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African Americans in the Atomic Age: Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967
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African Americans in the Atomic Age
Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967

On 8 September 1945, Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), made a prediction: “The atomic bomb will have and must have even more explosive effects on nationalist, economic and racial concepts as it has had on the half million human beings who were wiped out by two bombs in Japan.”1 Was he right? Did the dawning atomic age bring about radical transformations in the dominant racial, colonial, and economic order, as hoped by White and other like-minded black intellectuals and activists? In some indirect ways, the answer is yes. Former colonies began to achieve independence in the postwar era, and cold war politics provided new incentives for the U.S. government to change its racist social policies.2 The atomic bomb also made an impact on a variety of African-American public intellectuals, who produced surprisingly divergent conclusions about the course of social change. Indeed, the atomic bomb acted as a bifocal lens. It sharpened the [End Page 291] focus on global racial inequality, leading some writers and activists to transnational alliances and direct conflict with the U.S. government. At the same time, however, the atomic bomb revealed new possibilities for African Americans to pursue full inclusion in the postwar national project. In contrast to radical critics of nuclear weapons, some black leaders saw opportunities for the advancement of civil rights in the industries and ideologies of the atomic age.

As early as the first accounts of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conflicting interpretations of what the atomic age would bring were voiced in the influential and widely distributed African-American newspapers of the time. In those pages, black newspaper editors and well-known columnists such as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter White raised a number of critiques of the bomb that were virtually ignored in mainstream discussions: the relationship between colonialism and atomic weapons; the extraction of resources from Africa; the racist use of the bomb against Japan; the segregation of black and white atomic workers; and the emptiness of the promise of atomic power in light of profound inequalities.3 But not all reporters and columnists writing for popular black newspapers were critical of the atomic bomb. Some found much to celebrate, particularly the contributions of black scientists, mathematicians, and workers to the construction of the weapon that ended the war. These patriotic accomplishments were held up as evidence that civil rights for African Americans were well deserved.

Disagreement over the atomic bomb is a typically overlooked dimension of the clash of political philosophies among African-American public figures during the early cold war. In a recent volume, Bruce Sinclair notes a persistent gap: “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial significance.”4 Certainly, the history of the atomic bomb in American life and culture is well-worn territory,5 and the literature on civil rights [End Page 292] politics during the post–World War II period is large and growing.6 However, most of this literature fails to observe the connections between technological change and racial struggle. References to the atomic bomb are woven through recent scholarship on the early civil rights era, without becoming a focal point, just as African Americans appear sporadically in the literature on the atomic bomb though rarely seem to take center stage.

This essay is a corrective to that bifurcation, drawing fresh insights from the secondary literature on the era and analyzing the contradictory discourses about nuclear developments circulating in the African-American press. Its focus is on what sociologist Thomas Rochon calls a “critical community”—a network of thinkers, often the forerunners of a major social movement, who produce the ideas that become the basis for new cultural values.7 In the 1940s, a critical community of African-American writers, activists, and intellectuals publicly questioned the dominant racial order, paving the way for the American civil rights movement. Critical communities typically develop...