Where Are the Black Voices on Egypt and Tunisia?
African Americans have traditionally been the conscience of the country on foreign policy issues. But as Tunisia and Egypt erupt, we have been strangely mute.
The African-American Tradition of Dissent
The Arab masses had reason to hope that Obama's ascendancy would change America's stance. His Nobel Prize-worthy Cairo speech in 2009, arguing that Islam was not America's enemy, marked the high point for that optimism. The president, however, was promptly dragged into the post-9/11 bubble and America's security obsessions. We know well the waffling on or downright abandonment of many of his campaign promises: ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, closing Guantánamo, and restoring the balance between our personal freedoms and our national security.
For much of U.S. history, African Americans have been a strong dissenting voice on foreign policy, whether it was the settlement of free blacks in Liberia, the U.S. occupation of Haiti, British rule in India, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or African liberation movements such as the struggle against apartheid. As early as 1900, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois were lending their support to groups like the Pan-African Association (pdf), which linked the fate of Africans under colonialism with the treatment of African Americans at home.
After World War I, African-American leaders tried, and failed, to bring the treatment of black Americans into the discussion at the Paris Peace Conference. Black American leaders strongly supported Haile Selassie's struggle against Italy in Ethiopia, as well as Indian efforts to throw off British rule. And while African Americans participated enthusiastically in World War II, the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters pressured their government to end discrimination at home and to stand against colonialism abroad. The U.S., however, mostly kept its distance from those anti-colonial struggles so as not to offend its European allies.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s principled opposition to the Vietnam War won him harsh rebukes. Life magazine called his April 1967 speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." In the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panther Party drew parallels between Israel's policies and South African apartheid.
Broad black support for Israel continued to erode in the late 1970s as groups like TransAfrica Forum, then led by Randall Robinson, sharply criticized (pdf) U.S. Middle East policy and Israeli behavior. The SCLC's Joseph Lowery and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy visited the West Bank, held hands with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and sang "We Shall Overcome." In 1985 Robinson, Fauntroy and other black leaders reignited the anti-apartheid movement -- and disrupted President Ronald Reagan's "constructive engagement policy" -- by getting arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.