These represent only the most recent episode in a long global history of black protest and activism against anti-black violence. Throughout the last century, the United States has projected itself as a global leader of liberty, democracy and freedom. But on questions of race, America has consistently been on the wrong side of history — and the world has noticed.
For example, internationally, the U.S. has supported racist European colonial regimes like apartheid South Africa until the 1980s, when domestic pressure led by African Americans pushed it to change course. Additionally at different points in its history domestically, like apartheid South Africa, the U.S. has unleashed the state’s machinery — dogs, water hoses, batons and rubber bullets or worse — to stymie civil rights protest, black anger and activism against anti-black violence. Images of this police violence circulated across the globe, clearly contradicting America’s Cold War rhetoric. It showed how totalitarianism and support for white supremacy existed in the U.S.'s own backyard.
This also inspired activism abroad. In 1964, the African Union passed a resolution condemning racial discrimination in the United States. Newly independent African countries had many immediate concerns. But America’s embrace of white supremacy troubled them. From the onset, independent African nations denounced anti-black racism in America, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) at the United Nations.
African leaders understood that their success depended upon recognizing and overturning anti-black racism globally. On the personal and political level, African liberation and black freedom were intertwined. Many early African leaders, like Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, lived and studied in America during the height of Jim Crow. Later, many experienced American racism directly, even as high-level representatives of independent African governments. For instance, in 1957, the Ghanaian Minister of Finance, Komla Gbedemah, was refused service at a restaurant in Dover, Del., because he was black and racial segregation was the law of the land.
This clash of U.S. domestic racial politics and Cold War foreign policy aims forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to honor Gbedemah at the White House to avoid an international incident. But formal apologies to foreign black nationals from the federal government didn’t erase the sting of discrimination against its own black citizens. Infamously during Ghana’s Independence Day Celebrations in 1957, then vice president Richard Nixon who was in attendance, reportedly turned to black bystanders and asked: “How does it feel to be free?” only for them to respond: “How do we know? We are from Alabama.”
Alabama, like apartheid South Africa, conjured up the worst excesses of racism in the collective global psyche at the time. In September 1963, white terrorists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black girls. That same month, near Tuscaloosa, five white men steered their car deliberately into a vehicle containing three Ghanaian college students, drove them to an isolated spot and physically assaulted them with a pistol, clubs, leather belts and automotive tools. Such incidents involving Africans helped amplify stories of anti-black racism beyond the United States, in an age before social media and the Internet. The world was watching what was unfolding in America.
As the Cold War intensified, the United States and the Soviet Union each positioned themselves as allies of the newly independent African countries. Yet, America’s support of white supremacy haunted it. In constant juxtaposition to America and Europe, the Soviets portrayed themselves as black people’s “real” friends. However, they too had their anti-black racism problems.
In December 1963, a 28-year-old black Ghanaian medical student, Edmond Asare-Addo, was killed in Moscow. Before Asare-Addo’s death, black students in the U.S.S.R. had complained repeatedly about unprovoked assaults by Soviet police and citizens. The Soviet government blamed Africans for their victimization and often failed to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable. This sparked a black protest in Moscow, the largest demonstration in Red Square in over 30 years. As the historic protest made headlines around the globe, one protest sign read: “Moscow, a second Alabama.” Indeed, even as protests against anti-black racism in Moscow swirled, America continued to be a reference point for anti-black racism.
In connecting the incidents in Moscow and Alabama, black people recognized that racism cut across capitalist and communist ideological borders and authoritarian and republican forms of governance. In fact, ending anti-black racism was not a key concern of the Cold War powers. African states were considered too geopolitically peripheral and unable to protect their citizens or their descendants globally. As long as access to African raw materials were secured, protecting African bodies did not matter.
And so, even as the Cold War ended and global geopolitics shifted, anti-black racism has persisted. In the United States, India, China and Russia, among other places, state and nonstate actors have racially assaulted and killed black people. Despite legislative changes and condemnatory speeches in many instances, violence and discrimination have continued to threaten black lives.
With social media and the Internet, images of anti-black violence in America now instantly circulate globally. Today again, the United States finds itself at the center and symbol of anti-black racism protests. Terms such as #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter are now ubiquitous globally. Black people in Canada, England and France are employing the symbolism and language of America’s anti-black racism protests to demand equality. Across Africa, in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, Floyd’s killing has galvanized people into the streets to protest white supremacy, police brutality and extrajudicial killings.
With the global spotlight on us, America has a unique global platform to overhaul a system that embraces white supremacy and prioritizes property and whiteness over black bodies and lives. Will we grab a hold of this moment and opportunity or spurn it? The collective global black psyche has read this script before. As the world watches on in horror in 2020, perhaps we might have a different ending to the story.