Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Little Rock as America: Hoyt Fuller, Europe, and the Little Rock Racial Crisis of 1957

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Little Rock as America: Hoyt Fuller, Europe, and the Little Rock Racial Crisis of 1957

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS HAVE LONG RECOGNIZED THAT THE CIVIL RIGHTS struggle, though centered in the South, was national in scope. (1) More recent research has revealed the layered and varied international dimensions of the fight for African American freedom in the decades after World War II. The major actors in the civil rights drama--black activists, the federal government, segregationists in and out of government at various levels--were keenly aware that they were operating on a world stage and that their audiences consisted of more than just disinterested spectators. For their part, civil rights activists applauded the ongoing global anticolonial struggles and took heart from the rise of new nation-states in Africa and Asia. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted in 1957, the year of the Little Rock crisis, "We have the privilege of noticing in our generation the great drama of freedom and independence as it unfolds in Asia and Africa. All of these things are in line with the unfolding work of Providence." (2) Apparently not as firmly directed by the hand of Providence, the makers of U.S. foreign policy found that their attempts to court the emerging Third World nations amid the twin dramas of decolonization and the cold war were complicated, even stymied, by Jim Crow. The Soviet Union was only too eager to point out that racial segregation belied U.S. claims to champion freedom at home and abroad. Even the closest allies of the United States, most notably in western Europe, joined in condemning the treatment of African Americans. (3) Through it all, the defenders of Jim Crow remained unmoved. Declaring the civil rights movement a communist-inspired or communist-directed attack on the southern way of life, indeed on American civilization generally, some segregationists launched their own "white Atlantic" foreign policy, finding allies in such places as apartheid South Africa, white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, and the fascist Portuguese colonial regimes in Africa. (4) In this way, the African American struggle assumed a deep international cast at multiple levels.

African American expatriates were an important component of the internationalization of the black freedom struggle in the United States. From their various places of exile, they agitated against racial injustice back home. In the face of the anticommunist witch hunt that characterized the cold war, some black activists, especially those associated or identified with the communist movement, fled the United States on account of actual persecution, even prosecution, or the fear thereof. Not all African American expatriates, however, were motivated by fear of political victimization. Some left the United States out of sheer despair and disgust. Even if the emigres had not personally experienced violence, they were sickened by the viciousness of the defenders of Jim Crow.

Hoyt W. Fuller (1923-1981), a journalist, editor, writer, teacher, and doyen of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, was among those who chose exile out of despair. (5) Fuller moved to Europe from Chicago because he loathed the violence directed against African Americans in general and black political activists in particular, and he doubted the prospects for racial transformation in the United States, even amid the fervor of the civil rights movement.

Fuller's expatriation was precipitated by the debacle at Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Even more than the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, which was a watershed event of the modern civil rights movement, the Little Rock crisis boldly highlighted black resolve and its antipode, white reaction. At Little Rock, the segregationists ostentatiously threw down the gauntlet before the civil rights movement. "Massive resistance" to desegregation had long been bruited about, but Little Rock made it manifest. (6) The Little Rock crisis, with all the attendant white violence and ugliness, raised much more ire in and outside the United States than had any single event in the civil rights movement up to that point. …

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