Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color by Michael R. Fischbach, Stanford University Press (2018)
When CNN fired Black commentator Marc Lamont Hill in 2018 for a speech he gave at the United Nations’ International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, it recalled for some the forced resignation in 1979 of Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the United Nations. The first African-American to hold that post, Young was fired simply for meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Andrew Young Affair, as it came to be called, is in many ways the centerpiece of Michael R. Fischbach’s Black Power and Palestine, a meticulously researched history of the ties between the Black and Palestinian liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1980s.
A professor of history at Randolph-Macon College, Fischbach explores how the Black Power movement of the 1960s embraced the Palestinian cause and how this eventually influenced moderate civil rights organizations that had unquestioningly supported Israel.
Fischbach’s historical overview “charts how support for the Palestinians changed within a relatively short time from something expressed solely by radicals to something that became embedded within mainstream black politics.”
The book goes beyond this, however, into the role of color and identity to explain why Black Americans came to view the Palestinian struggle and their own as part of a global battle against colonialism and white supremacy.
As early as 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” making the issue of racism and white supremacy central to a historical period while also giving it a global dimension.
By 1967, civil rights activist Jack O’Dell, an early advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., elaborated on this position in his magazine Freedomways when he wrote that Black Americans represented a “colonized people” like their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America and that the “bonds of color” united them.
Fischbach provides a sweeping survey of the Black Power groups that took an internationalist perspective beyond civil rights advocacy, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party and key intellectual and cultural figures. Malcolm X and SNCC were among the first to identify with the Palestinian struggle.
As SNCC announced its opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the anti-colonial liberation struggles in Africa, an article in its June-July 1967 newsletter raised questions about Israel and Zionism. The article sparked a backlash, resulting in a significant loss of donor support. Fischbach cites multiple sources to document that the backlash eventually undercut SNCC’s ability to raise money and contributed to the organization’s demise.
The newsletter and subsequent articles isolated SNCC from mainstream civil rights organizations that had already admonished King for his Riverside Cathedral speech opposing the Vietnam War and for describing the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Leading the charge against SNCC was civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a key figure in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
Rustin helped deepen the split between Black Power and civil rights groups, culminating in full-page ads in June 1970 in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The ads, titled “An Appeal by Black Americans for United States Support for Israel,” ended with a plea to provide Israel with US military aircraft despite the avowed pacifism and nonviolent advocacy of many of the signatories, including Rustin.
“The black mainstream was fighting back vigorously against Black Power and its pro-Palestinian internationalism,” Fischbach writes. “The battle for black identity had been joined.”
Here, however, is where the first cleavage in the civil rights movement began. Fischbach details the furious reaction to the ad by the staff of the mainstream American Committee on Africa. ACOA was not a Black Power organization. Indeed, some of the signers of the ad were on its board.
ACOA, however, was a firm supporter of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, particularly against apartheid South Africa. The staff was angry that the ad ignored the Israeli-South African alliance along with Israel’s actions against “the Arab peoples of the Middle East.”
This narrative leads to the Andrew Young Affair. At the time when Young was appointed UN ambassador, US policymakers had agreed to an Israeli demand to have no diplomatic contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ironically, Young violated the policy only because he was charged with heading off a PLO initiative to seek UN recognition for a Palestinian state.
Civil rights groups were already angry that Young had been forced to resign. They became irate when they learned that Milton Wolf, the US ambassador to Austria, had met on three occasions with the PLO several months prior to Young’s forced resignation.
The double standard on the treatment of a Black diplomat and a Jewish diplomat disquieted mainstream civil rights groups, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
These groups “differed from Black Power activists in that they believed their identity was American, not Third World,” Fischbach writes. “Yet precisely because of that, they keenly resented what they saw as their marginalization from the realm of foreign policy.”
What followed was a dramatic upturn in the willingness of mainstream Black leaders to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, including 1979 visits by Jesse Jackson and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Joseph Lowery.
“Black Power was essentially dead and gone by then,” Fischbach writes. “Yet its belief that the Palestinians were a fellow people of color that deserved their support … remained.”
Black Power and Palestine is essential reading for those interested in these themes and the period in which they first emerged.
Fischbach’s insightful epilogue also makes it clear that the struggle is ongoing. He cites the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine, organized by the national network Black for Palestine, and the pushback it received. Indeed, these matters still reverberate today with the firing of Marc Lamont Hill and the denial of a human rights award to Angela Davis.
“The color divide prophesied in the twentieth century by W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X seems as relevant as ever,” Fischbach concludes, “five decades after Black Power first championed” the Palestinian cause.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.