By now, you’ve probably heard about Newt Gingrich’s weird comments last week linking President Obama’s worldview to “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior." But here’s something you probably haven’t heard: Mr. Gingrich was right.
President Obama was influenced by anticolonialism. So were you, if you’re a child of the civil rights era. The battles for independence in the Third World profoundly affected the black struggle for freedom in the United States, and vice versa. And that’s what Gingrich doesn’t want you to know.
Nor does Dinesh D’Souza, whose Forbes article prompted Gingrich’s remarks in the National Review Online. According to Mr. D’Souza, a well-known conservative commentator, anticolonialism “is the doctrine that rich countries of the West got rich by invading, occupying and looting poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America.” D’Souza attributes this doctrine to Obama and his father – who came to the United States from Kenya – and contrasts it to the “color-blind ideal” of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anticolonialism influenced Dr. King
But here’s the big problem: Mr. King himself was profoundly influenced by – yes – anticolonialism, which took different forms in different places. At its root, though, anticolonialism held that people should be able to determine their own destinies. And that same idea motivated King and millions of other freedom fighters across the United States.
As early as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, King insisted that the African-American civil rights campaign was “part of [an] overall movement in the world in which oppressed people are revolting against...imperialism and colonialism...” Like blacks in America, King argued, Africans and Asians were “dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated” by their white rulers.
The following year, King would travel to Ghana to celebrate the birth of sub-Sarahan Africa’s first independent nation. And two years after that, he visited India to study the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi – himself a great anticolonialist, of course – and other nonviolent revolutionaries.
Or consider King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which he wrote in 1963. Today, we often read his letter – like King’s other writings – as a call for America to fulfill its historic ideals. But King described these ideals as universal, not just American, and he linked the fate of black Americans to colonized and oppressed peoples around the world.
King wasn't "color blind"
“The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what happened to the American Negro,” King wrote. “[W]ith his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, he is moving with a cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
Does that sound “color blind” to you, as D’Souza maintains? I didn’t think so. Like other American civil rights warriors, King understood that racism undergirded colonialism abroad as well as segregation at home. Across the globe, then, people of color needed to join hands and throw off the yoke of white oppression.
“All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history,” King declared in 1964, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. “The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land.”
American ideals in Africa
America’s cold war political leaders understood this connection, too, fearing that Communists would lure Third World peoples by underscoring racism in the United States. So they sent famous black Americans – including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Harlem Globetrotters – on good-will tours to Asia and Africa. They also urged young Asians and Africans to come study in America.
One of them was Barack Obama Sr., the president’s father, whose 1959 passage to Hawaii was secured by the Kenyan anticolonial leader Tom Mboya. Hardly the wide-eyed radical of D’Souza’s imagination, Mr. Mboya earned praise from both presidential candidates in 1960 – John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon – for his own commitment to civil rights ideals, especially equality across races.
So it’s perfectly reasonable to attribute “anticolonial” impulses to the president’s father, and even to the president himself. But it’s ridiculous – and scurrilous – to suggest that these ideas were somehow alien to America. Like it or not, our own country’s racial conflicts were part of a larger global struggle. And everybody knew it.
You’d think that Gingrich would know it, too. After all, he wrote his dissertation on Belgian colonial education in the Congo! But the real history of the era doesn’t suit Gingrich or D’Souza, who clearly want to tar Obama with the taint of a “foreign” ideology. Shame on them, for distorting his past. And yours.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”