By Benjamin Talton / Special To The Washington Post
Recent events have exposed a revival of authoritarianism and white supremacy in America. They have been foundational to the country since its inception, both as a domestic practice and as an export. Increasingly, however, proponents of white power have reasserted them as a rallying cry, which has inspired their acts of voter suppression, xenophobia and violence.
ProPublica has documented an expanding global white supremacist network, including an eerie connection between and celebration of killings by white nationalists. Americans have traveled to Ukraine and Russia to train with neo-Nazi militias. The gunman who killed 23, mostly Latino, victims at an El Paso shopping center in August 2019 had denounced a “Hispanic invasion” and professed his admiration for the murderer of 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. That gunman penned a manifesto reportedly inspired by the words and deeds of the American who killed nine African American worshipers at Mother Bethel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.
The U.S. government’s response to this global phenomenon of white supremacy and rising authoritarianism has been anemic at best. Rather than make common cause with those battling against it, the U.S. has turned a blind eye. Worse still, the U.S. aids authoritarianism and political violence in nations such as Uganda and, until President Biden ended military support to Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
The Biden administration’s recent statement on Myanmar is also promising, but the United States must decide either to continue supporting authoritarianism and white supremacy through its silence and complicity or live up to its self-proclaimed status as a model democracy and moral authority.
Toward the latter, African American activists’ steadfast opposition to authoritarianism and white supremacy at home and abroad offer lessons for the U.S. government. During World War II, activists created the Double V (Double Victory) Campaign against domestic and foreign tyranny. Even as their own country treated them as internal threats, African Americans, from Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson, W. E. B and Shirley Graham Du Bois and Mary McCleod Bethune to Martin Luther King Jr, among many others, took sustained and principled stances against authoritarianism and imperialism.
Indeed, historically, a majority of African Americans endured an existence defined by America’s authoritarianism and homegrown white supremacy. Laws and customs curtailed African Americans’ political participation, severely restricted labor and economic freedoms and confined them to the poorest, most neglected districts of the rural South and the ghettos of the North. These experiences attuned African Americans to the warning signs of authoritarianism and emboldened activists to challenge U.S. foreign policies that aided it abroad.
In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Luthuli, president of South Africa’s African National Congress, collaborated on the “Appeal for Action Against Apartheid.” Their statement implored the U.S. and its allies to cut their economic ties with South Africa. King and Luthuli bravely issued this call in a moment when questioning U.S. foreign policies and undermining one of its Cold War allies were cast as unpatriotic. In South Africa, challenging the apartheid state was a criminal offense. Despite these obstacles, “Appeal for Action” became a building block for the decades-long struggle to end U.S. support for apartheid, spearheaded in the U.S. by African American organizations and advanced within the U.S. government during the 1970s and 1980s by the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1971, in a similar expression of the African American anti-authoritarianism tradition, Robert Van Lierop, a 34-year-old New York activist-attorney, traveled clandestinely to Mozambique in East Africa to film “A Luta Continua,” his documentary on that country’s liberation movement from Portuguese colonial rule. Van Lierop described Mozambique as “one of the last strongholds of an extremely racialistic brand of colonialism” and called the country “vital in the campaign to liberate all of southern Africa from domination by illegal minority regimes.” His film and involvement in the Mozambican liberation struggle exemplified the dynamism of the period’s Black internationalism and anti-authoritarianism. In common cause with Mozambicans, Van Lierop sought to use his film to sway public opinion in the U.S. against further support for the U.S. military alliance with Portugal.
Van Lierop’s film illustrated the creativity of African Americans’ anti-authoritarianism and showed that their tactics often conflicted with official U.S. policy. As U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young expressed a view popular among African Americans that anti-Communism was a cover for U.S. hegemony and European neocolonialism.
In 1977, during an interview with Dan Rather of CBS News, Young stated that Cuba’s military presence in Angola brought stability to southwest Africa, which directly contradicted official U.S. policy toward Cuba and Communism. Young identified racism as the foremost threat to freedom and democracy around the world. “Most colored peoples of the world are not afraid of communism. Maybe that’s wrong but communism has never been a threat to me. I have no love for communism. I could never be a communist. I could never support that system of government,” he said. “But it’s never been a threat. Racism has always been a threa; and that has been the enemy of all my life and everything I know about life.”
State Department officials recanted Young’s statements the next day.
Nevertheless, Young’s position remained a testament to African American efforts to reject the superficial rhetoric of freedom in world affairs and to reject all forms of authoritarianism, even from one’s own government.
The U.S. movement against White-minority rule in South Africa met its most formidable obstacle in President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. Reagan was the diametrical opposite of the Black anti-authoritarian tradition. He embraced the U.S. custom of unabashed disregard for the absence of democracy and human rights in allied countries, while being intolerant of human rights abuses and authoritarianism — what he labeled totalitarianism — in Soviet-backed governments in Central and Eastern Europe.
His cause celebre was Polish labor leader Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement’s steadfast resistance to political repression by Poland’s Soviet-backed government. In a nationally televised address on Dec. 23, 1981, Reagan extolled the Solidarity Movement’s virtues and condemned Polish government abuses. Reagan even threatened the Polish government with retribution if it failed to pursue reforms. “I want emphatically to state tonight that if the outrages in Poland do not cease, we cannot and will not conduct ‘business as usual’ with the perpetrators and those who aid and abet them.” Their crimes, he said, will cost them dearly in their future dealings with the U.S. and free peoples everywhere.
Yet, Reagan’s response to South Africa’s repression of its Black citizens was wholly different. Rather than threaten its Cold War ally for trampling international human rights conventions, Reagan praised the apartheid regime for supporting the U.S. “Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we must have and so forth?” he asked CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, during a March 3, 1981, interview. His rhetorical sleight of hand had been a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy, but Reagan executed it to its most expert and deleterious effect toward global south nations during the Cold War.
By contrast, the African American anti-authoritarian tradition, expressed through protests, political statements, international delegations and legislation, consistently demanded the highest standard of human rights and political freedoms from the U.S.’s allies. Eventually they succeeded in imposing sanctions on South Africa, over Reagan’s veto.
That tradition was also reflected in the Double V Campaign of the 1940s. African Americans have always recognized the domestic and global dynamics of authoritarianism. Unlike white American men, for most of their history in the U.S. African Americans have suffered under a regime of terror, violence and gross disfranchisement and exploitation. Indeed, the period of true, mature democracy in the U.S. amounts to mere decades since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and, without vigilance and a national commitment to victory at home and abroad against authoritarianism and white supremacy, that period may be rounding toward conclusion.
Benjamin Talton teaches history at Temple University and is the author of “In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics.”