African-American Struggle and Social/Political Controversies in Europe

Participants:

Martin Klimke, University of Heidelberg, Germany
Stephen Tuck, Oxford University, UK
Jakub Tyszkiewicz, University of Wroclaw (Breslau), Poland
Penny Van Eschen, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
This research group is part of a larger research project on “African American Civil Rights and Europe” led by Sabine Broeck (University of Bremen) and supported by the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR).

 

Abstract:

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968 shocked and saddened the whole world. In reaction to this senseless crime of violence, solidarity meetings and demonstrations were held in various cities in America and Germany. In West Berlin, the city in Germany that King had visited a total of four times at the invitation of its mayor at the time, Willy Brandt, demonstrators gathered for a march in mourning with representatives of the American civil rights movement under the Black Power banner.

Much to the distaste of the official U.S. representative in the city, the ‛Berlin Black Power Committee’ subsequently called for the collection of arms for the ‛Black Power Movement’ in the USA, because the time for peaceful protests had obviously expired. The Committee also argued that ‛The Black Power struggle is also the struggle of all the oppressed and exploited. Its resistance is also our own resistance. For this reason, the American Negroes no longer need words, but weapons. Because the only language the white ‛master race’ understands is …. Burn, Baby, Burn …’.

However, in 1968, announcements of transnational solidarity and calls for action in support of the African-American civil rights movement were no longer anything new. Since the late 1950s, and especially since the early 1960s, the American civil rights movement had attracted an increasing amount of attention. Thanks to its spectacular campaigns, its presence in the media and its moral significance in the propaganda battles of the Cold War, the movement transcended national boundaries and had an equally powerful influence on various political situations outside the USA. The iconography and aims of the African-American struggle have therefore attracted the attention of people in Europe to a very special degree, both in eastern and western Europe.

Stokely Carmichael’s plea for ‛Black Power’ at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London in July 1967, for example, left a lasting impression on student organisations and activists from all over Europe, whose own activities were now to be influenced to an ever-greater extent by the American civil rights movement. Black citizens in Britain, for their part, now began to adopt the forms of protests used by the civil rights movement. West Indians in Bristol, for example, organised a bus boycott just as Martin Luther King had done. In London, Michael de Freitas, an immigrant from Trinidad, renamed himself Michael X in emulation of Malcom X and his separatist movement. Yet even established politicians, political parties and the government did not hesitate to draw lessons from the American struggle for civil rights.

Conservative politicians, for example, warned about the risk of ‛race riots’ similar to those in America happening in Europe as well if uncontrolled immigration were allowed to continue and if African-American protest tactics were adopted. In his famous ‛Rivers of Blood’ speech, Enoch Powell, a right-wing politician from England, expressed himself in the following words: “Like the Roman, I seem to see ‛the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.” Communist propaganda in Eastern Europe also tried to commandeer the African-American civil rights movement for its own political goals within the frontlines of the Cold War. The close involvement of Angela Davis with the East German SED, especially her presence at the 10th World Youth Games in East Berlin in 1973, highlights the instrumentalisation of the American civil rights movement by state institutions in Eastern Europe.

It is evident, therefore, that the African-American civil rights movement acquired many different meanings within European public life: as a source of inspiration, as a receiver of global solidarity, but also as a negative point of reference. To that extent, the self-presentation and reception of the civil rights movement can be viewed as an integral part of Europe’s intellectual and cultural history. Furthermore, Europe was used during the years of the civil rights movement as a meeting place for transnational exchanges between critical head from all over the world: African-Americans debated not only with Europeans, but also exchanged ideas in Europe with people from the former European colonies, linking their own struggle to anti-colonial movements the world over.

This research project will obviously be reconstructing these various historical influences and interactions between African-Americans and Europeans, in order to record the sociocultural and political conditions, as well as the various subsequent impacts of these transatlantic encounters. One of the core tasks of this project will be to examine the extent to which the iconography, ideology and cultural/political practices of the civil rights movement transformed political culture in Europe, i.e. the notions of democracy, civil society and the public sphere, in various different ways. The aim here is to reconstruct the many different meanings of the African-American civil rights movement in eastern and western Europe. Of particular interest here for present-day sociopolitical issues is how ideas about ethnicity and Blackness developed in the context of people’s own colonial and migrational history, under the influence of the civil rights movement.

This research project contextualises the social and political controversies and conflicts in post-1945 Europe with the struggle of African-Americans, thus developing historically founded perspectives regarding the changing relationship between ‛race’, democratic participation and integration. It therefore aids better understanding of the different aspects of controversially debated issues surrounding the broader theme of European convergence.