This year's Black History Month comes in the aftermath of last summer's global uprisings after the police killing of George Floyd. That event unlocked an unprecedented global wave of rage and repulsion. Police killings of Black Americans are nothing new, and they haven't ceased in the months after Floyd was laid to rest. Yet the global response in 2020 was notable — and it stemmed from more than a century of international anti-racist activism undertaken by African Americans.
African American international activism began early. Faced with the cruelty of slavery, those who had escaped it began seeking support abroad. After the United Kingdom abolished slavery in the 1830s, Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass traveled there to persuade the English and Irish publics to take a stand against the institution in the United States. When the collapse of Reconstruction brought growing political violence against the newly freed, Black journalist Ida B. Wells's lectures in Britain aimed to enlist allies against the crime of lynching terrorizing the Black South.
As the colonial powers tightened their grip on Asia and Africa in the early 20th century, African Americans, Caribbean islanders and Africans organized Pan African congresses to amplify their opposition to colonial institutions based on racial domination and economic exploitation. Resistance to anti-Black racism was already international by the turn of the 20th century.
Later, World War I and World War II presented new opportunities to address racial injustice and imperialist practices in the United States and elsewhere. Western leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, vetoed Japan's attempt to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations' charter and would not recognize the claims of other people of color for self-determination and fair treatment. Somewhat better luck attended the founding of the United Nations after World War II. In this instance, the U.S. government encouraged popular interest in the new organization and gave such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council of Negro Women token parts to play as observers to the founding conference in 1945.
Policymakers were taken aback, however, when such organizations as the NAACP and the radical Civil Rights Congress took the initiative, and in petitions to the United Nations accused the United States of human rights violations. The interest displayed in the petitions by the Soviets and others led more perceptive officials to recognize that the country's foes could readily exploit a racism problem that could not be easily explained away.
Cold War competition with the Soviets dictated a better response, especially as the white supremacist violence plaguing the civil rights movement in the 1960s met global condemnation. The State Department and other agencies subsequently focused the question of racial discrimination on how best to manage the way that foreigners perceived it, rather than on how to implement change.
This involved a good deal of "soft diplomacy," with Black artists and musicians dispatched abroad as goodwill ambassadors to put an upbeat face on American conditions. The established line was that racism was an artifact of the past, that it persisted mostly in backward areas and that it was rapidly being eradicated from American life. According to the official story, racism was always on the brink of disappearing — except, of course, that it never has.
International denunciation of American racial practices abated substantially after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The laws were taken abroad as indication of good intentions and substantive progress. And foreign critics had their own problems. Defenders of the United States pointed to colorism and caste in India. When the U.S.S.R. dissolved in 1991, the question arose as to whether the United States would pursue racial justice without the Cold War constraints imposed by its own claims to global leadership and the watchful eyes of other powers.
The sensibilities that created the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 also made possible the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law abolished racial distinctions in entry and led to the increased presence in the country of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Similar developments on the other side of the Atlantic have brought former colonial subjects to Europe and made European countries more racially diverse.
Efforts to topple monuments to slavery, racism and colonialism in this country, such as the removal of Columbus statues and Confederate flags, have been paralleled by calls in Britain for the toppling of statues of slave traders. Citizens in other Western countries have also recognized the common origins of transatlantic slavery and imperialism and have expressed a desire to address that history. Such sentiments transcend nation-state boundaries and are producing the current, powerful anti-racism movement.
While this reckoning with racism may seem like a spur-of-the-moment and possibly transient set of events, it has in fact been building for some time.
Over many decades, U.S. popular culture, shaped profoundly by Black Americans, has become a chief U.S. export. It helped shape global perceptions of the United States and provided a penetrating lens into the workings of its society. This visibility is combined with the fact that African Americans have never been silent about persecution. The global reach of the protests in the wake of Floyd's killing not only reflects changes in societies all over the world, but also the lasting legacy of generations of African American activist work.
Most certainly, the status of Black people in the United States cannot be unlinked from how this nation is ranked in the eyes of the world.
Brenda Gayle Plummer is a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in African American history, the history of U.S. foreign relations, race in international affairs and Caribbean history. She is the author of several books, most recently of "In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974." She wrote this piece for The Washington Post.