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

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.


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.