Peace Was the Glue: Europe and African American Freedom

Brenda Gayle Plummer. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. Volume 10, Issue 2, 2008.

Europeans learned from the freedom struggles waged by African Americans in the second half of the twentieth century in political as well as cultural ways. What they absorbed from their knowledge of African-American insurgencies and their exposure to specific individuals, organizations, and movements was often indirect, filtered through discourses about politics and ethics, support for decolonization, and especially through local traditions of peace and anti-nuclear organizing. At the same time, Europeans expressed considerable ambivalence about race, especially in the context of increased immigration of people of color after World War II, and specifically about African Americans, often seen simultaneously as victims of oppression and as examples of a debased American popular culture. A combination of doubt and expectation attends the contours and limits of African-American and European shared perspectives. Most discussions of these connections emphasize the therapeutic effects that freedom from racial constraints had on Black Americans fortunate enough to cross the Atlantic and live life in countries where race was not all consuming.

This essay seeks to augment that extensively documented aspect of diaspora history in arguing that the civil rights and Black Power movements also provoked political debate and action that European activists used to interpret and affect conditions in their respective countries. Emphasis on culture has all too often suggested a one-way exchange, with Blacks the net beneficiaries of European benevolence. As Yohuru Williams has observed, one common conception of Black movements renders them “the product of foreign influences that extended from Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon to Che Guevara and Mao Tse Tung. Such images create the impression that African-Americans were greatly influenced by foreign contacts with little impact or contribution of their own.” A closer look at the link between African-American insurgencies and Europe reveals a richer and more nuanced set of relationships.

Certain scholars express skepticism about the significance of such links, as well as doubts about the extent of African-American politicization more generally. “Black radicals…tried to make the international connection by linking their fight to the worldwide struggle being waged by the poor and oppressed against imperialism,” Manfred Berg claims. “Beyond the exchange of solidarity addresses and the granting of exile,” Berg found little to indicate that Black insurgency was “influenced by international developments.” Berg and other writers have looked in the wrong places for evidence of the link. Peace would serve as the connection between social movements at home and abroad.

African Americans in Europe

The possibility of deliverance from American racism formed a key component of how African Americans before 1960 conceptualized diaspora life in Europe. Individual Europeans, many believed, were innocent of the sins of racism. While the imperialist histories of European states clearly implicate these countries in the crimes of slavery and racial oppression, they had not brought slavery—or a great many people of color—home. Black visitors remarked on how novel they appeared to their white hosts. Nancy Prince, who had made her living as a domestic servant in New England, was presented, along with her husband, to the tsar and tsarina of Russia in 1824, possibly as exotic curiosities from the West. Prince described a pre-revolutionary Russian society based on class, but not racial, distinctions. “There was no prejudice against color,” she recalled in her memoir. “There were there all casts, and the people of all nations, each in their place.” Prince’s narrative suggests that she was comfortable with class hierarchy in her host society but objected to racial slavery and discrimination based on color. As late as 1955, James Baldwin would write about the sensation his appearance in a snow-covered Swiss hamlet would cause. “From all available evidence no Black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a ‘sight’ for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a ‘sight’ outside of the city.” Baldwin described a pre-Lenten ritual in the village where children in blackface went door to door soliciting alms to redeem the souls of African slaves. He attributed the shock that this practice created in him to his socialization as a Black American and pardoned village children’s naive and fascinated use of the word neger.

African Americans traveling in Europe wrote of how exhilarating they found the absence of the color bar in public accommodations. They often ascribed bigotry, when encountered, to U.S. influence. Future civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell as a young woman studied in Germany between 1888 and 1890, staying in Berlin and avoiding Dresden, seen by her as a white American and British bailiwick rife with Anglo-Saxon prejudice. W. E. B. Du Bois described in his autobiography the attempts of a white American woman to disrupt a budding romance between him and the daughter of the German family with which he lived while a university student abroad. In these constructions, pernicious influence from the United States limits Black access to European society. Du Bois’s own decision not to pursue a relationship with a German woman because of the handicaps a white wife would present for him in America owes much to the constraints imposed by the racism of his native land.

The degree to which Black expatriation disrupted the life-plan laid out for Blacks by American society proved a source of satisfaction for those living abroad. Cartoonist Ollie Harrington remembered the consternation that such Black freedom seemed to cause among white Americans. “Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, all the great American writers were all in Paris at one time or another,” he recalled. “But when Black expatriates sort of joined the ‘fraternity,’ it wasn’t a very popular thing with the authorities in the United States and you can easily see why.” Crossing a geographic border also meant crossing a political and psychological one. “These were really disrupting ideas which existed. Blacks had to be held in influence from the Unitedcheck. They had to fear white law, and that sort of thing. Living in Paris and having experiences that Blacks shouldn’t have was not conducive to a smooth course towards whatever American history would finally produce.”

The African American-European nexus is thus conventionally conceived of as a set of circumstances that permitted Blacks living away from the control of U.S. laws and mores to enjoy social freedoms in the midst of a compliant and largely innocent host population, untainted by racism. The reality was somewhat more complicated. Released from the strictures of segregation and bias, the expatriate could now pursue her aptitudes and inclinations. In the nineteenth century, when the most literate Americans had not discovered the cultural richness of their own country and retained a colonial’s admiration of European civilization, Black painter Henry O. Tanner’s and Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis’s respective exoduses were not unusual moves. In succeeding generations, many others followed them. Josephine Baker, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Ollie Harrington, and Chester Himes number among the best known, but other talents also figure in the European segment of the African-American diaspora.

Accounts of Black life in Europe most often see these individuals as revitalized by the chance to escape Jim Crow. Europe is the net benefactor. Less attention is paid to African-American influence on European thought and political practice, especially as most writing on the subject of Black expatriates in Europe focuses on the cultural realm. I am exploring here that facet of the African-American and European connection that speaks more directly to power relations and the challenges mounted to them. In so doing, I am making a somewhat artificial distinction between the influences on Europe of African Americans per se and other peoples of the African diaspora, as well as that of Asian immigrants and others. While focusing on African Americans truncates a very complex set of interactions, it also affords an opportunity to turn a lens on a rarely examined feature of transatlantic history.

Global attention turned to the civil rights movement in the United States at a time when western European males had long ago won citizenship rights through class-driven politics. Workers’ rights were at the core of mass pressures for social and political change. After World War II, liberal democracies upheld by U.S. firepower muted worker insurgency in some countries. Labor politics nevertheless continued, more vigorously in some places than others, and served as a check on efforts to restore the laissez-faire capitalism of the past. On the surface, it would seem that western Europeans would be little concerned about racial matters in the United States and even less in linking them to events in their home countries. As it turned out, however, they expressed substantial interest in African-American movements. They interpreted the knowledge they derived from observing America through the filter of their Cold War experience. European states have been more important in shaping the post-World War II order than a focus on Soviet-American bipolarity suggests. An examination of the ways in which smaller states challenged the ideological and political hegemony of the U.S. and the USSR allows fresh thinking, not only about the role of Europe in world affairs, but also about how nongovernmental actors influenced viewpoints and actions.

European interest in the political agenda created by African-American activists derived in part from an ongoing conversation among social movements across a spectrum from center to left, and across oceans. As Doug McAdam has noted, “established organizations/networks are themselves embedded in long-standing activist subcultures” that “function as repositories of cultural materials.” “Succeeding generations of activists” thus learn from past struggles and choose, discard, or revise what history has to offer. Movements created out of specific conditions in particular countries can also resonate with the national experience of people in other places. “If it was once sufficient to interpret or predict social movements around the shape of the nation state, it is less and less possible to do so today,” Sidney Tarrow observes.

After the Allied victory in World War II, the United States installed a Pax Americana in Western Europe and entered into an uneasy truce with the Soviets in which both powers grudgingly tolerated the existence of their respective spheres of influence but never acknowledged the respective legitimacy of each other’s claims to domination. Neither was above searching for opportunities to undermine the troubled modus vivendi that prevailed for the next forty-four years. Nations under U.S. protection thus recovered from the war under the shadow of juggernauts and faced the real possibility that war could resume. The existence of nuclear arms enhanced feelings of insecurity among states caught in the middle. Secrecy accompanying the development of atomic weaponry and the exclusion of mass publics from debate about security issues also raised questions about the extent and strength of democracy. The exigencies of postwar reconstruction and sentiments of gratitude toward the United States for such programs as the Marshall Plan initially muted some of the misgivings.

The restoration of prosperity, beginning in the 1950s, revived the desires of many Europeans for a more coherent and independent sense of national identity. Some questioned whether the interminable Cold War standoff was having a deleterious impact on the future of their countries and began to suggest that security did not always mean compliance with U.S. and Soviet agendas. Roosevelt and Stalin had carved up Europe at the Yalta Conference in 1945, some reasoned, and neither had European interests at heart. The remedy, then, was to create a foreign policy for the continent that restrained its American and Soviet overlords and reaffirmed the identity and integrity of each country. A European “third way” would evaluate Cold War policies on the merits of their overall impact, not solely in terms of their benefit to the superpowers.

African Americans had also come to take a nuanced view of Cold War conflict. After World War II, accusations of Communist subversion had retarded the progress of the civil rights movement as racists and their allies used the Red smear to discredit those fighting for the ballot and against segregation. National security, they argued, required the repression of dissent. Many African Americans consequently dismissed the Communist issue. This included some conservative figures, such as Elk leader and Black Republican W. C. “Billy” Hueston, who wrote a letter to President Eisenhower requesting clemency for convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Musician Dizzy Gillespie numbered among those making a distinction between self-affirmation and toeing an ideological line. “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival,” he recalled. “But there was nothing unpatriotic about it. If America wouldn’t honor its Constitution and respect us as men, we couldn’t give a shit about the American way.” Black New Yorkers showed little hesitancy in responding to the radical singer Paul Robeson’s troubles with the government, according to his biographer, Martin Duberman. “The red menace did not strike most Harlemites as notably more invidious than the white one.” Conventional civil rights organizations, however, made a point of distancing themselves from leftist politics and associations in order to please liberal sympathizers and putative supporters in government. Unlike the more established groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) opposed making an issue of radical participation in the movement, viewing it as a distraction from the real business of securing civil rights.

Mid-Century Change

In Europe, France provided the most flamboyant demonstration of the break with bipolarity, especially when Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 with a mission to revive the prestige that France once enjoyed as premier nation on the continent. De Gaulle’s vision did not embrace a collaborative Europe with France as one of many partners but, rather, a Europe in which an incontestable France played a dominant role. The French had wanted to retain their largest colony, Algeria, home to a sizeable French settler community, as the centerpiece of a revived nationalism. The Algerians wanted independence, however, and in the ensuing revolutionary war, De Gaulle came to acknowledge the impossibility of returning to the past. The French discovered, as they had at Dienbienphu, that military might alone cannot create lasting political solutions. French policy, in spite of its idiosyncrasies, including the determination to join the nuclear club and the subsequent withdrawal from NATO reflected a growing dissatisfaction in Europe more generally with the obligation to subordinate national ambitions to Cold War exigencies.

In the interim, France exposed an ugly side of its national character. The Algerian revolution disrupted the Parisian idyll of the Black expatriates as people of color came under increasing suspicion. James Baldwin wrote eloquently of his trumped-up arrest in Paris for the alleged theft of a bed sheet. A violent police force, led by a former Nazi collaborator, targeted immigrant Algerian workers for beatings and death. In October 1961, the Parisian public remained indifferent as Arab bodies floated in the Seine. African-American student Frances Beal, later a feminist leader, arrived in Paris without prior knowledge of the conflict. While she impassively witnessed a street protest, a French police officer hit Beal on the head with a cape weighted with metal balls. Physical escape from the United States, Black travelers of this era discovered, did not always shield them from racism.

A liberal trend in the Roman Catholic Church also challenged Cold War conformity and the control imposed by the most powerful nation-states. On May 15, 1961 Pope John XXIII issued an encyclical titled Mater et Magistra. Here the pontiff defined the Roman Catholic Church’s position on “Christianity and social progress.” The encyclical constituted a critical departure from the Church’s decades-long inertia regarding social and political issues. “There is a…keener interest in world affairs shown by people of average education,” the pope observed. “We are witnessing the break-away from colonialism and the attainment of political independence by the peoples of Asia and Africa.” Changing times required a reaffirmation of Christian values. “The solidarity which binds all men together as members of a common family makes it impossible for wealthy nations to look with indifference upon the hunger, misery and poverty of other nations whose citizens are unable to enjoy even elementary human rights,” the encyclical proclaimed. “Glaring economic and social imbalances” undermined global security.

Pope John XXII criticized self-interested forms of foreign assistance designed to create dependency and enhance wealthy states’ pursuit of “their own plans for world domination.” Exploitative aid practices “would in fact be introducing a new form of colonialism—cleverly disguised, no doubt, but actually reflecting that older, outdated type from which many nations have recently emerged.” They would “have harmful impact on international relations, and constitute a menace to world peace.” For the Vatican, the “whole raison d’être” of the state was “the realization of the common good in the temporal order.” It identified this goal with a free market and embraced capitalism, but rejected materialism in its socialist guise. The Council’s purpose was to update the Church in view of the twentieth century’s unprecedented developments. The pontiff sought a more democratic ecclesiastical body whose incorporation of such changes as the use of vernacular languages rather than Latin in the mass would strengthen it as a universal community and ensure its survival into the infinite future. A second encyclical, Pacem in Terris, issued in 1963, gave further backing to proponents of racial equality, decolonization, and peace. Six years later, Pope John’s successor, Paul VI, issued Populorum Progressio/The Progress of Peoples (1967). Paul identified racism as “a cause of division and hatred within countries whenever individuals and families see the inviolable rights of the human person held in scorn, as they themselves are unjustly subjected to a regime of discrimination because of their race or their color.” The Vatican’s stance enabled a worldwide conversation about power that formed part of the context in which Europeans viewed emerging social movements in the United States.

While circumstances in Europe and shared points of reference made it possible for many to utilize insights from Black freedom movements, relations between Europeans and African Americans were also marked by ambivalence. In the United Kingdom, Caribbean immigrants began arriving after World War II to satisfy a labor shortage. As their numbers grew, so did conflicts with white Britons, which culminated in the Notting Hill riots of 1958. These disturbances embarrassed Britain and shocked the world, and their occurrence on the eve of African independence sensitized Her Majesty’s government to the issue of how new Commonwealth members would perceive British society. From that point on, the United States was not alone in walking the tightrope between domestic race relations and foreign policy.

The same year, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) launched a late summer offensive against the French homeland. They attacked gas stations, police precincts, and a munitions plant, with fatalities on both sides. Insurgents tried, but failed, to assassinate the former governor-general of Algeria. Official revenge was swift and savage. Police officers targeted swarthy people for beatings, including Portuguese and Spaniards. In Paris, they tortured Algerian prisoners in basements. There were disappearances. Newspapers that protested the abuses had their issues seized, and the authorities foiled other legal efforts to address human rights claims. Even after the French government began serious talks with the FLN in 1961, Algerians living in France continued to be victims of racist ire. “In the course of the month of September 1961, people began to hear talk of North African cadavers being pulled out of the Seine,” Jean-Luc Einaudi writes. Some survived these drownings by the police and lived to tell about it.

Clearly, at the turn of the Sixties decade, Britain and France, facing the dismantling of their empires and the ingress of formerly subjugated people, could not be categorized as wholly receptive to the strivings of Blacks, nor could they as easily take the moral high ground in comparison to the United States. The riots in England “far surpassed, in violence,” segregationist North Carolina governor Luther Hodges told an English churchman, “anything that has ever occurred in North Carolina.” Martin Luther King, invited to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne to receive an honorary degree, identified “the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war” as critical worldwide concerns. King drew parallels between the ghettoization of Caribbean and Asian peoples and the discrimination against them in the United Kingdom, and the plight of Black Americans in the United States. The Nobel laureate’s remarks became the focus of local debate both in the press and among the public.

West Germany, unlike Britain and France, found itself in a somewhat different, although still ticklish, position vis-à-vis the United States and the question of race. The Federal Republic lay at the center of a divided Europe and depended heavily on the U.S. army to underwrite its own security. Germans winked at separate entertainment facilities for Black and white GIs in their country even though racial segregation was against their own law. The ironies of defeat in a war fought largely in defense of a white supremacy that subsequently flourished among the victors were not lost on German sensibilities. Americans in West Germany tried to avoid the subject. This even extended to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who visited in 1959 but apparently at the State Department’s request, refrained from talking about integration or anything else controversial during his stay.

German diplomats in the United States were nervous about racial conflicts in their host country. The consul in Atlanta sent home a pamphlet published by a Georgia segregationist that reminded him of Nazi arguments. Envoys tried to dodge the American racists who wanted to frequent German consulates. When the American Nazi Party demonstrated against Black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.’s marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, the German consul in Los Angeles felt compelled to make a public statement distancing the Federal Republic from American storm troopers. To Germans, the term “racism” recalled the errors of the Third Reich, although more than a trace of race hatred persisted into the postwar era. The existence of strong prejudice and resistance to racial equality on the part of the United States, West Germany’s protector, only enhanced the ambivalence Germans experienced as they balanced between rediscovered moral principle and earlier sentiment.

The Peace Movement

Attacks on immigrants of color, resistance to decolonization, and racial discrimination formed part of the motif of a Europe having to rapidly adjust to change in the mid-twentieth century. If reactionary tendencies pulled in one direction, a desire to defuse racial, ethnic, and international tensions counterbalanced them. The peace movement served as the common ground from which collaboration and understanding between European and African-American change agents sprang. An international peace movement emerged from World War II, but it declined during the Korean War and McCarthy period. African-American musical artists Charlie Parker, Marian Anderson, and Pearl Primus numbered among early supporters of the antinuclear movement, as did sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and educators Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Benjamin Mays. Peace advocates were widely discredited as Communist dupes until Stalin’s death sufficiently eased East-West tensions so that U.S. activism could resume without substantial risk of punishment. In 1955, Quakers issued a statement, “Speak Truth to Power,” that reclaimed religious and ethical ground for a movement besmirched by Cold War politics. The Montgomery bus boycott and subsequent campaigns of nonviolent direct action lent new credence to the pursuit of peace. Martin Luther King, Jr., the appointed boycott leader, aligned himself with anti-nuclear critics well before his famous speech in which he denounced the war in Vietnam.

The increasingly terrifying power of nuclear weapons aroused global fears, especially as post-Sputnik anxieties led to more armament and the growth of defense establishments around the world. Middle class peace movements emerged in the United States and Europe, but affluent western citizens were not the only ones concerned about war. The threat of atomic warfare also troubled African nations and prompted an important coming together of activists from different countries that joined concerns about peace, civil rights, nonviolence, and anti-colonialism. Most efforts in developed countries during the years of the peace movement’s revival focused on northern hemisphere conflicts inherent in the standoff between the West and the eastern bloc. The Hungarian revolt, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis captured the most attention. Few heeded other global theaters where peace had become a vital issue for reasons other than bloc politics. One of these theaters was in Africa. Peace entered the debate in Africa as a by-product of the quest to end colonialism and racism. Strong voices supported nonviolence. Indeed, the South African Defiance Campaign preceded similar religiously influenced protest activity in the U.S. South.

Veteran peace and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin shared the joint commitment to equality and peace. Rustin was the only American on the program at the historic Aldermaston 1958 march in England. Prominent Britons in attendance included the Reverend Michael Scott (of anti-apartheid fame), author Doris Lessing, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. British Direct Action Committee official Michael Randle later noted that “Bayard Rustin delivered what many regarded as the most powerful speech of that Good Friday afternoon, linking the struggle against weapons of mass destruction with the struggle of Blacks for their basic rights in America.” Throughout the decade, many Africans continued to believe that nonviolent decolonization of the entire continent was both possible and desirable. The historic peace churches, especially influential in Britain and Germany, supported them in this conviction.

The Algerian revolution drew a shadow over this sunny presumption. French zeal in maintaining its principal colony heightened political tensions on the continent. France in 1957 announced a program of nuclear weapons testing in the Sahara that affronted African states and territories. De Gaulle’s government had created a crisis by arrogantly dismissing African anxieties. News that French and American firms had formed a consortium to explore for Saharan oil and build a pipeline through Algeria indicated that France would give no quarter to Algerian nationalists. Plans also entailed the construction of a modern military-industrial complex. French scientists planned to build a small-scale, portable nuclear weapon whose size would be of little use in a confrontation with powers like the USSR or the United States. Critics inferred that the French intended the bomb to maintain control of weak powers in the decolonizing world, as they were also conducting experiments to study the effects of radiation on Saharan rodents.

Elements in the British peace movement and the Ghanaian government hastily mobilized against French objectives. With the help of the London-based Committee of African Organizations, they coordinated demonstrations at the French embassy in London in late August 1959 and in Trafalgar Square. The focus was anti-imperialist as well as anti-nuclear. An atomic stronghold in the Sahara, anti-colonialists understood, not only facilitated French domination in Algeria, but on the African continent as a whole. Peace advocates had the support of neutralist states at a time when the “Bandung spirit” still prevailed in Afro-Asian chancelleries. In Ghana, Nkrumah skillfully exploited the window of opportunity that Cold War tensions had opened. The threat of nuclear war added authority to the neutralist policies that the Ghanaian leader thought appropriate for Africa, and bolstered his ambitions for leadership on the continent and beyond.

Ghanaian finance minister Komla A. Gbedemah, who had once presided over the world-wide pacifist organization, World Federalists, retained as secretary veteran civil rights and peace activist, African-American expatriate William Sutherland. Sutherland received permission to mount a protest against French nuclear testing with Accra’s full endorsement. Ghana sponsored Sutherland’s visits to antiwar events in the United States and Britain to coordinate activities among such organizations as the Committee for Nonviolent Action and the British Direct Action Committee. The Reverend Michael Scott, a highly regarded activist in the fight against apartheid, lent his aid to a program of opposition. The result was the Sahara Protest Team, composed of twenty persons, fourteen of them Africans and six from the United States and Europe. The demonstrators planned to confront French authorities at Reggan, the nuclear facility in the Algerian desert 2,000 miles from Accra. Nationals participated from Ghana, Nigeria, Britain, France, the United States, and what is now Lesotho, whose representative, Jonathan Leabua, thirty-three years later became its president. A. J. Muste from the Fellowship of Reconciliation also joined the effort, flying in to meet the group in northern Ghana. He endorsed a proposition of Gbedemah’s: if nuclear testing was safe, then let the French test their bombs in France.

The Sahara Protest Team left Accra on December 5, 1959. They traveled through northern Ghana, pausing to hold rallies. “The plan was to get as close to the test site as possible,” Sutherland recalled, “letting folks know about the French plans and preventing the testing through our physical presence.” The French stopped the group on the frontier but did not arrest them. The anti-nuclear team handed out leaflets written in local languages and found a positive reception among the population. French police, recognizing this, then forbade them access to the villages. Some friendly African border patrols allowed them to cross into Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), but there they were jailed. The next day French authorities had them taken back to Ghana. Bayard Rustin and Sutherland sang “Negro spirituals” at the Upper Volta check-point. Rustin proved invaluable in the campaign, helping to unite disarmament with African desires for neutrality, environmental health, and peaceful development.

As the Sahara protesters’ activities had received international attention and approval in other African countries, Gbedemah sent them back for another try at the border. This time, with Reverend Scott, they crossed into French colonial territory at night with the aid of “a local guide along a path usually used by smugglers.” “We hid in the bush,” Sutherland remembered. The next day they took the road to Ouagadougou, hitching a ride in a truck. The driver betrayed them, however, delivering the group to a police station where they were again arrested and returned to Ghana. They made a final attempt on January 17, 1960. The team succeeded in getting 66 miles inside Upper Volta before being turned back. On February 13, French authorities carried out the planned nuclear test despite outrage all over Africa. France exploded a second device at ground level on April 1, 1960. Ghana’s ruling Convention Peoples Party (CPP) hosted an April 19 conference attended by representatives of several African states where the mood, as described by a historian of the British peace movement, was “militant and angry.” Organizers invited U.S. civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, pacifist A. J. Muste, and activists from four continents to this Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa. Advocates of nonviolence and passive resistance held dialogues with such partisans of armed struggle as Frantz Fanon. The crises posed by French bomb testing in the Sahara and the Sharpeville, South Africa massacre provided the convocation’s larger context.

Still obdurate, Paris authorized the detonation of a third bomb two days after Christmas. The harmattan season had begun, when cool Saharan winds blow south into the countries of the Sahel and the forest belt, this time bringing with them unknown quantities of radioactive dust. Africans were livid. While international pressure eventually led France to relocate its nuclear program in French Polynesia, far away from large empowered populations and noteworthy criticism, its dogged contempt for Africans did little to affirm a flagging faith in the efficacy of nonviolence at the turn of the decade.

The Sahara protest took place outside Europe, but brought together a unique combination of people and movements in support of a nuclear-free and decolonized Africa. Sutherland later reminisced: “It was so exciting because we felt that this joining up of the European anti-nuclear forces, the African liberation forces, and the U.S. civil rights movements could help each group feed and reinforce the other.” Some of these ties had already been forged. “By the time of the Sahara protest,” historian Richard Taylor has written, “there were firm ideological and personal links between American pacifists (and civil rights activists such as Bayard Rustin) and their pacifist counterparts in Britain.”

Ireland and African America

One of the marchers at Aldermaston was Eamonn MCann, one of several Irish students living in London and absorbing the peace movement ethos who subsequently became active in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Peace served as a bridge to insurgents in Northern Ireland, helping to connect activists to an awareness of struggles in other parts of the world. England had historically stigmatized the Irish as racial inferiors. It thus contributed to an early Irish sensitivity to race and a tendency to make declarations of solidarity with anti-imperialist movements outside Europe. Ireland figured prominently in the global unrest during World War I, when it received rhetorical support from Indian revolutionists and Garveyites, respectively, and when Irish and Indian immigrants living in the United States collaborated on anti-imperialist projects. The Anglo-Irish War led to the 1921 partitioning of Ireland and the creation of a Catholic minority in the dependent territory of Northern Ireland. Once the Irish Free State achieved independence, the Irish Republican Army became moribund for decades. Yet Catholics in Northern Ireland under British rule continued to face problems that included voting restrictions, job discrimination, poverty, police brutality, and unequal access to schooling and housing. Since the revolution to create a free Ireland had ostensibly been won, Catholic leaders in the North in the early 1960s applied an analogy that seemed more apt than revolution for the circumstances of the time: that of civil rights. News coverage of civil rights protest in the United States revealed similar modes of discrimination and suggested that campaigns like those taking place in Dixie might work in Northern Ireland.

Unlike most other Europeans, the Catholics in Northern Ireland did not approach the Black civil rights movement merely as sympathetic onlookers but rather as an aggrieved minority sharing many of the same disabilities that African Americans did. Ireland had no Black American expatriates during that era, but that did not deter Irish activists from adapting (African) American tactics to suit their own needs. “Many of us looked to the civil right struggles in America for our inspiration,” organizer Fionbarra ODorchartaigh recalled. “We compared ourselves to the poor Blacks of the U.S. ghettoes and those suffering under the cruel system of apartheid in racist South Africa. Indeed we viewed ourselves as Ulster’s white Negroes—a repressed and forgotten dispossessed white tribe captured within a bigoted partitionist statelet that no Irish elector had cast a vote to create.” A youthful emerging leader, Bernadette Devlin, a Catholic but socialist and nonsectarian in her outlook, told an interviewer that she drew the courage to defy bigotry from religion. She mordantly observed that Christianity, a common faith for all citizens of Northern Ireland in spite of sectarian differences, had become an excuse for Christians to attack one another. Devlin, like civil rights workers in the American South, wanted Christianity to be instead an instrument of reconciliation.

Activists accordingly embarked on a campaign, beginning in 1964, that included litigation and nonviolent demonstrations where picket sign messages compared Catholics’ plight to that of Black Americans in the Deep South and demanded equal rights. Paul O’Dwyer, a New York City politician of Irish descent, agreed with the comparison, likening the struggle in Northern Ireland to Black insurgency in Mississippi. Not all Irish-Americans agreed, however. O’Dwyer’s remarks contrast with a history of conflict between African Americans and Irish Americans in the United States that began in the nineteenth century and climaxed in the disastrous draft riots of 1863, when Irish mobs attacked Blacks in the streets of New York. Discord continued in the twentieth century when Irish-Americans living in Boston violently opposed the racial integration of their neighborhood schools. While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) endorsed the civil rights cause in Northern Ireland, ironically, many Irish-American groups that also supported Irish Catholic rights opposed the mission of SCLC and other U.S. civil rights organizations. Calls of “Niggers out of Boston, Brits out of Belfast!” greeted Bernadette Devlin on her 1969 visit to Massachusetts. Civil rights groups in Northern Ireland distanced themselves from the politics of many of their Irish-American supporters.

The chance for genuine change through a civil rights strategy in Northern Ireland met resistance from Protestants and from the British government. The banning of public meetings, outlawing of Catholic organizations, and disruption of protests convinced many participants that nonviolent civil disobedience would not work in the face of intransigence from both British officials and Protestant authorities at home, and violent outbreaks that police seemingly could not control. The limited franchise that restricted voting to property holders, and the bias against Catholics in housing effectively restricted their political power. Circumstances were ripe for the reappearance of the Irish Republican Army.

The Late 1960s

This turn to militancy was not unique in the late 1960s on either side of the Atlantic. Radicalism did not erupt suddenly or spontaneously. Every western country has a radical tradition that is constantly in dialogue with conventional consensus politics, ev en in epochs of ascendant conservatism and comparative prosperity. The United States has plural traditions, with African American forms serving as transnational catalysts. In the Sixties and later, “the political militancy of people of color and its centrality within the left and progressive imaginary,” in Nikhil Pal Singh’s words, suffused the European left’s sense of crisis and shaded its interpretation of how to address it.

The peace issue again forged a harmony of interests for European and African-American activists and underlay the insurgencies at the turn of the decade. Europe had twice come close to total self-annihilation during the twentieth century, as global wars toppled governments and caused the deaths of millions. The problem of war and a sense of the helplessness of a continent stranded between two superpowers capable of mass destruction heightened sensitivities. Scholars frequently depict the antiwar movement as a campaign of youth, but many Europeans old enough to have lived through World War II endorsed its goals. When African-American insurgents arrived in Europe with a message that linked racial justice to peace, they often found receptive audiences. Governments inadvertently aided this process when they failed to resolve critical social and political problems within the scope of what they themselves considered legitimate. In the United States, for example, in spite of the nonviolent movement’s achievement of civil rights legislation, Black communities remained impoverished and racists learned clever ways to skirt the law. The increasingly brutal and futile Vietnam War absorbed resources needed for national revitalization. In France, De Gaulle’s pursuit of preeminence based on military power sacrificed reforms for the benefit of civilian society. In both countries, older strategies to address these problems no longer worked. When European officials succumbed to pressures exerted by U.S. authorities to ban dissidents or repatriate deserters, they incurred further resentment from citizens who decried the domination of a power that advertised itself as a champion of democracy and self-determination while betraying those principles in its international behavior. The door therefore opened for other solutions, specifically, the resurgence of a radicalism that had always lain below the surface of conventional politics.

Malcolm X played a part in the resurgence by substituting a discourse of human rights for one of civil rights. “Civil rights actually keeps the struggle within the domestic confines of America,” he explained on a WBAI-FM radio program. African Americans would thus have to seek remedy at the hands of the very people oppressing them. “Human rights,” however, “goes beyond the jurisdiction of this government” and framing the Black condition as such would make it possible to seek outside help. “Our problem is not a Negro problem or an American problem, but rather it has become a human problem, a world problem, and it has to be attacked at the world level.”

Open condemnation by an African-American organization of the United States’ military adventures followed when the McComb County, Mississippi chapter of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy in a July 28, 1965 newsletter. “No one has a right to ask us to risk our lives and kill other Colored People in Santo Domingo and Vietnam, so that the White American can get richer,” the text read. “We will be looked upon as traitors by all the Colored People of the world if the Negro people continue to fight and die without a cause.” The state organization, pressured by the Mississippi NAACP and Representative Charles Diggs of Detroit, quickly distanced itself from the McComb statement, but the cat was out of the bag. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in January 1966 issued a statement declaring it had “a right and a responsibility to dissent with the U.S. foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit.” The tide turned in 1966 when surveys indicated that the majority of African Americans opposed the Vietnam War, a conflict in which Blacks disproportionately served and suffered more than their share of the fatalities.

SNCC charged the federal government with insincerity: it pretended to be concerned with Vietnamese welfare, just as it had falsely claimed sympathy for Dominicans and others. Supporters of the Johnson administration widely rebuked SNCC for its assertions and its temerity in attempting to weigh in on foreign policy matters. SNCC forged ahead, however, creating an International Affairs Commission in 1967 and applying for nongovernmental organization status at the United Nations. James Forman, appointed to direct the Commission, addressed the General Assembly on November 17 in a speech devoted largely to southern Africa. Forman’s remarks are significant here because he presented African Americans as a colonized people who were appealing to the world on that basis; and because SNCC had followed Malcolm X’s lead in internationalizing the terms of debate.

In the years that followed, SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and other organizations followed the logic laid out by Malcolm and began to practice their own diplomacy. Black organizations, most of them nationalist, felt greater affinities with Africa and Asia, and their most concerted international activity took them to such countries as Algeria, China, and Cuba. They nevertheless cultivated allies in Europe, sending leaders of their respective groups abroad to give speeches and organize chapters in various countries. They encouraged American expatriates to form antiwar groups. In Scandinavia, SNCC helped start an antiwar committee composed of Black deserters. The Black Panther Party had support groups in Sweden and Denmark that assisted in fund raising and publicity for imprisoned Panthers in the United States. The Panthers used Denmark as a springboard for contacting Black soldiers stationed at military bases in Germany. Eldridge Cleaver’s book on U.S. race relations, Soul on Ice, was translated into Danish. Students at Denmark’s University of Aarhus wanted to present Cleaver with an honorary award, but when the parliament refused him political refugee status, he did not risk coming.

Antiwar activists in Sweden consolidated their efforts in 1967 with the creation of the United National Liberation Front Groups of Sweden (UNLF). This umbrella organization claimed the anti-nuclear peace movement as parentage. The Swedish government had qualms about the peace movement, but Olof Palme, in early 1968 minister of education, participated in it, much to the consternation of conservatives in Stockholm and Washington, D.C. GIs who defected to Sweden were accorded residence on “humanitarian grounds” and provided with housing and a living allowance. Antiwar American groups also operated from Scandinavian countries. The American Deserters Committee published a broadside that encouraged desertion from the U.S. military, instructing those contemplating going AWOL in how to avoid getting caught, and informing them how to find its field offices and liaisons in Denmark, Sweden, and other countries. Black soldiers formed their own Afro-American Deserters Committee that combined resistance to the racism in U.S. society and in the military with antiwar work.

In May 1970, the United States and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia, dragging an erstwhile neutral country into what then became a larger regional conflict. Members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students on the campus of Kent State University during an antiwar protest. While Black students had been killed by police at Orangeburg State College in South Carolina without substantial notice from the mainstream media, the deaths of white students elicited more comment and renewed mobilization by antiwar groups. During the same month, U.S. ambassador Jerome Holland, an African American, was booed when he went to present his credentials to the king of Sweden. According to the New York Times, Swedish leftists called him a nigger. Certain Swedes, however, claimed that Black Americans present at the ceremony called him a house nigger. In any case, Holland bore the brunt of opposition to U.S. policy. In a move perhaps designed to parry Cleaver, Holland’s book, Black Opportunity, an up-beat look at race in America, was translated into Swedish.

Cleaver and Holland’s war of books suggests the importance of ideas in the conflicts of the period. African American thought and experience operated on the intellectual level as well as on the plane of political organizing. They influenced the activities of some of Europe’s premier scholars. European intellectuals with transnational reputations numbered among those whose writings and political pursuits extended popular interest in peace, anti-imperialism, and African-American resistance. These included Jürgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse in Germany, and Jean Genet and Michel Foucault in France. Habermas later articulated his perception of activists’ mindset. They were, he theorized, part of a paradigm shift in which “problems of quality of life, equality, individual self-realization, participation, and human rights” trumped earlier concerns about security and access to wealth. Those sensitized to these new issues sought to preserve the autonomy of both private life and the public sphere from invasive threats by corporate capitalism and totalitarian political orders. Marcuse addressed the sophistication with which late capitalism defused dissent through distributionist practices and thereby rendered classic Marxist formulations about class struggle obsolete. Habermas and Marcuse, both members of the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist intellectuals, encouraged German students to think critically, but opposed the increasingly militant protests of the late 1960s.

French intellectuals Jean Genet and Michel Foucault showed less reserve. Both plunged into radical politics in ferment all over the West. Genet described the student revolt in France in May 1968 as the erasure of the past. “In May, the France that I have hated so much no longer existed, but rather, during one month, a world suddenly freed from nationalism, a smiling world, of extreme elegance, if you will.” As a playwright, Genet was drawn to the Black Panther Party’s deployment of style as a political weapon and described the organization lyrically. Genet lived with Party members for three months while in the States during the late summer and fall, writing about Black oppression as he observed the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. The adventurous French writer accompanied the Panthers on speaking tours to universities and opened doors for them in elite circles. He aided French support groups for the Panthers and spoke in favor of the release of prison intellectual George Jackson and philosophy professor Angela Y. Davis, employing the term “political prisoner,” a category that U.S. authorities tended to dismiss. In the United States again in the spring and summer of 1970, Genet gave subsequently anthologized speeches that appeared in the French and U.S. press. An ex-convict himself and a gay man, Genet came to the United States illegally because American authorities would not issue him a visa. Genet had written five books while in prison in France. His outlaw experiences drew him to George Jackson, also a writer, who like Genet, “honed his intellectual gifts in the carceral world.” He wrote the preface to an edition of Jackson’s prison letters.

Michel Foucault shared aspects of Genet’s outlaw sensibility and his attraction to Black rebels. His interest in Black insurgency bore directly on his scholarship as a philosopher. He learned about the Black Panther Party and its literature from students he taught in Tunisia in 1968. Forced to leave that country because of his active support for radical students, Foucault returned to France and subsequently traveled to the United States, where he worked at the University of Buffalo. He extended his knowledge of the country in a trip to the Deep South in 1970. George Jackson, already incarcerated, was on trial with others accused of murdering a prison guard. Foucault agreed to assist Jean Genet in Jackson’s defense. Foucault edited and introduced the French translation of excerpts from Jackson’s Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, for which Genet penned the preface. When Jackson’s brother Jonathan failed to free him at gunpoint from a California courtroom in August 1970, Jonathan was shot to death, along with the judge and two of the inmates on trial with Jackson. Authorities claimed to have traced ownership of the gun to Angela Davis. Davis fled, and a year later, prison guards killed George Jackson. These events inaugurated a period of major upheavals in American prisons, including, less than a month later, the Attica Rebellion of 1971. Foucault, teaching in upstate New York, an epicenter of the American prison network, visited Attica the following year. The upheavals in the U.S. penal system formed part of the context in which Foucault’s Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison/Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison appeared in print in 1975.

Students, Military, and Mobility

Leading intellectuals were not the only Europeans to visit the United States or to absorb what they encountered there. Exchange students were even more likely to carry influences home or to adopt perspectives based on their travels abroad. British students in the U.S. with fellowships from the Harkness Foundation had travel money to tour the country. Several came to Montgomery, Alabama in the early Sixties, where they visited Clifford and Virginia Durr, a white couple active in the civil rights movement there. Federal agents followed the foreign students who visited the Durrs, but that did not prevent important networking. Through the agency of one, Anthony Lester, Clifford Durr received an invitation to speak in London in 1964. Lester had joined a fledgling organization that investigated human rights abuses: Amnesty International, for which he journeyed to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to draft a report. Jonathan Steele, another British student who had stayed with the Durrs, participated in a voter registration campaign in Mississippi. Movement influence on Europeans could take place in the United States as well as in Europe. British students were not alone in assessing the American situation and taking an active part in social and political change away from their homes. Three German students who played significant roles in radical politics in the 1960s had come to the United States as exchange students. One of them, Karl-Dietrich Wolff, upon his return to Germany, helped raise funds for Black Panther Bobby Seale’s defense. The larger number of German speakers of English as compared to other European countries increased the likelihood that they would be attuned to American conditions.

European student contact with Americans during the height of the Vietnam War again demonstrates the salience of peace as a motivating issue. Vietnam did not only impress European critics as a moral issue; it also revived the possibility of Soviet intervention and thus a conflagration that could bring down the stable order in Europe. Antiwar activity followed that reasoning. Support for soldiers who began deserting the U.S. military in significant numbers by 1967, because clandestine, often eludes the record. American organizations operating in Europe with a network of local collaborators spirited deserters to locations in Scandinavia, France, and elsewhere. Participants in this underground railroad included persons across the center-to-left political spectrum, from Protestant clergy to erstwhile apolitical youth social clubs. Sometimes antiwar efforts reached fantastic extremes, as when a faction of the German student group Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS) planned a march to a U.S. military base near Berlin where they would “storm the barracks” in coordination with a group of Panther-affiliated soldiers who would stage a simultaneous mutiny. The plot was discovered and called off, however, when U.S. authorities announced that military police would shoot anyone invading the premises. More often resistance took the form of steady and determined opposition to the war, increasingly reflected in proliferating disobedience among U.S. troops.

The armed services of the United States officially desegregated during the Truman era, but racism lingered on as a reflection of both senior brass values and attitudes at large in civilian society. West Germany, where the United States had its largest defense installations in Europe, had been a hotbed of prejudice since the end of the postwar occupation. In addition to the strictly segregated social life available to Black soldiers, housing discrimination, and unfairness in military justice, Black soldiers were likely to incur the hostility of assorted American Nazis and Klansmen. By the end of 1970, a highly organized Black resistance had emerged. The Army initially tried to stop GIs from organizing through heavy-handed repression, but when it allowed them to hold meetings, publish papers, and join dissident organizations, hundreds of ephemeral newspapers, newsletters, and pamphlets urging opposition to war and racism flourished. A mutiny in the Seventh Army caused the cancellation of the trial of 53 Black soldiers in Darmstadt, West Germany in October 1971. The soldiers saw the problems in the military as complementary to those in civilian life. They protested unequal treatment and lack of opportunities for promotion. Shipboard mutinies took place in the Pacific during the early 1970s as Black sailors flatly refused to follow orders and engaged in pitched battles with other sailors and Marines. News of these encounters spread via ship radio and multiplied accordingly.

Military unrest in a time of war led federal authorities to repress the antiwar movement at home and abroad. European governments sometimes cooperated with this initiative for reasons of their own. France deported a number of foreign dissidents for taking part in the events of May 1968, and those remaining had to sign agreements that they would not engage in political activity. At Washington’s request, the Ministry of the Interior banned the Paris American Committee to Stop the War, which had worked to find lodgings and work for resisters and deserters. France, shaken by the internal rebellion of its workers and students, and roiled by a run on the franc, yielded to U.S. pressure. German officials refused entry to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver because he had been indicted for a crime in the United States for which he could be extradited. They curiously extended the ban to his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, who had no charges pending against her. France and Denmark also barred Kathleen Cleaver. Antiwar activists already present in Germany faced efforts to deport them.

GI militancy survived the end of the draft and the winding down of the Vietnam War, but the decline in African-American influence on developments in Europe owed something to flaws on the left as well as to government repression. France had never been especially hospitable to the deserters and resisters, who after 1968 decamped to Sweden. French anti-Americanism limited contacts between rebellious students and the GI population in France. Many American soldiers were newcomers to the political consciousness that percolated among many Europeans in their age cohort. According to “Max,” identified only by his first name in the reports emanating from the Quaker Centre in Paris, “the [U.S.] Army…now concentrates its fire on a weak but essential link: the link between the GI and civilian population.” Class and the “cultural/language barrier” separated the largely educated European antiwar population from the working class Americans most likely to be drafted. Even in Germany, where the language barrier was less formidable and well organized antiwar efforts had begun in 1967, it took a while for students to switch their slogan from “Down with GI Murderers” to one of cooperation with soldiers who were increasingly anti-war. As for the soldiers themselves, some expressed trepidation about leftist German students. During the same antiwar march where plans to storm the U.S. military base were foiled, German protesters attempted to seize scaffolding that construction workers had erected to use as podiums from where speakers at a rally could be heard. The workers resisted by burning the demonstrators’ picket signs. The result was a free-for-all, pitching students against workers. This scenario echoed similar conflicts between antiwar progressives and blue-collar workers in the United States. The support for the Vietnam War by New York’s “hard hats,” construction workers who harassed antiwar protesters, demonstrated the inability of the antiwar movement to close the class gap, which constituted one of its most haunting failures.


This essay will disappoint those seeking a crude cause-and-effect link between European and African-American insurgencies, as well as those who assume that the connection did not rise above rhetoric. A complex reality suggests many eddies and byways in the relationship. The search for world peace underlies the gains and losses of an unprecedented period of international coordination across frontiers, nationalities, and classes, and made African-American freedom struggles salient to the interests of people in other countries. While conditions in Europe itself ultimately determined how Europeans mounted antiracist and anti-imperialist struggles in their individual states and as members of a continental community, the insights they derived from the African-American refusal of racism and imperialism and their activity in support of that stand illustrates how the theme of peace informed social movements throughout the epoch.