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READ: Civil Rights and Global Liberation

A worldwide struggle for decolonization, plus a struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States, became entangled in the Cold War that followed WWII.

Civil Rights and Global Liberation

By Bennett Sherry
A worldwide struggle for decolonization, plus a struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States, became entangled in the Cold War that followed WWII.

Shared struggles: Civil rights, decolonization, and gender

If you live in the United States, you’ve probably heard about some of the major figures in the civil rights movement. These include the struggles for racial equality, desegregation, and voting rights. You’ve probably encountered Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Selma, and the Million-Man March. You have heard these names and events and words. Still other names, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bayard Rustin may have come up in your U.S. History course. Yet, while the civil rights movement was a key struggle in American history, these people and organizations were also part of a wider global network. Each of these American activists connected their struggle at home to decolonization movements around the world. That’s because in some ways, the Civil Rights Movement was also a decolonization movement.

Twin victories: Racial equality and World War II

During the Second World War, the Allies made promises about racial equality and self-determination, for their citizens and people in their colonies. Both the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained guarantees of racial equality as a fundamental human right. But many African Americans fighting in the war distrusted these promises made by white, imperialist, and racist governments. Like people in the colonies, black Americans had already been deceived after the First World War. Despite fighting for the U.S., they had come home to a campaign of discrimination that included the lynching of black veterans in 1919. So why, asked many, should they fight Hitler and save democracy if they’d still return home to segregation, voter suppression, and lynching? Thus during World War II, African American newspapers launched the Double-V Campaign: victory against Nazi racism abroad and victory against racism in America.
A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People poster showing the NAACP strangling a crow labeled “Jim Crow” ¬– representing racist laws in the U.S. – with Nazi and Japanese flags attached to its legs. Library of Congress.
During the war, the American government tried to present itself internationally as the champion of democracy and human rights. But the country’s system of racial segregation was at odds with this image. During the 1930s, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, said: “Nothing will be easier than to produce a bloody revolution in North America… no other country has so many social and racial tensions. We shall be able to play on many strings there.” Hitler hoped he might exploit these tensions to bring American fascists to power. He even sent Nazi agents to cooperate with the Ku Klux Klan. By the end of the 1930s, the U.S. Congress was investigating over 100 fascist groups in America. When Western leaders condemned the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg laws, the Nazi regime argued they were no different than the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the United States.
It wasn’t just America’s enemies who saw this weakness. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a leader of the Indian independence and women’s rights movements and a colleague of Mohandas Gandhi’s. She traveled across the American South in the 1940s, witnessing American racism first-hand when she chose to ride in the white-only section of a train. Gandhi remarked on this incident in a speech, saying, “I do not regard England, or for that matter America, as free countries. They are free after their own fashion, free to hold in bondage the coloured races of the earth.” After the war, other foreign officials and dignitaries visited the United States and returned to their homes in Africa and Asia with similar stories.

Global connections

Civil rights leaders in America were informed and influenced by anti-colonial leaders around the world. The Indian independence movement led by Gandhi strongly influential leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was based on the concept of Ahimsa, a principle from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism that means “non-injury.” Gandhi and his followers used non-violent resistance and protests to end British colonialism in India after the Second World War. The American socialist and civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, traveled to India in 1948 after Gandhi’s assassination. When he returned home, Rustin became King’s mentor and ally, teaching him about Gandhi’s methods. In 1959, King traveled to India himself. This trip helped solidify his belief that non-violent resistance was the weapon to bring down imperialism abroad and vanquish racism in America.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lay a wreath at a memorial to Gandhi during a visit to India in 1959. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.
Certainly the fight against racism in America was entangled with anti-colonial struggles abroad. Entanglements are confusing, but this one can be seen much more clearly through the connections forged by women. Historian Keisha Blaine has highlighted the international connections and activism of black women in the twentieth century. Blaine tells the story of women like Amy Jacques Garvey and Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, who connected their activism in America to international struggles for racial and gender equality. Dr. Blain writes:
Perhaps the most important aspect of black nationalist women’s political life was their interest in and commitment to black internationalism…These women understood that the struggle for black rights in the United States… could not be divorced from the global struggles for freedom in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and other parts of the globe. Using a variety of avenues, including journalism, print media, and overseas travel, black nationalist women articulated and disseminated global visions of freedom and sought to build transnational and transracial alliances with other people of color in order to secure civil and human rights.
Women of color in the United States and in the colonized world were fighting, together, against two oppressions: one a struggle for independence against colonialism and racism, and the other a struggle against gender discrimination.

Civil rights and decolonization in the Cold War

The Cold War started, and so did decolonization. American leaders watched as their French and British allies lost colony after colony. Suddenly, the Cold War and decolonization had transformed civil rights into a national security issue.
Many new nations in Africa and Asia emerged from decolonization and joined the United Nations. Both the Americans and Soviets wanted to groom these young countries as allies. American leaders were now trying to negotiate trade deals and alliances with formerly colonized people. In a single year, 1960, 17 different African nations each gained independence. Throughout the 1960s, dozens of African and Asian leaders petitioned to move the UN headquarters from New York to a country where they would be treated as equals. Many of those leaders cited America’s racial inequality as a reason to align instead with the Soviet Union, or to just stay neutral.
View of the discussion table at the Belgrade Conference of Nonaligned Nations in 1961. The Non-Aligned movement was a group of newly independent nations who sought neutrality in the Cold War. © Getty images.
The Soviets were happy to point out the hypocrisy of American democracy. They published propaganda films, literature, and posters denouncing racial inequality in America. In 1954, President Harry Truman had worked hard to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to desegregate schools because Soviet propaganda was so damaging to American interests abroad. His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson wrote, “the undeniable existence of racial discrimination gives unfriendly governments the most effective kind of ammunition for their propaganda warfare.” America’s ability to gain allies in the Cold War now rested in its ability to appeal to non-white leaders and nations.
Civil Rights leaders in the U.S. and decolonization leaders around the world understood that their futures were interdependent, and they often collaborated. Both King and Rustin traveled to Ghana to meet with Kwame Nkrumah in the 1950s. King was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, believing it was racist and imperialist. He also called for an end to nuclear weapons, observing: “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-901 or atomic war?” After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, King demanded that the government transfer funding from nuclear weapons to increase teachers’ salaries and build schools in poor communities.
In 1960, a group of African American students in North Carolina formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC connected their fight for civil rights to decolonization abroad. They circulated copies of books by anti-colonial leaders. In 1964 and 1965, several members of SNCC attended meetings of the Organization of African Unity and started campaigns against Apartheid in South Africa. In 1967, SNCC declared itself a human rights organization devoted to ending “colonialism, racism, and economic exploitation wherever these conditions exist.”


The civil rights movement was actively linked with decolonization movements in Africa and Asia. And this influence flowed both ways. African and Asian leaders believed that the struggle for equality in the United States was part of their own struggle for international recognition and equality. Civil Rights leaders in America understood that the rise and continued independence of African and Asian nations abroad was fundamental to their struggles at home. As Civil Rights leaders traveled abroad and anti-colonial leaders traveled to the United States, they shared ideas and strategies.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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