Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College
On May 2, 1967, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense stood in front of the California state capitol and read Executive Mandate #1. Seale and others were protesting the state legislatures’ decision to pass a bill to disarm the Panthers. However, Seale did not view the treatment of the Black Panther Party as a singular issue. In fact, it was quite the opposite. In Executive Mandate #1 Seale was clear that what was happening to African Americans was connected to colonialism, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war in Vietnam. Seale argued that collectively, these actions showed that the “racist power structure of America has but one policy: repression, genocide, terror, and the big stick.” The black community had “begged, prayed, petitioned, and demonstrated to get America to right the wrongs which had been perpetrated against black people.” But all of these efforts had been answered by “more repression, deceit, and hypocrisy,” Seale declared.
Bobby Seale consistently argued that these issues were inextricably linked. He knew racism played a role in the atomic bombings, war in Vietnam, and of course the treatment of African Americans at home. Now almost fifty years later, all of these issues are again at the forefront. With the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, the country has exploded in protests and acts of civil disobedience. At the same time, the world found out just how bad the U.S. tortured people during the Bush years and remains at war. And as these events unfolded, over 800 delegates from approximately 160 nations gathered in Vienna for the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons with strong support from Africa and Latin America. Of course the common denominator in the use of nuclear weapons, torture, and police brutality is the victims were nonwhite.
Bobby Seale understood how these issues were connected. Of course he was not alone. Since 1945, many inside the black community have consistently argued that the black freedom movement, peace, and nuclear weapons were part of the same fight. Sadly, one cannot possibly be shocked that the police, who are agents of the state, would shoot unarmed black men and then describe them as “it” and “demons” when one reads the grotesque ways in which the U.S. tortured nonwhite people abroad, and have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons on nonwhite people around the world.
What recent events show is that now, just like in the 1960s, activists need to fight on multiple fronts. While President Obama banned torture his second day in office, activists need to make sure in his last two years Obama eliminates nuclear weapons, ends military engagements in the Middle East, and creates a division in the Justice Department to investigate police shootings and misconduct.
Like many, I am not sure how these things will play out. I don’t know if these protests will evolve into a new movement or when these wars will end. However, what I am sure of, and what has become increasingly clear over the last few months is that Malcolm X was right: “it’s not an issue of civil rights, but human rights.” And however activists proceed in 2015, Malcolm’s words should be the guiding principle for all actions to come.
Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book, African Americans Against the Bomb examines the role of black antinuclear activists