On the intersections of civil rights, anticolonialism, and nuclear disarmament.
On February 6, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped up to the pulpit to warn against the use of nuclear weapons. Addressing the second mobilization of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, King urged an end to the war, and warned that if the United States used nuclear weapons in Vietnam the earth would be transformed into an inferno that “even the mind of Dante could not envision.” Then, as he had done so many times before, King made clear the connection between the black freedom struggle in America and the need for nuclear disarmament:
These two issues are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate.
While African Americans immediately condemned the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not all of the activists protested for the same reason. For some, race was the issue. Many in the black community agreed with Langston Hughes’s assertion that racism was at the heart of Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan. Why did the United States not drop atomic bombs on Italy or Germany, Hughes asked. Black activists’ fear that race played a role in the decision to use atomic bombs only increased when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam a decade later. For others, mostly black leftists ensconced in Popular Front groups, the nuclear issue was connected to colonialism. From the United States’ obtaining uranium from the Belgian-controlled Congo to France’s testing a nuclear weapon in the Sahara, activists saw a direct link between those who possessed nuclear weapons and those who colonized the nonwhite world. However, for many ordinary black citizens, fighting for nuclear disarmament simply translated into a more peaceful world. The bomb, then, became the link that connected all of these issues and brought together musicians, artists, peace activists, leftists, clergy, journalists, and ordinary citizens inside the black community.
What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?
For his part, King remained committed to the antinuclear cause throughout the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, five months after being stabbed in Harlem, King addressed the War Resisters League’s thirty-sixth annual dinner, where he praised its work and linked the domestic struggle for racial justice with the campaign for global disarmament: “Not only in the South, but throughout the nation and the world, we live in an age of conflicts, an age of biological weapons, chemical warfare, atomic fallout and nuclear bombs . . . Every man, woman, and child lives, not knowing if they shall see tomorrow’s sunrise.” He asked, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?”
King later unleashed a scathing critique of U.S. military actions in Vietnam, referring to the government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He argued that African Americans—still treated unequally at home—were disproportionately dying in Vietnam, and urged the United States to stop the bombing and end the war.
His antiwar statements drew harsh reactions from the liberal establishment, the mainstream press, and even from some elements within the black community. Presidential advisor John Roche told Lyndon Johnson that King had “thrown in with the commies”; The New York Times charged King with damaging both the civil rights and antiwar movements; Life magazine described his speech as “a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” and five days after his speech, the NAACP adopted a resolution, clearly aimed at King, which stated that “any attempt to merge the Civil Rights Movement with the Peace Movement . . . is, in our judgment, a serious tactical mistake, that would serve the cause neither of civil rights nor peace,” and pledged to “stick to the job for which it was organized.”
Feeling the pressure, King responded to his critics stating that he “held no such view” that the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement should formally merge. However, he also made clear that the overarching issue remained universal human rights, and remained committed to the notion that the fight for racial equality, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and anticolonialism were part of the same struggle.
King’s stance has, in the decades following his death, continued to reverberate. Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, routinely spoke out against nuclear weapons and urged for an end to “Armageddon devices”; Jesse Jackson, during his presidential run, dedicated a substantial portion of his campaign to the nuclear arms race, stating, “We will choose the human race over the nuclear race”; and in 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part due to his commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Since 1945 black antinuclear activists have been part of a larger narrative that challenges the idea that the black freedom struggle was an isolated movement in a narrowly defined set of years. Their persistence in supporting nuclear disarmament allowed the fight to abolish nuclear weapons to reemerge powerfully in the 1970s and beyond. Black leaders never gave up the nuclear issue or failed to see its importance; by doing so, they broadened the black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.
This post was adapted from Intondi’s new book African Americans Against the Bomb.