Race, Colonialism and Nuclear Terrorism

70s Years After Hiroshima

From the July/August 2015 PNL #844

by Diane Swords

The murder of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina on June 17 was a terrorist act. This follows a number of killings of African-Americans in the past year carried out by police. The acquittals in most cases indicate the sanction of the state. While this systemic white supremacy is by no means new, there is a widespread sense that it must be called its true name.

The most concentrated act of terrorism in world history, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was carried out 70 years ago. At the April 2015 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the US led the nuclear powers in abandoning the requirement to move towards disarmament. We are being brought to the brink of annihilation as the US embarks on a 30-year $1 trillion “revitalization” of strategic nuclear weapons systems.

Why raise these unspeakable realities together?

Activist and researcher Joseph Gerson points to racism against the Japanese as a factor in the decision to use nuclear weapons on humans in 1945. Calling it “part of the collective unconscious of the time,” he cites sources from Life magazine to Hollywood to the Pentagon using language comparing the Japanese to lice and describing them as “degenerate moral idiots.”1 Comments in 2015 are strikingly similar. In his 2014 article “On the Connections Between Police Brutality, Torture, and Nuclear Weapons,” historian and Syracuse native Vincent Intondi writes, “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 US tortured nonwhite people abroad, and have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons on nonwhite people around the world.”2


Anti-nuclear weapon symbol showing a nuclear bomb with a line through it


Anti-militarism is often viewed as separate from social justice. That perceived separation functions to keep activists from working together. Two facts refute this myth: 1) the production, possession, and deployment of nuclear weapons disproportionately harms and impoverishes disenfranchised people globally, and 2) African Americans have seen the connections between racism, imperialism and militarism, and acted courageously against nuclear terrorism from the beginning.

An Untold History

Intondi makes an important contribution with his book African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Intondi has compiled voices of many African Americans, famous and not.

Days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Reverend J.E. Elliott, of St. Luke Chapel, condemned it: “I have seen the course of discrimination throughout the war and the fact that Japan is of a darker race is no excuse for resorting to such an atrocity.”3 Many African Americans agreed with Langston Hughes “that racism was at the heart of Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan” yet not in Italy or Germany.4 Black leaders emphasized the global context of the freedom struggle. Those possessing nuclear weapons were those who colonized peoples of color. At a large 1946 event organized by the Council on African Affairs, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Mary McLeod Bethune, to name familiar civil rights figures, addressed the crowd on exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, especially by US importation of uranium for nuclear weapons.5 Even during the McCarthy era when speaking out bore extreme consequences, “there was a consistent voice inside the black community making the case that freedom, peace and colonialism were links in the same chain.”6

Many figures known for civil rights activism were also active against the bomb. Bayard Rustin is recognized for the 1963 March on Washington and advising Martin Luther King, Jr. Much less is known about Rustin’s major role in international protests against nuclear weapons in places as distant as Britain, Moscow and the Sahara. He framed struggles for civil rights within this global context. Many claim that Dr. King first spoke against war in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, excoriating the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” and denouncing the diversion of funds from “the poverty program” to war in Viet Nam.7 But ten years earlier he called for banning nuclear weapons, and in a 1959 speech, questioned the value of social justice “in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war.”8 Coretta Scott King should be credited with peace activism early in the 1950s, later profoundly influencing her husband’s pacifism and anti-nuclear stance.

African Americans held central roles in disarmament organizations such as the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Committee for Nonviolent Action in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but were not foregrounded on the national stage. They also formed predominantly black groups such as “Blacks Against Nukes” (BAN), and “Harlem Fight Back.” Black political groups like the Congressional Black Caucus have “included some of the most outspoken critics of nuclear weapons,” such as Ron Dellums.9
Anti-racism activists are aware that the role of people of color in US history is often obscured, so it is not surprising that the involvement of people of color in anti-nuclear activism is not widely known. The “power elite” are threatened by activist unity and maintain their dominance by promoting a view that racism and militarism are separate issues.

Nuclear Racism Today

Black Lives Matter, founded by three black women in 2012, spells out how the profit motive links racism and militarism. Their website asserts, “This country must abandon the lie that the deep psychological wounds of slavery, racism and structural oppression are figments of the Black imagination.” One of their key demands is, “…an end to the military industrial complex that incentivizes private corporations to profit off of the death and destruction of Black and Brown communities across the globe.”10
Production of nuclear weapons emits toxic and radioactive waste, and requires mining, testing, and massive diversions of money from marginalized communities. All over the world, mining is usually done on indigenous lands, destroying resources and sickening largely indigenous laborers. Waste dumps, too, are generally on the land of poor communities of color. Testing has taken huge areas of indigenous land in patterns of colonial takeover inside and outside the US.

When first elected, President Obama expressed the urgency of nuclear abolition. Boston Globe columnist James Carrol writes of “The Abolition of Abolition.” Carrol says unless Obama immediately changes direction, “Nuclear weapons will instead become a normalized and permanent part of the twenty-first century American arsenal, and therefore of the arsenals of many other nations; nuclear weapons, that is, will have become an essential element of the human future—as long as that future lasts.”11    

The late civil rights veteran Vincent Harding admonished at Obama’s 2009 inauguration that Obama could not be expected to carry out his progressive positions without extreme public pressure. If we take this seriously, what must we do? For the 99% to be a force, we must see the linkages between efforts and recognize that we are struggling against a global system. Intondi reminds us “…now, just like in the 1960s, activists need to fight on multiple fronts.”12

[1] Intondi, Vincent. 2014. “On the Connections Between Police Brutality, Torture and Nuclear Weapons”. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vincent-intondi/on-the-connections-betwee_...

[2] Gerson, Joseph. 2007. Empire and the Bomb. Ann Arbor, Mi. Pluto Press.

[3] Intondi, Vincent. 2015. “African Americans and the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford, CA. Stanford University Press. P. 1.

[4] Intondi. 2015. p. 3.

[5] Intondi 2015 p. 22

[6] Intondi, 2015 p. 4

[7] King Jr., Martin Luther. (1967). “Beyond VietNam” speech delivered at Riverside Church, New York City http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/speeches/Beyon...

[8] Intondi, 2015. p. 64

[9] Intondi, 2015. p. 111


[11] Carrol, James http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-carroll/the-abolition-of-abolition_b_6307904.html  

[12] Intondi. 2014.

Diane is a member of SPC’s Nuclear Free World Committee and an adjunct professor of Sociology at Syracuse University.