RACISM FOUUGHT FROM ABROAD Leaders: Several notable African-Americans recognized that establishing a base in western Europe was a useful tactic in the struggle to improve conditions in United States


MARYLAND HAS had the good fortune of being the home of two of the best of African-American leaders of the past two centuries. The example provided by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois - most notably their global outlook - continues to provide instructive lessons for today.

Douglass, born a slave, spent his early years in Maryland before moving on to Massachusetts and New York. Though a noted orator and writer, perhaps his major contribution to the struggle for freedom was his frequent trips abroad to rally support for the anti-slavery struggle here. At times, this was a question of convenience. After the white abolitionist John Brown launched an armed attack against slavery in Harpers Ferry, Douglass concluded that the better part of wisdom was to spend time abroad rather than face the wrath of slave owners who suspected that he too might have had a hand in the attack. Thus, his travel to western Europe was not just an effort to rally support for his people but a temporary exile as well.

Since the 1850s, many African-Americans have seen fit to emulate Douglass' example. Richard Wright, author of "Native Son," and a former communist, finally tired of U.S. racism and moved to Paris, where he continued to campaign against white supremacy in writing some of his most stirring though little-known works, such as "White Man, Listen!" Josephine Baker, the St. Louis-born dancer and singer, also moved to Paris, where her heroic activity against fascism and racism was honored by the French government. Reginald Lewis, the fabulously wealthy African-American businessman who had roots in Baltimore, also lived periodically in Paris, where he made some of his earliest business deals.

Like Douglass, Wright, Baker and Lewis recognized that western Europe was not Shangri-la when it came to race; however, all recognized that for various reasons racism against African-Americans was not as extensive there as in the United States and establishing a base abroad was a useful tactic in assaulting the citadel at home.

This basic lesson was also recognized by that other pre-eminent leader who maintained a home in Maryland: W.E.B. Du Bois. Though he is generally associated with his birthplace in Massachusetts (where he was born in February 1868) or New York City (where he lived while toiling for the NAACP) or Atlanta (where he taught intermittently), for years he maintained a home in Baltimore and was often to be found there. [See Expatriates, 6f]

However, like Douglass, he understood the struggle for freedom was a global one. This came to him when he studied at the University of Berlin in the 1890s and saw parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-black bias.

This reality also came clear in the 1890s with the reaction to the lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans. The stiff protest of the Italian government helped to forestall the gradual spreading of this bestial and violent practice beyond the usual victims - African-Americans. If a strong Italian government could aid in halting bias against its compatriots, could a strong Africa do the same for African-Americans?

This realization undergirded Du Bois' role in launching the Pan-African movement at the turn of the 20th century. The perception was that Africans, be they in North America or on the continent itself, found themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Consequently, a strong Africa could mean improved life chances for African-Americans.

This was part of the reason for his fabled dispute with Booker T. Washington.

In Du Bois' view, not only did Washington's attempt to train hod-carriers and brick masons underestimate the complexities of increasingly technological age and the racism that hindered acceptance of blacks in unions; he also felt that the attempt by the Tuskegee Wizard to build black institutions on this continent could not be successful as long as Africa itself was under siege and that only political power could prevent the erosion of economic gain.

Still, the reason Du Bois continuues to be viewed as the lodestar of black leadership is that he was not afraid to refine or even to change his viewpoints if conditions warranted. Thus, in 1934, he was forced to leave the organization he had founded - the National Association for the Advancment of Colored People - because he had moved closer to ideas he had spurned when they had been espoused by Washington and Marcus Garvey; i.e. Du Bois maintained stoutly that race-based economic cooperatives could be instrumental in the campaign to uplift Africans and African-Americans and could provide a foundation for a political movement.

Nevertheless, Du Bois' ventures in the global arena constitute his most impressive legacy. When he consented to return to the NAACP in 1944, he carefully designed a role that made him something of a minister of foreign affairs for the organization. In that capacity, he sought to influence the shaping of the United Nations and the post-war effort to decolonize Africa. In that capacity he filed a petition with the United Nations charging human rights violations against African-Americans. Twenty years later, Malcolm X was to revive this idea that Du Bois had initiated.

When he was forced from the NAACP in 1948, a major reason was his desire to continue pressing the U.S. government in an international forum on human rights questions.

After being fired by the NAACP, he began working more closely with the Council on African Affairs that Paul Robeson had founded a decade earlier. Years before, TransAfrica had begun to pressure the U.S. government for its overt and covert support for apartheid, Du Bois and Robeson were raising funds for the African National Congress of South Africa.

Even when Du Bois was indicted by the government, an international issue was implicated: In 1951 he was acquitted after being charged with being the agent of an unnamed foreign power - presumed to be the Soviet Union - because of his activism against nuclear weapons.

During this time, Du Bois' passport had been confiscated, and he was unable to travel abroad. When it was returned, after spending a good deal of time traveling abroad, he decided in 1961 to relocate - not to Paris, the home of Wright, Baker and Lewis - but to Ghana, where he died in 1963 at 95.

Du Bois recognized that as the United States struggled to win friends during the Cold War, independent and thriving African nations could be useful in pressing Washington to end bias against African-Americans. His final project - seeking to bring to fruition an "Encyclopedia Africana" - was the final expression of Pan Africanism.

Another great leader, Nelson Mandela, rarely fails to note that the anti-apartheid struggle would not have been successful but for international assistance. Du Bois realized that the United States moved finally against Jim Crow because this pestilence hampered the nation's ability to portray itself as the embodiment of human rights virtue in the global competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Today, supersonic transport, the Internet and the globalization of the economy truly have converted this world into a global village. Now, more than ever, the insight of Douglass and Du Bois that progress at home depends on the developments abroad needs to be acted on.

The NAACP should be contemplating sending delegations not only to Cape Town and Harare but Tokyo and Beijing as well. If the economists are accurate in their prediction that the next millennium will be inaugurated by a "Pacific Century," the civil rights community would be derelict if it ignored this trend.

Asian investors are increasingly financing the U.S. government through their purchases of Treasury bills, and, as the "donorgate" scandal suggests, they too are contributing heavily to the Democratic Party that black voters support by overwhelming margins. African-Americans who are mostly working class will have an increasingly difficult go of it if the products they make have to compete with those made by child labor in India and dollar-a-day workers in Haiti; inevitably this drags down our wages and working conditions.

"What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history" seems to be the aphorism that guides all too many of us. Just as Du Bois did not hesitate in 1934 to adopt viewpoints that he had sniffed at previously, those who have not taken account of new global realities should recognize that it is never too late to change. And just as Douglass guided us in the 19th century and Du Bois did the same in the 20th century, black leadership particularly must engage the entire planet if progress is to continue in the 21st century.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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