nadine Naber has recently attempted to trace the contours of a growing “Black-Palestinian solidarity” from Ferguson to Gaza [20]. In other words, the American Left is beginning to think globally and build transnational solidarity—exactly what civil rights activists did beginning almost a hundred years ago. It’s about time.

Daniel LoPreto is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. He has written for The Indypendent and Full Stop magazine. He is currently an Associate Commissioning Editor for Pluto Press.


[1] Jessica Glenza, “Rosewood massacre a harrowing tale of racism and the road toward reparations,” Guardian, January 3, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/03/rosewood-florida-massacre-racial-violence-reparations
[2] Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 73.
[3] Ibid., 73.
[4] Ibid., 24.
[5] Ibid., 56.
[6] Ibid., 73.
[7] Ibid., 177.
[8] Ibid., 179.
[9] Ibid., 194.
[10] Robin D. G. Kelly, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), xi, 11, 62.
[11] Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: Norton, 2008), 109.
[12] Horne, 100.
[13] Adolph Reed Jr., Stirrings In The Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 9.
[14] Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 214.
[15] Asad Haider, “Idylls of the Liberal: The American Dreams of Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 11, 2017, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/09/11/idylls-of-the-liberal-the-american-dreams-of-mark-lilla-and-ta-nehisi-coates/
[16] Zaid Jilani, “As Congress Tries to Criminalize BDS, the Democratic Socialists of America Endorse It,” The Intercept, August 6, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/08/06/dsa-democratic-socialists-bds-israel-palestine/
[17] The Movement for Black Lives, “Platform,” https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/
[18] Karin Kamp, “Black Lives Matter Cofounder Alicia Garza on the Global Movement for Black Lives,” Truthout, October 05, 2016, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37878-black-lives-matter-co-founder-alicia-garza-on-the-global-movement-for-black-lives
[19] Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (eds.), Futures of Black Radicalism (London: Verso, 2017), 9, 15.
[20] Nadine Naber, “‘The U.S. and Israel Make the Connections for US’: Anti-Imperialism and Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, May 31, 2016, https://www.kzoo.edu/praxis/anti-imperialism-and-black-palestinian-solidarity/#_edn9