This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron has received the warmest of welcomes from President Barack Obama. Cameron became the first foreign leader to accompany President Obama on Air Force One, and — perhaps more important in the eyes of the president — the first foreign leader to accompany him to watch college basketball. In a joint op-ed in the Washington Post, the two men became the latest pair of British and American leaders to affirm their commitment to the “special relationship.”
Advocates of the special relationship could breathe a sigh of relief. After his inauguration, President Obama had seemed decidedly cool on America’s closest ally. He famously returned a bust of Winston Churchill (which had been lent to George W. Bush after 9/11) to the British Embassy from its perch on the Oval Office desk.
In Britain and on the American right, there were suspicions that ethnicity played into Obama’s apparent snub — the son of a Kenyan would understandably not be enamored by the daily reminder of a prime minister whose second term had overseen the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion. But in their op-ed, Obama and Cameron pointedly began by quoting Churchill and celebrated the fact that the two nations “support the human rights and dignity of all people.”
Past racial policies within each country understandably did not get a mention this week, as the leaders focused instead on shoring up the alliance for the challenges ahead. But actually, far from potentially alienating America’s first black president, focusing on the history of racism in Britain and America — or rather, on the intertwined fights for racial equality — could have the opposite effect.
Nonwhite citizens in both countries have suffered discrimination. Activists in both countries have sought to force Britain and America to live up to their creeds of human rights and dignity for all people, regardless of color. And during the era of the civil rights movement in particular, the connections between activists across the Atlantic were strong, and influential.
This rather more grassroots version of the special relationship — like the official version — started in World War II. More than 100,000 American black American soldiers were stationed in Britain, swelling Britain’s black population tenfold in the process.
The GIs arrived in segregated army units. Off-duty fights with their white American counterparts were common. But the British War Cabinet would not allow segregation off-base, and the British public mostly sided with the black GIs. The experience of equality abroad inspired many African-American veterans to fight Jim Crow upon their return.
By the 1960s the media revolution, and British fascination with all things American, meant that the civil rights movement dominated British headlines every bit as much as American ones. Ease of travel allowed regular visits by leaders. Malcolm X debated at Oxford University, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Stokely Carmichael spoke at a London black power conference. Because of mass nonwhite immigration, starting in the 1950s, Britain had its own domestic struggle over the full rights of citizenship.