When protesters in Egypt called for a "Million Man March" to mark the one-week anniversary of their Jan. 25 uprising against Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule, they did what many African-American public figures have yet to do: draw on the history and example of the black freedom movement to express support for the ongoing global struggle for democracy. With some exceptions (Cornel West being the most notable), members of the black intelligentsia have yet to provide significant commentary on the democratic aspirations being expressed so strongly and courageously in recent months in Arab countries in Africa and Asia. But even if some of us in America remain slow to take up the mantle of our own historical legacy, people around the world are taking note (just as Black History Month commences, no less).
Freedom fighters in Egypt wasted no time. They seized on the example of the 1995 Washington, D.C., Million Man March, organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to galvanize their own compatriots in drawing attention to their plight and generating momentum for their struggle. The Egyptians' adoption of the Million Man March is not the first time the black freedom movement or its strategies have inspired struggles abroad; nor has this historically been a one-way exchange — especially in the case of Egypt.
Long before Egypt was a partner of the U.S. government in its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, Egypt was a partner with black America. Egypt has figured in the black religious imagination for centuries, and more recently in the work of African-American historians and political activists throughout the 20th century.
The Old Testament story of Hebrew slaves' exodus from the oppression of a wicked pharaoh provided Africans enslaved in America with a coded language in Scripture and song. They used it to talk about their own yearnings for freedom from their white slave masters. Later, Egypt would become the source of pride for African Americans as Afrocentrist scholars claimed a kinship with the African identity of Egypt and its contributions to Western civilization.
Even President Barack Obama underscored this kinship when visiting the pyramids of Egypt after his 2009 Cairo speech. Looking upon some of the hieroglyphics, he remarked about one drawing of a man with prominent ears: "That looks like me!"
Midcentury, as Egypt was throwing off the remnants of British colonialism, it continued to inspire political activists. In a speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Montgomery, Ala. (pdf), to mark the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, he included the "nationalistic longings of Egypt" as an example of a new age where "[a]s a result of their protest more than one billion three hundred million … of the colored peoples of the world are free today. They have their own governments, their own economic system, and their own educational system."
A year after King's speech, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad sought out a more direct relationship with the burgeoning nation of Egypt. In December 1957, Muhammad wrote Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to express solidarity with the African-Asian Conference taking place in Cairo, and Nasser replied with "best wishes to our brothers of Africa and Asia living in the West."
Muhammad went on to meet with Nasser when he visited Egypt in 1959 and ended up enrolling two of his sons at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. One of those sons was Imam Warith D. Mohammed, who would later use the Islamic education he received there when he assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1975 and brought most of its followers closer to traditional Islam.
During his tenure in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X also established direct ties to Egypt when he visited as Elijah Muhammad's emissary in 1959. Five years later, after Malcolm X had left the NOI, he was back in Cairo, this time seeking to press the delegates of the Organization of African Unity to take a greater stand on behalf of the civil rights movement in America. Malcolm X believed that it was critical to reframe the movement not as a domestic problem but as a universal human rights problem.
Interviewed in Cairo about the purpose of his visit, he stated, "My purpose here is to remind the African heads of state that there are 22 million of us in America who are also of African descent, and to remind them also that we are the victims of America's colonialism or American imperialism, and that our problem is not an American problem; it's a human problem. It's not a Negro problem; it's a problem of humanity. It's not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights."
In the same interview in Cairo, Malcolm X equated the black freedom movement with anti-colonial struggles around the world: "Our problem is their problem … their problem is our problem."
Nearly 50 years ago, African-American leaders looked to African nations, including Egypt, to come to the defense of black people in America struggling for democratic rights. Now the people of Egypt, and those throughout the Arab world, are looking to us for solidarity in their own struggle.
Not only does our sense of humanity call for a response, but so does our history. To paraphrase Malcolm X, this is not an Egyptian or an Arab problem; it's a problem of humanity. It's not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights.
Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, researching 20th-century African-American history and religion. Follow him on Twitter.