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Common cause: African-American objections to nuclear bombs

Harry Belafonte (left) after a rally calling for nuclear disarmament.
Associated Press/file 1960
Harry Belafonte (left) after a rally calling for nuclear disarmament.

At a glance, racial segregation and nuclear proliferation don’t seem especially related. In American history, however, activism around the two issues has a long and unexpected entanglement that’s the subject of a new book, “African-Americans Against the Bomb.” Author Vincent Intondi, a professor of African-American history at Montgomery College in Maryland, explains that from the beginning of the nuclear age, the black community has had a unique perspective on the implications of the bomb.

Eighty-five percent of the American public supported the decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a Gallup poll conducted soon after the attacks. By contrast, prominent black figures at the time were overwhelmingly against the move. Zora Neale Hurston dubbed President Truman the “butcher of Asia.” W.E.B. Du Bois referred to the president as “one of the greatest killers of our day,” and saw a common impulse behind discrimination against blacks at home and the mass killing of Japanese civilians abroad.

“They were looking at this in a different way, through the lens of race, asking, what role did it play that the victims were nonwhite,” Intondi says.

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Intondi argues the tie between black leaders and the antiproliferation movement peaked on June 12, 1982, when 1 million people marched on the United Nations against nuclear weapons. Half the leaders of the march were African-American and included figures like Harry Belafonte and Toni Morrison.

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Intondi sees a resurgence of the previous linkage, though instead of colonialism or attacks on foreign countries, the tie now has more to do with domestic spending priorities.

“Obama promises $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next decade and [activists] wonder why Baltimore has such broken down infrastructure,” Intondi says. “People start to connect those dots.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.