African Americans Against the Bomb
Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
Vincent J. Intondi

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Introduction

IN AUGUST 1945, ONLY A FEW DAYS AFTER THE UNITED STATES dropped two atomic bombs destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Reverend J.E. Elliott, pastor of St. Luke Chapel, stepped up to the pulpit and began his Sunday sermon. The pastor condemned the use of atomic bombs in Japan and suggested that racism played a role in President Truman’s decision. “I have seen the course of discrimination throughout the war and the fact that Japan is of a darker race is no excuse for resorting to such an atrocity,” Elliott said.1

Twenty-three years later, on February 6, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also stepped up to the pulpit to warn against the use of nuclear weapons. Addressing the second mobilization of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, King urged an end to the war, and warned that if the United States used nuclear weapons in Vietnam the earth would be transformed into an inferno that “even the mind of Dante could not envision.”2 Then, as he had done so many times before, King made clear the connection between the black freedom struggle in America and the need for nuclear disarmament:

These two issues are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate. And I am convinced that these two issues are tied inextricably together and I feel that the people who are working for civil rights tare working for peace; I feel that the people working for peace are working for civil rights and justice.3

Almost fifteen years later, on June 12, 1982, nearly one million activists and concerned citizens gathered in New York City for what became known as the largest antinuclear demonstration in the history of the United States.4 A large contingent of minority groups organized under the Reverend Herbert Daughtry’s National Black United Front was among the thousands of protesters. Marching through Harlem, these activists, including prominent African Americans Harry Belafonte, Chaka Kahn, Toni Morrison, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, demanded an end to the nuclear arms race and a shift from defense spending to helping the poor. When asked why they were marching, Dick Gregory responded, “to write the unwritten page of the Constitution, dealing with the right to live free from nuclear terror.”5

From 1945 onward, many in the African American community actively supported nuclear disarmament, even when the cause was abandoned by other groups during the McCarthy era. This allowed the fight to abolish nuclear weapons to reemerge powerfully in the 1970s and beyond. Black leaders never gave up the nuclear issue or failed to see its importance; by doing so, they broadened the black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.

African Americans Against the Bomb examines those black activists who fought for nuclear disarmament, often connecting the nuclear issue with the fight for racial equality and with liberation movements around the world. Beginning with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this book explores the shifting response of black leaders and organizations, and of the broader African American public, to the evolving nuclear arms race and general nuclear threat throughout the postwar period. For too long scholars, viewing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement as national phenomena, have failed to appreciate the black freedom struggle’s international dimensions. Because of the understandable focus on African Americans’ unique oppression, historians have often entirely ignored African American responses when addressing other important issues, such as the nuclear threat. This omission comes despite the fact that African Americans, as part of the larger human community, have as great a stake as any other group of citizens. In fact, given the increasing urban concentration of African Americans, they face a greater risk when it comes to nuclear war and terrorism than do other groups.

The question of how African Americans have responded to nuclear issues is therefore of great historical consequence. Did African Americans respond differently to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compared to other Americans, and if so, to what extent was this related to the fact that the victims were nonwhite? Did African Americans’ discrimination-induced estrangement from American life allow for a more critical attitude toward the Cold War, and U.S. nuclear policy in particular? Did the left-oriented social and political activism inspired by black Popular Front groups translate into a broader critique of U.S. militarism and foreign policy, both of which were undergirded by the American nuclear arsenal?

While African Americans immediately condemned the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not all of the activists protested for the same reason. For some, race was the issue. Many in the black community agreed with Langston Hughes’s assertion that racism was at the heart of Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan. Why did the United States not drop atomic bombs on Italy or Germany, Hughes asked.6 Black activists’ fear that race played a role in the decision to use atomic bombs only increased when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam a decade later. For others, mostly black leftists ensconced in Popular Front groups, the nuclear issue was connected to colonialism. From the United States’ obtaining uranium from the Belgian-controlled Congo to France’s testing a nuclear weapon in the Sahara, activists saw a direct link between those who possessed nuclear weapons and those who colonized the nonwhite world. However, for many ordinary black citizens, fighting for nuclear disarmament simply translated into a more peaceful world. The bomb, then, became the link that connected all of these issues and brought together musicians, artists, peace activists, leftists, clergy, journalists, and ordinary citizens inside the black community.

Examining the role of black antinuclear activists is part of a larger narrative that challenges the idea that the black freedom struggle was an isolated movement in a narrowly defined set of years. The past two decades have seen a rise in new scholarship that challenges the accepted narrative of the black freedom movement. Historians have begun to rediscover the forgotten history of black Popular Front groups, Communist Party members and labor organizers, as well as anticolonial and peace activists. A number of these studies suggest that the black freedom movement’s origins date back to the 1930s and 1940s, were much more global in scope, and were influenced by those who consistently combined their plight with those seeking peace and an end to colonialism.7 From the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 to the Bandung Conference twenty years later, historians have convincingly shown that black activists consistently connected foreign affairs to their struggle for freedom, often demonstrating an anticolonial and Pan-African perspective. Scholars have reexamined the roots of black radicalism and by doing so have taken African Americans out of the neat categorical boxes in which they were trapped for so many years and have offered a history of the black freedom movement that is much more complex. As Jason Parker explains, scholarship on colonization and the black freedom struggle has “coalesced into a synthesis of international history,” and it is important to examine these subjects through a lens of a “global race revolution.”8 How then does the inclusion of black antinuclear activism alter or reaffirm this emerging narrative?

While scholars have provided a valuable service by shedding light on these connections, many have failed to appreciate the role of nuclear weapons. From 1945, the bomb is what in many cases connected various groups and individuals inside the black community. Nuclear disarmament was a main part of the platform at the Bandung Conference in 1955. In the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin led a team in Ghana to stop the French from testing a nuclear weapon in the Sahara. Two years later, Kwame Nkrumah, joined by African American activists, held the “World Without the Bomb” conference. Dr. King began connecting the nuclear issue to black freedom as early as 1957. Therefore the role of the bomb is essential when examining the length and scope of the black freedom movement.

Throughout this new line of study scholars continue to disagree as to the length and influence of black radical activism. Historian Robbie Lieberman contends that Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade dramatically stymied black leftists’ progress and thus broke the chain connecting the black freedom movement to peace and colonialism, causing it to largely disappear. Clearly McCarthyism was a major factor in the decline of activists working within Popular Front or peace groups. The federal government targeted black leftists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, and as anticommunism swept through the country many activists fell silent or disavowed their earlier actions. Indeed, Lieberman concludes that not until the late 1960s did activists once again connect the black freedom movement to peace.9 Brenda Gayle Plummer disagrees, contending that “militant international racial discourse” continued even after the purges of the “conventional Left” in the 1950s. In examining black antinuclear activism, I am suggesting that while connections between the black freedom movement and peace were damaged, they were not completely severed. Rather, there was a consistent voice inside the black community making the case that freedom, peace, and colonialism were links in the same chain. At times the voice was faint, at other times quite loud, but it was always present.10

As Carol Anderson and Mary Dudziak have shown, this was in part due to the fact that liberals also continued to speak out against colonialism past the 1950s. Parker agrees, arguing that the links survived the “anticommunist witch hunters” of the 1950s. This was largely because the nuclear issue resonated in both liberal and radical circles. Beyond the “usual suspects,” artists, clergy, and ordinary citizens cared deeply about nuclear disarmament. Therefore, these connections do not disappear in the 1950s as some have suggested. Indeed, by focusing on the bomb, it is clear that they not only remained but in some ways strengthened throughout the 1980s and into the present day.11

While this is not the first book to address black activists’ participation in the Peace Movement and foreign affairs, my intent is to focus on the role nuclear weapons played in linking these issues together. The black freedom struggle cannot be properly understood without exploring antinuclear campaigns. African Americans’ views of nuclear weapons directly influenced their response to other international issues. Therefore, examining the African American response to the nuclear threat will not only add to the rich body of scholarship dedicated to African Americans and global affairs, but will alter the way we discuss these subjects.

African Americans Against the Bomb explains how the fight for freedom, coupled with the desire to avoid nuclear annihilation, blended together and united human beings. Connecting racial equality to nuclear disarmament and colonialism broadened the black freedom struggle, specifically the modern Civil Rights Movement. This book focuses on those activists who refused to stay quiet and continued to fight for freedom and nuclear disarmament when they had much to lose. It discusses those African Americans who joined with nonwhite peoples around the world in an effort to save humanity. From Du Bois to King, and Harold Washington to Barack Obama, this is a study of those in the black community who believed that equality, liberation, and a world free of nuclear weapons were, and would remain, links in the same chain.

African Americans’ initial response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was quite different from that of the general public. Chapter 1 traces the reactions of black activists, organizations, journalists, and others to the atomic bombings. Historians have compiled polls, surveys, and data to analyze Americans’ reactions to the atomic bombings. Some data account for racial differences; however, no one has explored the response of the black church, press, entertainment industry, or ordinary black citizens. This chapter also begins to examine black leftists like Du Bois and Robeson who worked for nuclear disarmament through the new communist-led peace movement, analyzing how this affected the black freedom movement and the political landscape of the late 1940s.

Chapters 2 and 3 detail black antinuclear activism throughout the 1950s. With the early 1950s came the rise of McCarthyism. Antinuclear became synonymous with pro-communism. However, black leftists refused to remain silent on the nuclear issue and they were not alone. Throughout the black community, citizens were protesting the use of nuclear weapons. They were not motivated by a directive from Moscow but, with the start of the Korean War, by fear that nuclear weapons would again be used on a “darker nation.” As the 1950s progressed, the connections between peace, colonialism, and freedom did not cease. Chapter 3 reviews black participation in new antinuclear groups like the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) and the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and details Bayard Rustin’s leading a team, including Kwame Nkrumah and William Sutherland, in Africa to stop the French from testing a nuclear weapon. Perhaps no other event more clearly illustrates the connections between colonialism, civil rights, and nuclear weapons than the Sahara Project.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began connecting nuclear disarmament to black freedom in the late 1950s. Chapter 4 challenges those scholars who suggest that King did not combine peace and freedom until 1967 when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam. This chapter also focuses on those African American activists who again witnessed the United States wage war on a “darker nation,” threaten to use nuclear weapons, and at the same time continue to deny African Americans equality at home. These activists included a number of black women who began to make their voices heard as members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and of Women Strike for Peace. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Hansberry, Erna Harris, and others traveled around the world attending disarmament conferences, even confronting the Pope, to achieve nuclear disarmament. This chapter considers the impact of these women, along with Dr. King and others, who not only spoke out vociferously against the Vietnam War but also criticized U.S. foreign policy and the use of nuclear weapons.

Following the Vietnam War, many black activists saw a direct link between presidents Carter’s and Reagan’s increased spending for nuclear weapons and the elimination of funds for social programs that most benefited the poor. As antinuclear activism reached new heights in the 1980s, black participation was also at an all-time high. Black politicians, athletes, activists, entertainers, and clergy consistently made the case that Reagan’s nuclear ambitions negatively affected their community. These men and women not only participated in antinuclear events but in some cases took the lead in the movement to ban the bomb. Again the black freedom movement was connected to issues of peace and colonialism. Again the bomb was the key link in that chain. The book concludes by analyzing whether President Obama’s policies have strengthened or weakened the chances for global human rights and a world free of nuclear weapons.

Notes

1. St. Luke was the first independent black Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. “Clergy Calls Atomic Bomb Both Blessing and Curse,” Washington Afro-American, August 18, 1945, p. 3.

2. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Vietnam Is Upon Us,” February 6, 1968, reprinted in Speeches by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. About the War in Vietnam, 1968, Homer Jack Papers, Series 6, Box 7, SCPC.

3. King, “Vietnam Is Upon Us.”

4. Milton S. Katz, Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957–1985 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 150.

5. Simon Anekwe, “Colors Finally Blended in Giant Peace Protest,” New York Amsterdam News, June 19, 1982, p. 1; Pamela Mincey, “Afro-Americans Get Set for June 12,” Daily World, February 25, 1982, p. 3.

6. Langston Hughes, “Here to Yonder: Simple and the Atom Bomb,” Chicago Defender, August 18, 1945, p. 14; Eric F. Sundquist, “Who Was Langston Hughes?” Commentary 102, no. 6 (December 1996): 58; Phillis R. Klotman, “Langston Hughes’s Jess B. Semple and the Blues,” Phylon 36 (1st qtr., 1975): 68.

7. Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War, Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); James Roark “American Black Leaders: The Response to Colonialism and the Cold War, 1943–1953,” African Historical Studies 4, no. 2 (1971): 253–70; Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Bill Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–1946 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944–1963 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Use of the Past,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1233–1336; Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Robert O. Self, “The Black Panther Party and the Long Civil Rights Era,” in In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement, ed. Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt, 2006); Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950 (New York: Norton, 2008); Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang, eds., Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: Another Side of the Story (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

8. Jason C. Parker, “‘Made-in-America Revolutions’? The ‘Black University’ and the American Role in the Decolonization of the Black Atlantic,” Journal of American History 96, no. 3 (December 2009): 727.

9. Robbie Lieberman, “‘Another Side of the Story’: African American Intellectuals Speak Out for Peace and Freedom During the Early Cold War Years,” in Lieberman and Lang, Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement.

10. Brenda Gayle Plummer, In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956–1974 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5–6.

11. Parker, “‘Made-in-America Revolutions’?”; Dudziak, Cold War, Civil Rights; Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize; Carol Anderson, “International Conscience, the Cold War, and Apartheid: The NAACP’s Alliance with the Reverend Michael Scott for South West Africa’s Liberation, 1946–1951,” Journal of World History 19, no. 3 (September 2008): 297–325.