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Charleston Shooting Exposes America’s Pro-Apartheid Cold War Past

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tags: racism, South Africa, South Carolina, Church shooting, Dylann Roof, Rhodesia



R. Joseph Parrott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the intersections of decolonization and the Cold War,  Western domestic politics, twentieth century Pan-Africanhistory, and transnational activism.

In the wake of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the United States has undergone a deep soul searching. Images of the confessed shooter posing with the Confederate Battle Flag have launched a long-overdue national debate about the meaning of Confederate imagery. But they have quickly overshadowed the shooter’s use of two other symbols: the defunct standards of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa.

Though not nearly as ubiquitous as the “stars and bars,” these totems symbolize an international segregationist philosophy of white superiority. While historians have rightly focused on the transnational dimensions of decolonization and the civil rights movement, there was also a smaller, if no less global, reaction against these trends. Both South Africa and Rhodesia actively cultivated alliances with reactionary white populations abroad, building support in the United States, particularly in the area of the old Confederacy. The Charleston shooting therefore serves as a violent reminder that American racism today is not only a regional issue – it has also been shaped by a decades-long global opposition to human and civil rights.

This particular transnational solidarity of whiteness emerged as a response to the interconnected struggles for civil rights and self-determination during the Cold War. The ideological conflict encouraged Western countries to realize their rhetorical commitments to democracy and freedom, creating an environment conducive to both decolonization and a reevaluation of racially defined inequalities such as American segregation. Historians have shown that these international and domestic trends complemented each other, drawing inspiration across borders and informing a general movement toward a new rights-based international system.[1] The reevaluation of race relations inherent in these movements directly challenged imperial concepts of white superiority and Europe’s self-serving “civilizing mission,” famously described by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1960 as the “wind of change.”

The normative shift away from colonialism and Euro-American dominance began the slow process of isolating segregationists in Africa and the Americas, but it also inspired them to seek transnational support through appeals to common racial and ethnic heritage. The most influential state actor on this new transnational frontier was South Africa. The nation had become the international exemplar of discriminatory official policy when it installed its apartheid system in 1948. Under attack at the United Nations and eventually ousted from the British Commonwealth, South Africa based its international propaganda campaign on two central arguments: anti-communism and negative stereotypes of black peoples. As Tim Borstelmann and Thomas Noer have argued, South Africa claimed to be a strategic bulwark in the Cold War, protecting key minerals and European economic interests from African nationalists the regime depicted as Soviet-controlled communists.[2]

South Africans also appealed to popular assumptions about the inability of colonized peoples to govern themselves. Recasting the outdated civilizational thesis in the rhetoric of the 1960s, the apartheid government argued that it strove to achieve “separate development,” helping to modernize its internal populations at different rates and in ways acceptable to Euro-American interests.[3]South Africans contended that it was white governance that allowed the country to build its modern economy and Westernized high-rise cities, minimizing the ways settler colonialism had depended on the conscious exploitation of black Africans. South Africa’s success in becoming what a 1966 Fortune article called “the only real industrial complex south of Milan” was enough to convince many business-minded Americans to overlook the country’s deep structural inequality.[4] This diplomatic propaganda effectively quieted much Western criticism of apartheid in its first two decades.

Apartheid South Africa also appealed to baser American motivations, manipulating racial fear to curry favor with more desperate elements of American society. Officials including apartheid’s architect, Prime Minister Daniel Malan, cited Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion and the chaotic period succeeding the 1960 decolonization of the Congo as proof of the importance of maintaining white control.[5] Violence, the argument went, would inherently follow the end of European rule, much of it targeting whites.[6] This propaganda appealed particularly to Americans in the desegregating south and urban areas, who were anxious over how the changing complexion of their communities and governments would affect future social relations.

American segregationists gravitated to the racially motivated warnings of individuals like Malan to justify their own policies. In one memorable example from 1963, Senator Allen Ellender (D-LA) contrasted his visits to South Africa and the British colony of Southern Rhodesia with those to newly independent Africa to argue that black peoples were “incapable of leadership except through the assistance of Europeans.”[7]

This reactionary internationalism bloomed especially after Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. Fearing a metropolitan transfer of power that would strengthen the political power of the black majority, the white government of Southern Rhodesia broke with Britain and eventually declared itself a republic. Few nations recognized the sovereignty of the new state, which severely restricted the political and economic rights of black Africans it claimed were not yet fit to govern. Sanctioned by the United Nations and the Anglo-American entente, Rhodesia became a symbol for disaffected Americans to argue that decolonization – and by extension civil rights – unjustly favored non-white peoples. Solidarity organizations supporting Rhodesia sprang up across the United States, with historian Gerald Horne estimating that the Friends of Rhodesian Independence alone counted 25,000 members in 122 local chapters.[8] Though barred from establishing embassies in most countries, the rogue state operated information offices in Washington and elsewhere that promoted popular solidarity and actively recruited white immigrants to bolster the minority population. ...

Read entire article at Imperial & Global Forum


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