African independence carried a particularly important message for the American civil rights struggle, and a number of organizations actively assisted the movement. The NAACP, for instance, used the opportunity of expanding self-determination on the continent to criticize the continued British presence in South Africa, particularly the “dangerous racist policies and ruthless violence” associated with the segregationist policies of apartheid. The organization also assisted representatives of the Belgian Congo and Somaliland as they traveled to New York City to appear before the United Nations.
The newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee saw parallels as well; as Pike County, Alabama native John Lewis remembered, “Sure we identified with the blacks in Africa, and we were thrilled by what was going on.… They were getting their freedom, and we still didn’t have ours in what we believed was a free country.” In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalled the importance of the African independence movements after a 1964 SNCC trip to the continent: “I felt a sense of communion, a sense of fellowship with the rising nations of Africa.” For the first time in his life, Lewis witnessed black pilots, black bank workers, and black police officers—“Black people in charge. Black people doing for themselves.” Here was the true importance of African independence for the American civil rights movement. As Lewis and others watched, Africans actively pursued both independence and equality, imbuing the actions of American students with purpose and community, as well as a “frame of reference that was both broadening and refreshing.” Yet perhaps the greatest expression of the impact of global independence movements on the American civil rights movement came in Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Writing in 1963, King admonished white moderates who failed to understand the motivations of their African American neighbors: “Consciously or unconsciously, [“the American Negro”] has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa … the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
African independence also had profound importance for America’s political leaders concerned about the loyalties of newly selfruling governments in the midst of the Cold War. In particular, Washington worried that continued racial discrimination and public protest and repression might be negatively received in Third World nations, causing them to reject American friendship and ally instead with the Soviet Union. The United States Information Agency, which presented U.S. foreign policy to the rest of the world, explained that, despite broadcasts of rioting and violence, the country was making “marked progress towards integration” and the unrest was the work of a “small minority” that in no way represented the American people. Officials hoped that as long as foreign observers understood that the country was still politically, economically, and morally sound, the United States’ international reputation would remain largely unscathed.
Civil rights activists used these political fears to stress the importance of their work. In a 1961 memo, Roy Wilkins and Arnold Aaronson of the NAACP cabled the White House: “Action on civil rights … cannot be postponed pending the accomplishment of other foreign and domestic goals but … must proceed simultaneously with them.” Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson all understood the powerful message that civil rights legislation would send to the nations of Africa, and much of the civil rights legislation of the late 1950s and early 1960s carried both domestic and foreign policy goals. As the continent began to emerge as newly independent, both civil rights activists and politicians understood that the countries’ leaders were watching the United States, just as some in the United States watched them.