- African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement by Vincent J. Intondi
This book attempts a colossal task: exploring the breadth of African American thought and action on nuclear weapons and its links with movements of anti-colonialism, civil rights, Black power, peace, and a host of other issues. By examining the attitudes and activities of influential Black activists and thinkers in opposing nuclear weapons, Intondi hopes to develop ‘‘a larger narrative that challenges the idea that the black freedom struggle was an isolated movement in a narrowly defined set of years’’ (3). This exclusive focus on anti-nuclear activism provides a much-needed addition to the small but growing scholarship on those who opposed nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War and beyond.
Intondi’s narrative is detail-oriented yet readable, and examines a vast array of Black voices discussing nuclear weapons within the broader contexts of civil rights, colonialism, and peace. He uses an impressive array of Black newspapers, as well as a large archival base, to cover the anti-nuclear sentiments of clergy, union leaders, civil rights organizers, pacifists, civic leaders, and more. The assortment of characters, organizations, and campaigns is complex, and many receive scant attention within the narrative. A key part of Intondi’s argument — that ‘‘connecting racial equality to nuclear disarmament and colonialism broadened the black freedom struggle’’ (5) — is welcome, but the overwhelming variety of detail in this [End Page 394] rather short book often complicates the analysis of this process, especially as it took place over many years within the complex overlap between the peace and civil rights movements.
The book begins with a survey of Black opinion of the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then expands to introduce readers to key individuals such as Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the more conservative Black leaders Walter White and A. Phillip Randolph. Anti-communist suspicion was influential here, dividing African Americans and ensuring those speaking out against nuclear weapons faced marginalization, censure, or worse. The impact of anti-communism is also a central theme in chapter two. Intondi misses an opportunity here to delve further into the intellectual and practical dilemmas of radical activism in an era of anti-communist fervour, as well as the traditions of religious pacifism and nonviolence that informed many of the protests detailed in this chapter.
Chapter three is, rewardingly, more international in focus. Central to this chapter is the Sahara Project, a transnational direct action campaign opposed to French nuclear testing in Algeria. Rustin’s involvement was key here; the tensions between Rustin’s internationalism and the unwillingness of other American civil rights leaders to broaden the scope of their own activism is of particular interest. Intondi is right to emphasize that, far from being natural allies, pacifists and civil rights advocates were often opposed on many issues. Chapter four takes a similar approach, especially in relation to Martin Luther King and Black women active in multi-racial peace organizations. The difficulties of Black activists here highlight familiar organizational challenges to social movements, most significantly the allure of multi-issue organizing and the pragmatic pull of single-issue campaigns. For Black activists, of course, separating the struggle for peace from the struggle for civil rights was counterintuitive. Others, though, viewed the threat of nuclear destruction as a more immediate and pressing concern. The focus on anti-colonialism continues with a brief look at Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, yet despite the clear links here between Black power and a pan-African internationalism, the connection with nuclear weapons is not immediately clear.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, activists confronted poverty and nuclear weapons policy as interlinked issues. In chapter five the campaigns, individuals, and organizations are again numerous, and the historical scope attempted is perhaps too vast. Intondi wisely takes the opportunity to delve deeper into the racial divisions within the wider peace...