Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988

By Brenda Gayle Plummer | Go to book overview

Introduction
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER

During Easter week in 1958, the African American civil rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin took his place at the microphone at a rally in Britain. His speech was one of the events for a planned march from the British nuclear facility at Aldermaston, Berkshire, to London's Trafalgar Square. It was a historic day for the peace movement in democratic countries, newly resurgent after years of quiescence, when Cold War fears had equated peace advocacy with treason. Rustin was the only American speaker. He shared the stage with Reverend Michael Scott, who had risked his life in South Africa opposing apartheid; the Rhodesian novelist Doris Lessing; and philosopher Bertrand Russell. British Direct Action Committee member Michael Randle later recalled 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.” 1

Rustin's participation in the Aldermaston march placed him squarely in a venerable tradition of international activism among African Americans that dates back to the abolitionist movement. Fugitive slave and statesman Frederick Douglass was a forerunner when slavery was still legal in the United States, and those who wanted to abolish it sought support from the English and Irish working and middle classes. The black feminist journalist crusader Ida B. Wells also preceded Rustin. She traveled to England late in the nineteenth century to reveal the atrocities of lynching to a horrified British public. The experiences of Douglass, Wells, and Rustin demonstrate that the domestic campaign to defuse the destructive power of racism and realize full civil rights for racial minorities can be profoundly and richly understood in the context of competitive international relations. 2

International antiracist and antislavery activism belongs equally to the history of the African diaspora and the history of foreign relations. By its very nature, the history of antiracist struggle breaks down barriers between historical subfields because the race concept itself, scientifically suspect, is socially compelling. To view race as a public problem is to address it as a dynamic force, capable of protean resistances, and thus able to enter history in a

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