The Transnational Landscapes of Civil Rights and Antiracist Activism

AHA Session 177
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Nassau Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Anne-Marie Angelo, University of Sussex
Mary L. Dudziak, Emory University

Session Abstract

This panel, “The Transnational Landscapes of Civil Rights and Anti-Racist Activism”, will present novel research on how the ideas, practices, and iconography of the American civil rights movement and anti-racist activism traveled beyond the United States.  In an effort to comprehend the lasting effects of American social action, the panelists employ three case studies to explore how notions of civil rights and anti-racism gained momentum in diverse locations.  Susan Eckelmann examines the responses of European, Japanese, and Canadian youth to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), arguing that the movement forwarded an idealistic vision and translatable lexicon that found purchase in the political and cultural contexts of their home nations in the early 1960s.  Brett Bebber analyzes how anti-racist lawyers and activists in Britain utilized American precedents to desegregate public space during a watershed period in the mid-1960s, when West Indian and Commonwealth migrants arrived in Britain in large numbers.  Finally, Tiffany Florvil shows Afro-German feminists’ engagement with the Cross-Cultural Black Women’s Studies Summer Institute and how these women cultivated relationships with other American and diasporic women of color to foster a global appreciation of women’s civil rights in the 1980s and 1990s.  These three papers show transnational resonances among diverse actors who appropriated, enacted, and employed the discourses of civil rights and human rights in local contexts. 

This panel attempts to further assess the international topography of the uses and practices of American civil rights and anti-racism narratives outside of the United States.  Each paper addresses the mapping of this landscape in at least three ways.  First, the news of American racial politics in the late twentieth century created perceptions of the movement and its legacies that Japanese, Europeans, and Canadians interpreted and appropriated.  The narratives of American civil rights were not simply mediated for an American audience, but also reverberated broadly in nations where race, gender, and class inequalities persisted.  Charting how these foreign communities understood American racial politics broadens our understanding of how they identified with American events, how their narratives helped them understand their own circumstances, and ultimately, how these groups abroad mobilized toward racial equality and social justice.  Second, each paper also explores how historical actors forged relationships that facilitated the exchange of ideas about political activism, social recognition, and solidarity.  In each case, this communication occurred across national borders, encouraging new connections that benefitted all parties.  Third, each paper also examines the concrete and practical ways in which these international communities borrowed the ideas, methods, and instruments of American civil rights and anti-racist activists to carry out their goals.  Enlivening the discussion about the transnational extensions of American civil rights includes registering the multiple tangible and material ways that legal structures, popular icons, and notions of human rights activism moved from place to place.  The panel will not only interest historians of American race relations and social movements, but also those invested in understanding the emerging histories of transnational political and cultural networks in the twentieth century.

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