The Other US-UK ‘Special Relationship’

A visit between the countries' leaders brings to mind how both nations have wrestled with racism.

David Cameron with President Barack Obama (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
David Cameron with President Barack Obama (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

As with the official special relationship, Britain was the junior partner in the civil rights version. Black Britons tended to borrow tactics from African Americans rather than vice versa. One of the foremost black organizers in London, Claudia Jones, had learned her trade in Harlem before being deported in an anticommunist purge in 1955. The American sit-ins found their way to Britain in the form of freedom drink-ins in British pubs — Operation Guinness, in London, was particularly popular in 1965.

Meanwhile, British liberal politicians regularly traveled to America in hopes of finding legislation they could import to resolve domestic unrest. In 1967 the Archbishop of Canterbury even invited the Temptations, on tour in London, to Lambeth Palace so he could ask their advice.

But it was not all one-way traffic. British volunteers joined American protests. Most American activists were aware of Britain’s anti-immigrant race riots in 1958, a chilling counterpoint to the optimism of the early civil rights movement. American civil rights leaders from meeting black Britons, too. King’s developing critique of capitalism and militarism was profoundly influenced by his time abroad.

Perhaps most important, activists in both countries used the special relationship on race for their own strategic ends. Black Britons were not dependent on the American example. They had a vibrant protest tradition of their own and strong influences from other parts of the world. But by claiming solidarity with the highly popular American movement, they were able to bolster their own claims for recognition.

They had successes, too, with British race legislation following hard on the heels of American legislation. In turn, African Americans used news of riots in Britain to pile the pressure on Southern segregationists by blaming them for what Malcolm X called the “spreading cancer of racism.” 

The relationship has continued beyond the civil rights era, through shared debates about policing, immigration and affirmative action, and with the prominent place of the American movement in the British history curriculum.

So David Cameron needn’t worry about Churchill’s absence from the Oval Office. If he wants to leave a suitable gift to encourage the president to look fondly on the special relationship, he could take his pick from a copy of the British Race Relations Act, a picture of Martin Luther King in London or a bust of Claudia Jones. What a shame Cameron opted for a pingpong table instead.

Stephen Tuck is a history lecturer at Pembroke College, Oxford, a visiting fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard and the author of We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle From Emancipation to Obama.

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