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Uncensored Black History Offers Lessons in Global Struggles for Liberation

Unearthing Black internationalism’s legacy can inform our fight for liberation in Palestine — and beyond.

Martin Luther King Jr. (center) poses with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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Our time is shaped by Israel’s genocidal assault in Gaza. But it is also shaped by the largest mobilization of opposition to U.S. support for Israel in this country’s history, and within this wave of protest, we see — among other things — the inescapable connections between Black America and people who are oppressed and marginalized around the world.

Indeed, today’s outpouring of protest for Gaza is the largest and most sustained since the 2020 Black-led uprisings in response to the police-perpetrated murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and this is not a coincidence. On one hand, decades of steadfast organizing to bring awareness to Israeli apartheid and U.S. complicity — led by Palestinians and their supporters — laid the foundation for the mass action for Gaza that we are seeing now. Campaigns to boycott Israeli products and divest from Israeli institutions and educational events — particularly on campuses across North America — have led to a situation where Americans are far more informed about Palestine than during Israel’s previous bombardments of Gaza and other violence throughout its history.

But it is also the case that more than 10 years of protest, political education and national conversation under the banner “Black lives matter” has primed the U.S. population for a clear look at Israel’s actions and a deep interrogation of the histories and structures that inform them. After all, the movement for Black lives not only has produced sharp scrutiny of U.S. policing, but has also forced a reckoning with institutional racism — particularly rooted in the enslavement of Black Americans — and the ways in which it informs every aspect of U.S. society.

When, in May 2021, Israeli police cracked down on Palestinians in Jerusalem who were worshiping at the Al Aqsa Mosque, forced Palestinians from their homes in that city and elsewhere, and escorted far right Israeli marches, people in the U.S. observed with eyes that had been shaped by the Black-led uprisings of the previous year. Israeli apartheid on the other side of the world suddenly looked very familiar. It is unsurprising that Israeli police in Jerusalem behaved similarly to cops who repressed the 2020 protests in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Portland, because the police in those cities train with Israeli forces. That moment stands as a precursor to the mass opposition to Israeli violence that we are seeing now.

In fact, the time stretching from the early days of the movement for Black lives through now has included a contemporary wave of Black-Palestinian solidarity. The year 2014 in particular was seminal: The Ferguson Uprising in response to the police murder of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb coincided with Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza. As these events unfolded, Palestinians voiced solidarity with Ferguson and famously took to social media to offer advice on dealing with tear gas.

In the wake of summer 2014, Black American activists deepened solidarity with Palestinians — from Florida’s Dream Defenders’s delegation to Palestine, to more than 1,100 Black activists, artists and writers signing a statement that said, among other things, that “we continue to see connections between the situation of Palestinians and Black people.”

This is not the first time that connections between the struggle against anti-Black racism in the U.S. and freedom struggles around the world informed a Black internationalist consciousness here in the United States. We are at the end of Black History Month, which offers an annual set of conversations about Black history, the unfinished Black freedom struggle, and the ways in which these things have shaped this place and its broader history. While typically official celebrations in February minimize the radical content of Black history and narrow the conversation to within the borders of the United States, an honest look at the full breadth of Black politics over time points to thought and movements that push against the very foundations of the United States — and to a consciousness that extends well beyond its borders.

While Martin Luther King Jr. Day tends to offer a sanitized, innocuous version of the civil rights leader, for example, King’s transnational, anti-colonial vision is usually omitted entirely. In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, King laments the conservatism of the United States by contrasting the time taken to dismantle Jim Crow segregation with the pace at which victorious anti-colonial struggles were sweeping the colonized world. King wrote, “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

“Black lives matter” has primed the U.S. population for a clear look at Israel’s actions and a deep interrogation of the histories and structures that inform them.

King saw the civil rights movement not as a struggle isolated to the American South, but in the context of a broader world struggle against racism and colonization. He studied and spoke extensively about the Indian fight against British colonialism, and was present in Accra at the inauguration of Ghana as an independent nation in 1957.

King was not alone. For the most forward leadership of the Black Power era — and many of its participants — linking the struggle in the U.S. to the global struggle for a freer world was not the exception, but the rule. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the key organization of the civil rights movement, spoke out against Israeli colonization of Palestine in 1967 — the year in which Israel seized several territories that it would settle, including Gaza. That same year, SNCC’s James Forman spoke in Zambia at the International Seminar on Apartheid, Racial Discrimination, and Colonialism in South Africa, saying, “SNCC has never visualized the struggle for human rights in America in isolation from the worldwide struggle for human rights.” SNCC’s words and actions against Israeli apartheid and colonization throughout Africa were among the many aspects of the organization’s rich engagement with struggles against war and for liberation throughout the world.

Other Black Power organizations of this era had similar commitments. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense had an international section of its newspaper from the first issue. The party opened an office in Algiers in 1970 to coordinate relationships between the organization and newly independent countries and revolutionary leaders (including the Palestinian Liberation Organization) around the world in what it called “people’s diplomacy.” The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which was centered in the Detroit area, worked extensively with Arab coworkers in the auto plants to campaign against U.S. support for Israel, and used the South End newspaper to educate and agitate for Palestine — even facing an arson attack for doing so.

Israel’s — and Washington’s — catastrophe in Gaza is ushering in a new era of awareness of Palestine in particular, and the U.S.’s violent activities abroad in general, from which there is no going back. Today, Black clergy are speaking out against the genocide in Gaza and students at historically Black colleges and universities are interrogating their campuses’ connections with Israel and promoting solidarity with Palestinians. As we work to construct a new time of anti-militarism and internationalism, we should know that we have a rich inheritance of Black internationalist history. We should unearth this knowledge and the lessons it holds as we do our urgent work today.

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