Global Connections among Struggles for Racial Justice: Britain, Germany, South Africa, and the United States

AHA Session 142
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Jane Dailey, University of Chicago
Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

In recent years, scholars have begun to look beyond the borders of the United States in their study of the U.S. civil rights movement. This new scholarship has not simply revealed the international complexion of what was formerly conceived of as a national or regional struggle for racial equality; it has recast some of the assumptions about the origins, nature, and purpose of that struggle. Prominent examples of such scholarship include work by Penny Von Eschen, Kevin Gaines, Glenda Gilmore, Robin Kelley, Mary Dudziak, Carole Boyce Davies, James Meriwether, and Thomas Borstelmann.

But this revision is still at an early, and formative, stage. For the most part, the new literature has kept the United States at the center of the analysis -- whether it be how African American activists used the Cold War context to their own advantage, or the direct ways in which they drew inspiration from, and maintained links with, black activists in freedom struggles abroad.

Individually, and together, the three papers proposed here will seek to further develop the transnational turn in U.S. race protest studies in various ways. They will explore the hitherto neglected bilateral relationships between the U.S. and three other countries with regard to the modern race justice struggle. They will also look at a broad spectrum of connections: from activists for racial justice (moderates and militants) to those seeking to defend racial hierarchies, and the links between politicians, commentators, and self-styled scientific experts across national boundaries.

Although the thread linking the three papers is the connection with the United States, the papers will de-center the U.S. movement by focusing on the two-way relationship between movements for racial justice. These bilateral relationships, in turn, will be situated within wider international connections to assess the impact of these interactions on the local, regional, and national levels in the countries in question. Thus broadening the geographical and chronological scope of the current scholarship, the papers will explore not just the direct but also the indirect and often unexpected links between these movements, recognizing that the asymmetries in the relationships were as important as the similarities.

Two of the three proposed papers will investigate the links between the U.S. race justice movement and countries previously ignored in the literature, namely Britain and East Germany. The third paper will focus on a well known transnational connection– between U.S. and South African activists during the 1940s and 1950s – but from the hitherto little-known perspective of the N.A.A.C.P. and the political center.

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