- In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics by Benjamin Talton
Imagine a charismatic, young, minority congressman with progressive views on health care, homelessness, immigration, Black-Latino coalitions, human rights, and humanitarian aid. Imagine also that this politician had been a community organizer and had an especially close connection to East Africa. No, it's not an idealized version of Barack Obama, it is Mickey Leland.
The late Houston Representative is the subject of Benjamin Talton's In This Land of Plenty. Leland may have emerged as a presidential candidate if not for his tragic death in a plane crash while on a humanitarian aid mission in Ethiopia in [End Page 971] August 1989. Leland was a larger than life figure in Houston and among his colleagues on the Capitol Hill, yet he is largely forgotten today. Talton's work uncovers some of the reasons why and in the process points to some larger concerns around humanitarian aid, Africa and foreign policy.
Leland was part of a group of Texas Southern student activists who formed the Black Community Action Team in 1968. Financed in large part by a local Presbyterian Church, they considered their connections to the movements and peoples in the Caribbean and Africa as self-evident. Deciding to focus his career on public health, Leland pursued pharmacy as a major. However, inspired by McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, he decided to run for the Texas state legislature the same year. Aided greatly by the support of a white philanthropist, Leland won. After a largely frustrating first term, the young legislator toned down his rhetoric and had some legislative success his second term. When Congresswoman Barbara Jordan retired in 1977, Leland sought and won her seat the following year. After arriving in Washington Leland discovered that the health issue already had a number of champions and decided to focus on global hunger. In the early seventies, Leland had traveled to East Africa and had been impressed with leaders like Tanzania's Julius Nyerere. When famine broke out in Ethiopia Leland had found his issue.
The Houston Congressman's first official trip to Ethiopia in March 1983 to visit feeding centers affected him deeply. When the delegation Leland was a part of met with President Mengistu, he was convinced the government approached the famine with great concern and accepted Mengistu's contention that his policies and Ethiopia's civil wars had little to do with the problem. As a result, Leland tried to remain outside politics when it came to famine relief.
Constant media coverage of Ethiopia's starving children produced a groundswell of popular support for relief aid that the Reagan administration was unable to ignore. And while Leland was able to capitalize on public pressure to provide famine relief, he was unable to separate it from politics. Republicans cited the Mengistu regimes' Communism as a major reason for Ethiopia's famine and pushed for regime change. Leland, fearful that such pressure would lead the regime to refuse aid, would not criticize the government. This strategy backfired when Leland and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus sought to criticize South African apartheid and rejected "constructive engagement." Although Leland argued apartheid was a human rights issue while Ethiopian aid was a humanitarian crisis, many of his colleagues failed to accept the distinction.
In fact, the effort to end South African apartheid would represent the zenith of African American influence on United States foreign policy. The passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over the veto of President Reagan was the culmination of over a decade of electoral and non-electoral activity on White rule in South Africa. The Congressional Black Caucus, led by Charles Diggs and later Ronald Dellums (Leland's mentor), had elevated South Africa to the status of a legitimate legislative issue and Jesse Jackson's two presidential campaigns made anti-apartheid a mainstream political issue. Shortly before he died Leland said: "I am convinced that the fate of African Americans in this country...