From Harlem to Hiroshima:

The African American Response to

the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


Vincent Intondi

American University



“What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?”

     -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


On June 6, 1964 three Japanese writers and atomic bomb survivors (Hibakusha) arrived in Harlem as part of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. Speaking out against nuclear proliferation, the group traveled to at least five other countries before reaching the United States. However traveling to Harlem was perhaps the trip they most eagerly anticipated because the Hibakusha wanted to meet Malcolm X most.[1]

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American activist, organized a reception for the Hibakusha at her home in the Harlem Manhattanville Projects. In an effort to make the Hibakusha’s wish come true, Kochiyama contacted Malcolm’s office months before their arrival but received no response and remained doubtful that Malcolm would attend the reception. Throughout the day, the Hibakusha walked around Harlem visiting a black school and church, ate lunch at a restaurant Malcolm X frequently visited, passed by the “World’s Worst Fair,”[2] and finally made their way to Kochiyama’s apartment. Little did they know who they were about to meet.

Shortly after the reception began, there was a knock at the door. Kochiyama opened the door and there stood Malcolm X. Upon entering the house, Malcolm first apologized to Kochiyama for not responding, explaining he did not have her address. He further remarked that if he traveled again he would remember to write. (He did, and wrote to Kochiyama eleven times from nine different countries). Malcolm thanked the Hibakusha for taking the time to go the “World’s Worst Fair.” He said, “You have been scarred by the atom bomb. You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.”[3] He went on to discuss his years in prison, education, and Asian history. Turning to Vietnam, Malcolm said, “If America sends troops to Vietnam, you progressives should protest. America is already sending American advisors.”[4] He continued arguing that “the struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.”[5] Like so many before him, Malcolm X connected civil rights with human rights. He saw the connection between colonialism, racism, and the black freedom struggle. And like those before him, Malcolm saw the atomic bomb as a critical link in that chain.

               Malcolm X joined a long list of African Americans who spoke out against the atomic bomb. Just a few days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes voiced their criticism over the decision to drop the bombs. Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panther Party were just a few of the many African Americans who spoke out against the atomic bomb.

This paper examines the African American community’s response to the nuclear threat.  Beginning with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I intend to trace the shifting response of African American leaders and organizations and of the broader African American public to the evolving nuclear arms race and general nuclear threat throughout the postwar period.  It is my contention that, African Americans not only participated in the anti-nuclear movement but were often among the leaders in the campaign against nuclear weapons. Understanding the nexus of colonialism, racism, and the atomic bomb, many in the African American community kept the issue of nuclear weapons alive and vital even when it was abandoned by other groups during the era of McCarthyism, allowing the fight to abolish nuclear weapons to reemerge powerfully in the 1960s and beyond. African American leaders never gave the nuclear issue up or failed to see its importance. And opposition to the bomb kept a host of other interrelated issues on the front burner. 

By analyzing the African American response to the atomic bombings, I will attempt to further historians’ growing effort to integrate African Americans more fully into the historical narrative, looking beyond the often narrowly defined social concerns that uniquely effected the African American community.  Because of the understandable focus on African Americans’ unique oppression, historians have often entirely ignored them when addressing other important issues, such as the nuclear threat that imperils all human beings.  This omission comes despite the fact that African Americans, as part of the larger human community, have as great a stake as any other group of American citizens.[6]  In fact, given the increasing urban concentration of African Americans, they face a greater risk when it comes to nuclear war and terrorism than do most Americans. 

Hence the question of how African Americans have responded to nuclear issues is of great historical consequence.


The Initial Response to the Atomic Bombings

As word spread that President Truman had instructed Emperor Hirohito to surrender, the Southside of Chicago erupted in approval. “I’m the happiest woman in the world,” exclaimed Mary Johnson, an African American resident of the Southside.[7] The Chicago Defender on August 18, 1945 read “America Hails End of War!” Throughout the country it appeared that African Americans shared the same joyous response as most of the American public upon hearing the news that Truman dropped two atomic bombs.[8] However, most Americans approved of the bombing in large part because of racism and revenge for Pearl Harbor.[9] This was not the case for African Americans. African Americans were anxious to highlight their role in the war in hopes of winning equality. The war offered African Americans a chance to demonstrate their patriotism and serve their country. They were proud of their involvement with the atomic bomb. In short African Americans’ apparent celebratory attitude was less about defeating the Japanese and more about gaining civil rights.

               Rather than praising the decision to drop the bomb, the black press initially celebrated African Americans’ involvement in creating the bomb. On August 18, 1945 the Pittsburgh Courier’s headline read, “Negro Scientists Played Important Role in Atomic Bomb Development.” The Chicago Defender also headlined on the same day with “Negro Scientists Help Produce 1st Atom Bomb.” The Washington Afro-American announced seven thousand black workers at Oak Ridge, Tennessee helped making the bomb. Pictures of black men and women working and photos of the plants filled the newspaper pages.[10]

In each story though, the writers reserved praise for the workers not the bomb. The Courier included two columns featuring biographies of two black scientists that helped make the bomb. Again, instead of discussing the atomic bomb, the writers stressed the scientists’ levels of education and ability to work side by side with white scientists.  Similar articles referred to the scientists as “wizards” and “great mathematicians.” Black scientists gave writers a chance to highlight African Americans’ education, ability to perform the same jobs as whites, and get along with whites when given the chance. In short, many in the black press hoped that highlighting the black scientists would eventually lead to respect and ultimately civil rights. Private First Class Jimmy Williams expressed this sentiment best in a letter to the editor: “We can truthfully say that the making of it (atomic bomb) was in the hands of the Negro. In other things that we have accomplished why are we so still denied our advantages?”[11]


The Criticism Begins-1945

Many African Americans did not wait to condemn the atomic bombings and raise awareness about nuclear weapons. Inside black communities, pastors, poets, intellectuals, artists, and musicians immediately began to protest the atomic bomb. African Americans were among the first Americans to envision what historian Peter Kuznick refers to as the “apocalyptic narrative.”[12] A few days after the bombings, an article in the Defender warned, “When the frightful horror and devastation of the new atomic bomb was unleashed on Japan, that shock was not only felt in Hiroshima but in every city and hamlet throughout the world. A tremor of foreboding fear must have shaken the spirits of men everywhere—an awesome dread lest this most formidable weapon of destruction turn out to be a Frankenstein to be turned against its democratic creators at some future date.”[13] Articles of the same nature appeared in the Courier and Washington Afro-American. In between articles and pictures showing blacks who worked on the bomb an editorial in the Afro-American explained, “Each time a new weapon of offense is developed it becomes necessary to develop a new instrument of defense. All efforts are then bent toward the development of an even more lethal offensive weapon and so the vicious circle is perpetuated.”[14] A month later, a columnist in the Courier argued that the atomic bomb showed humanity acted more destructive than constructive. And in November 1945, another contributor to the Defender warned that the U.S. would become the most vulnerable country as other countries obtained the bomb concluding that larger cities with populations of over 100,000 were most in danger.[15] 

The August 18th edition of the Baltimore Afro-American printed statements from ordinary citizens. Out of the thirteen statements nine were highly critical of the atomic bomb. This was unlike the rest of the American public who, at the same time overwhelmingly approved of the bombing.[16] Those interviewed stated they were “terrified” of the thought of what would be created next or who had the power to use the bomb. Some of the interviewees warned the atomic bomb could destroy civilization and force people to live underground. Even those who showed minor support for the bomb stressed the importance of controlling and monitoring its use.[17]

Writer George Schuyler was one of the first to connect the issues of racism and colonialism to the bomb. In a scathing critique of U.S. foreign policy, Schuyler warned that the atomic bomb “will put the Anglo-Saxon definitely on top where they will remain for decades” calling the bombing the “murder of men wholesale.” He maintained that killing people by the thousand no longer satisfied the United States and that now the country “achieved the supreme triumph of being able to slaughter whole cities at a time.” Written only a few days after the bombings, Schuyler made sure to mention that those killed were civilians—mothers, fathers, and children. His criticism did not end there. Four months later, Schuyler referred to the bombing as the “supreme atrocity of all time.” Along the same lines, an editorial in the Washington Afro-American questioned why the bomb was not dropped on Germany concluding that “we apparently saved our most devastating weapon for the hated yellow men of the Pacific.” For many of these black writers, the atomic bomb quickly became related to race and colonialism.[18]

Perhaps the most far reaching criticism came from W.E.B. DuBois.  For DuBois, opposing war was synonymous with opposing racism and colonialism. In his view the three were inextricably intertwined. He wrote about the connection with the “colored and colonial world” explaining Jawaharlal Nehru was the only one who had spoken out against the atomic bomb and European imperialism.[19] A few weeks after the bombings DuBois referred to Japan as “the greatest colored nation which has risen to leadership in modern times” explaining that the bombing would ultimately set back the progress for darker skinned peoples throughout the world.[20] The intellectual likened Truman to Adolph Hitler, calling him “one of the greatest killers of our day.”[21] In a letter to his granddaughter, DuBois also showed his concern for the bomb writing, “It is a great calamity that today we think of using the atom as a weapon of war.”[22]

Poet and playwrights Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston also joined the chorus of African Americans who protested the bomb. In the Defender, Hughes argued that the bomb would destroy all human life. He implied racism played a large part of the decision to drop the bomb. Hughes also connected African Americans and the bomb explaining how poor black communities could have benefited from money used to make the bomb. Hughes’s one-time colleague, Zora Neale Hurston, who many argue, was apolitical, did not remain silent on the issue of the atomic bomb. In a letter to Claude Barnett, Hurston demonstrated her outrage at Truman and the complacence in the African American community: “Thruman (sic) is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the BUTCHER OF ASIA. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of food….Is it that we are so devoted to a “good Massa” that we feel that we ought not to even protest such crimes?” [23]

While the initial response to the atomic bombings was not monolithic it is important to note that many African Americans did not wait to condemn the atomic bombings and raise awareness about nuclear weapons. Many African Americans jumped out in the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement that was to follow. Those African Americans who protested, some well known, some ordinary citizens, did not need an organized movement. Contrary to those scholars who summarize this criticism as one or two articles by popular intellectuals lasting but a few short months I contend that this activism continued throughout the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and into the era of Black Power. 


The Path to Peace is Through Disarmament

With the early 1950s came the rise of McCarthyism and a decline of anti-nuclear activism in America. However, while others kowtowed to McCarthy, many African Americans refused to conform. The combination of the Korean War (1950-53) and testing of hydrogen bombs (1952-53) motivated many African Americans to become active in the anti-nuclear movement. African Americans envisioned another Hiroshima in Korea. The racial component of dropping the bomb on Japan, along with the emphasis on solidarity with other non-Caucasians around the world, prompted African American leaders to increase their efforts to ban nuclear weapons.

               The Peace Information Center (PIC), an outgrowth from the World Congress of the Defenders of Peace in Paris, included among its members Paul Robeson and was chaired by DuBois. The group set out to supply information on peace actions to the press, issue fact sheets, arrange for American delegations to attend peace conferences abroad, and supply information on peace actions in the United States to peace groups abroad. The PIC quickly became notorious for its sponsoring of the Stockholm Peace Appeal, or as it was commonly known as the “the bomb petition.”[24] The appeal read:


We demand the outlawing of atomic weapons as instruments of intimidation and mass murder of peoples.

We demand strict international control to enforce this measure.

We believe than any other government which first uses atomic weapons against any other country whatsoever will be committing a crime against humanity and should be dealt with as a war criminal.

We call on all men and women of goodwill throughout the world to sign the appeal.[25]


               By the summer of 1950, over 1.5 million people in the United States affixed their signatures to the document. Moreover, the African American community became a conscious and special target of the Appeal and they responded with overwhelming support. Signers of the Appeal ranged from artists such as Charlie Parker, Marian Anderson, and Pearl Primus, to various labor unions and organizations.[26]

The religious community joined the growing list of supporters. The 131st Annual Conference of the Methodist Church called for banning the bomb, along with the 162nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. There were ten million signatories in France, 60 million in China, 115 million in the Soviet Union. In Brazil, the nation with the largest black community in the Western hemisphere, where there were 3.75 million signers, 2,000 illiterate peasants signed by making thumb prints with the juice of crushed poppy leaves.[27]

               However, not all African Americans supported the Appeal or DuBois. McCarthyism created a dangerous atmosphere and some feared supporting it would result in harsh punishment. Employers often fired people who signed the Appeal. On July 13, 1950, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) issued a stinging condemnation of the peace campaign. Violent opposition surfaced against the campaign for disarmament. In Houston, the police harassed the petitioners with jail, beatings, or both. On September 15, A. Philip Randolph’s Sleeping Car Porters came out against the Appeal.[28] The NAACP went after suspected black communists with a vengeance. Walter White, the association’s executive secretary, and Roy Wilkins, its chief administrator, vowed to be “utterly ruthless in clean[ing] out the NAACP, and make[ing] sure that the Communists were not running it.” In the early 1950s the NAACP leadership was determined to put its resources, expertise, and valued name in the hands of the Truman administration and State Department to beat back damaging Soviet charges of racial discrimination in the United States.[29]

Secretary of State Dean Acheson went after DuBois and the PIC vigorously in the press, specifically the New York Times. Acheson and the government argued that communists could care less about peace or disarmament and used this issue as a front to spread their ideology. Numerous articles on the PIC and Peace Appeal appeared in the New York Times throughout the summer of 1950. Most however, remained negative and labeled the PIC “communist propaganda” and the Appeal a “Soviet trick.”[30]

                DuBois responded to all the charges, specifically from Acheson. The activist asserted in the New York Times that Acheson’s statements might be interpreted “as foreshadowing American use of the atom bomb in Korea.” He challenged the Secretary of State saying “While there is yet time, Mr. Acheson, let the world know that in the future the Government of the United States will never be the first to use the atom bomb, whether in Korea or in any other part of the earth.”[31] On September 23, 1950, DuBois announced that 2.5 million people in the United States had signed the Stockholm Appeal—more than 2 million since the start of the Korean War despite a campaign of intimidation that had begun in several communities. Gerald Horne contends the document may have been signed by more people than any other appeal ever devised by human hand and brain.[32]

The PIC operated from April 3, 1950 to October 12, 1950, when, in response to financial and governmental pressures, it ceased functioning. However, on February 9, 1951, DuBois was indicted, along with others at the center, as an unregistered foreign agent. The trial began on November 18, 1951.[33] At the time of his arraignment, DuBois read a statement. In part, it read, “In a world which has barely emerged from the horrors of the Second World War and which trembles on the brink of an atomic catastrophe, can it be criminal to hope and work for peace?...I am confident that every American who desires peace, Negro and white, Catholic, Jew and Protestant, the three million signers of the World Peace Appeal and the tens of millions more will join us in our fight to vindicate our right to speak for peace.”[34]

DuBois continued to defy McCarthyites when on April 29, 1951 he sent a paper to a conference held under the auspices of the National Cultural Commission of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the paper, DuBois applauded the Soviets for calling for world peace and for union against the atom bomb. He continued asking the questions: Of what are we in such deathly fear? Have we been invaded? Has anyone dropped an atom bomb on us? Have we been impoverished or enslaved by foreigners?[35]

Support for DuBois and the PIC came in from all over the world. Besides the international community, the support base for DuBois rested among African Americans. In his 1952 book, In Battle for Peace, DuBois discussed his supporters:


The response of Negroes in general was at first slow and not united, but it gradually gained momentum. At first, many Negroes were puzzled. They did not understand the indictment and assumed that I had let myself be drawn into some treasonable acts or movements in retaliation for continued discrimination in this land, which I had long fought. They understood this and forgave it, but thought my action ill-advised. Support came in tied directly to Pan-Africanism and anticolonialist activists, specifically George Padmore and South Africa, West Africa, Nigeria, World Federation of Scientific Workers, French West Indies, British Guiana, British West Indies, China, Southeast Asia Committee, Indonesian students, Vietnamese students.[36]


DuBois and the PIC were acquitted because of insufficient evidence. Of the trial the National Guardian stated: “For the first time since Harry S. Truman set off the greatest witch-hunt of modern times with his loyalty purge in March 1947, the government last week took a stunning defeat.”[37] The Daily Compass also covered the trial and termed the acquittal, “(the) biggest victory for peace and civil liberties to be seen around these United States in many months.”[38] 

DuBois’s activism against the bomb was not just a public political stunt with the Soviets. Shown in a private letter to his granddaughter in 1950, DuBois commented that with the Korean War, the United States is at the beginning of a third world war, with the terrible weapon of the atom bomb.[39] In In Battle for Peace, DuBois again brought up the issue of Korea and Hiroshima saying, “the statement was French in origin and stemmed from the horror of Hiroshima and the shudder of apprehension over the world when Truman casually stated the possible renewed use of the atom bomb in Korea.”[40] DuBois explained that the people who signed the Appeal were moved “not by the thought of defending the Soviet Union so much as by the desire to prevent modern culture from relapsing into primitive barbarism.”[41]

But connecting the black freedom struggle with foreign affairs was not new for DuBois. DuBois recognized the global range of this problem and asserted over 100 years ago that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”[42] He did not limit this formulation to “black-white” relations as understood in the United States. He wrote in 1903 that the dilemma of color “included the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men (sic) in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”[43] DuBois’s tireless efforts working within the Civil Rights Movement and with foreign affair led some to label him a “prophet in limbo.” But he was not in limbo. He knew how it all related. Von Eschen explains that DuBois linked African Americans with Africa and the Caribbean, not because of biological blood ties but because their differing experiences of slavery and colonialism were all seen as part of the history of the expansion of Europe and the development of capitalism.[44]


Anti-colonialism, Civil Rights, and the Bomb

During the Easter week in 1958, Bayard Rustin took his place at the microphone at a rally in Britain. His speech was one of the events for a planned march from the British nuclear facility at Aldermaston, Berkshire, to London’s Trafalgar Square. Rustin, the only American speaker, told the assembly:


There must be unilateral [disarmament] action by a single nation, come what may. There must be no strings attached. We must be prepared to absorb the danger. We must use our bodies in direct action, noncooperation, whatever is required to bring our government to its senses. In the United States, the black people of Montgomery said, ‘We will not cooperate with discrimination.’ And the action of those people achieved tremendous results. They are now riding the buses with dignity, because they were prepared to make a sacrifice of walking for their rights.[45]


British Direct Action Committee member Michael Randle later recalled that “Bayard Rustin delivered what many regarded as the most powerful speech of that Good Friday afternoon, linking the struggle against weapons of mass destruction with the struggle of blacks for their basic rights in America.”[46]

By the late 1950s, the link between the black freedom struggle in America, the larger battle against colonialism in the Third World, and the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons appeared strikingly clear to many African American activists. In the summer of 1959, when France announced plans to test its first nuclear device in the Sahara, the news alarmed supporters of the international peace movement as well as citizens of a number of countries in West Africa, particularly Ghana. The Ghanian government and people feared that nuclear fallout would devastate their cocoa industry, a vital source of national revenue. They felt, moreover, that nuclear testing on African soil was a new form of European colonialism. So the Government was grateful when the British and American peace movements collaborated in organizing protest demonstrations at the nuclear site. The Sahara Project was made up of activists in both Britain’s Direct Action Committee (DAC) and America’s Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA).[47] CNVA leader Bayard Rustin was one of the main organizers of the Sahara Project, whose goal was to place a team of pacifists inside or near the test site to try to prevent the French test. The Sahara Project offered a direct link between the anti-nuclear movement and the African struggle for independence.[48] Traveling after the march in London, Rustin reached Paris just as the French government was overthrown and the Fourth Republic was collapsing. Among everyone, Rustin found, “all political discussion led to Algeria,” where the French were struggling against a fiercely determined independent movement. The right, the center, and even elements of the left believed France had to develop a nuclear arsenal to be considered a major power; it needed the Sahara to test weapons. “This means that Algeria must be held at all costs,” Rustin wrote. The connection between the arms race and colonialism had never seemed clearer.[49] From the outset organizers stressed that the project was intended to involve direct action and not merely a purely symbolic protest against the tests. There was concern, too, that the project should be seen as a linked protest against nuclear weapons and colonialism rather than solely against French colonialism and its nuclear policies.[50] Discussing the project War Resisters League (WRL) member Bill Sutherland recalled, “It was so exciting because we felt that this joining up of the European anti-nuclear forces, the African liberation forces, and U.S. civil rights movements could help each group feed and reinforce the other. Then, to be sponsored by a majority political party in government clearly marked a unique moment in progressive history.”[51]

The team of activists left Accra on December 6, 1959, on the first attempt to reach the testing site. Officers intercepted the team at Bitton, sixteen miles inside Upper Volta. The team refused to leave, and after some delay the French brought in troops and sealed off the town from the locals to prevent the distribution of propaganda. After five days the team returned to Bolgatanga to reconsider the position. After two more attempts to stop the testing, the French carried out the test at El Hammoudia on February 13, 1960, at 6 a.m.[52]

The teams’ attempts to stop the French received a lot of publicity, which motivated others to demonstrate at the French Embassies in London and Lagos. After the test, protests broke out all over the African continent. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab League Council, Julius Nyerere, and most North and West African States issued statements deploring the test and its effects. While the effort to stop the French testing may appear as a failure, others such as Richard Taylor argue the project achieved considerable success. There can be no doubt, Taylor explains, “that because of Kwame Nkrumah’s support, the protest against the French test and, to a lesser extent, the NVDA principles underlying the action, gained real mass public support in Ghana. This exceeded the popular support for such actions or ideas in either Britain or the USA at any time during the peace movement’s history.”[53]


Civil Rights and the Bomb

Writing about Martin Luther King, Jr. historians tend to focus on his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Rarely do scholars examine King’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy and anti-nuclear activism. However, throughout his career King consistently spoke out on nuclear weapons. Dr. King’s actions against nuclear weapons began in the late 1950s. From 1957 until his death, in speeches, sermons, interviews, and marches, Dr King protested the use of nuclear weapons and war. King had the ear of African Americans as well as the mainstream press. Asked in December 1957, about the future of nuclear weapons, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. replied, “I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned…War must be finally eliminated or the whole of mankind will be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.”[54]

King’s anti-nuclear activism continued throughout the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, King made time to address the War Resisters League at their thirty-sixth annual dinner in which he praised the league’s work and linked the domestic struggle for racial justice with the campaign for global disarmament: “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?”[55] A month later, giving his farewell statement for All India Radio, King stated, “The peace-loving peoples of the world have not yet succeeded in persuading my own country, American, and Soviet Russia to eliminate fear and disarm themselves…It may be that just as India had to take the lead and show the world that national independence could be achieved nonviolently, so India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament. And if no other nation will join her immediately, India may declare itself for disarmament unilaterally.”[56]

When King had the attention of African American parishioners, he often stood on the pulpit and demanded an end to the nuclear arms race while connecting it to civil rights.[57] King explained in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” that “the church cannot remain silent while mankind faces the threat of being plunged into the abyss of nuclear annihilation. If the church is true to its mission it must call for an end to the arms race.”[58] By 1960, King’s feelings towards the nuclear abolition deepened. Addressing Spelman College, King pleaded that together they must bring an end to the arms race and bring about universal disarmament. He called this “a matter of survival” and said, “Talk about love and nonviolence may have been merely a pious injunction a few years ago; today it is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.”[59]



In 1974, African American spoken word poet Gil Scott-Heron made famous the phrase “the revolution will not be televised.” His poem and song by the same title became an anthem for radicals and anti-war activists throughout the United States. However, a year later Heron wrote another song that brought national attention to the issue of nuclear weapons. In 1975, Heron released an album titled, From South Africa to South Carolina, which included the song “South Carolina (Barnwell).” In the liner notes of the compact disc Heron discusses why he felt the need for such an album:


By 1975 President Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 12 years. He was yet to become the international symbol of the black South African people's struggle for some semblance of equity in their own country. In 1990 I was approached by a fan whose stated belief was that the initial release of this album was "too soon"; that I should waited until Mandela was better known. That way I could have sold more records. My response was that I had not done it for me and that Brother Mandela had probably not thought that 1975 was "too soon." In my opinion 1975 might have been late for "South Carolina". I considered this song important for a couple of reasons. It was our first song to state our concern about nuclear power: we questioned the safety of plutonium creating plants. (The Barnwell plant was proposed as a "fast breeder reactor" site) and certain information surrounding the Savannah River Plant indicated that there might be construction problems. (Testimony submitted to the Senate in 1983 included an admission that substandard material was used by the contractor.)[60]


While “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” became a catchphrase and probably the most lucrative of all songs for Heron, one should not dismiss the impact of “South Carolina.” Unfortunately “Revolution” overshadowed much of Heron’s other work causing songs like “South Carolina” to fade into obscurity. Like “South Carolina” African Americans’ impact on the nuclear issue continues to get missed as historians view African American history with tunnel vision focusing mainly on local studies and civil rights. Mary Dudziak explains that studying the international perspective of African American history is not a substitute for the rich body of civil rights scholarship but another dimension that sheds light on those important and well-told stories.[61] With this paper I have attempted to show the relationship between the struggle for civil rights, anticolonialism, and the atomic bomb. Hence, historians need to reevaluate how they look at African American history and nuclear studies. The two can no longer be separated. The atomic bomb is part of African American history and African Americans now have to be included in the history of not just the Cold War and foreign affairs but also the atomic bomb.

The activism against the atomic bomb went to the heart of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, Asia, and Africa, with the emerging global political economy. African American leaders advocated for the abolition of nuclear weapons, warning that all of humankind risked annihilation if the arms race did not stop. They knew what this meant to the future of mankind. In many ways these black activists articulated a world view that differed from that of a majority of the American public. They argued that the way to peace was through disarmament and kept their focus on nuclear abolition while fighting for civil rights. They realized that colonialism, racism, and nuclear weapons were all links in the same chain.       


[1] Yuri Kochiyama, Passing It On—A Memoir (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2004), 67.

[2] The “World’s Worst Fair” was taking place while the regular tourist-attraction fair was held at Flushing Meadows in Queens. Harlem activists thought of the idea of opening up a “Fair” in one of the most impoverished blocks in Harlem so that tourists could see how some people in Harlem had to live under the supervision of uncaring landlords and the sanitation department. The “World’s Worst Fair” highlighted living quarters with broken windows, broken-down staircases, toilets that would not flush, clogged-up bathtubs, and garbage piled high on the streets. Ibid., 68.

[3] Malcolm X, quoted in Yuri Kochiyama, Passing It On, 69.

[4] Ibid., 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For too long historians have failed to appreciate the black freedom struggle’s international dimensions, viewing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement as national phenomena. Recently, however, historians have begun to correct this. Brenda Gayle Plummer’s Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs 1945-1988 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), Gerald Horne’s, Black & Red: W.E.B. DuBois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War 1944-1963 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), Carol Anderson’s, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), all discuss the connection between the black freedom struggle and foreign affairs.  Absent, though, from these texts is an in-depth study of African American communities and their influence on the fight for nuclear disarmament. Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) and Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998), include brief descriptions of how African Americans’ opinions differed from or aligned with the broader public. However, Boyer’s abbreviated analysis implies that outside of a few headlines in the black press African Americans remained largely silent about the atomic bomb. Lawrence Wittner’s three book series The Struggle Against the Bomb, offers more insight on African Americans than those previously mentioned. However, while Wittner sheds light on specific events that included African American participation, his analysis of the anti-nuclear movement remains broad with limited discussion of African American participation. Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Bomb (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995) and Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000), both focuses on the role racism played in the decision to drop the bomb, but Takaki only briefly mentions the African American response. John Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race &Power in the Pacific War, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986) specifically explores the role of race in World War II. However, Dower dedicates a majority of his book to the Pacific War as a whole rather than the atomic bombings or the reaction that followed. Dower looks at African Americans’ attitudes, reactions, and feelings towards the Japanese and the Pacific War.

[7] “America Hails End of War!” Chicago Defender, August 18, 1945, p.1.

[8] According to an August 16, 1945, Gallup poll, 85 percent of respondents approved of the use of the bomb. By October, 53.5 percent endorsed the bombing of both cities and an additional 22.7 percent regretted that the United States had not quickly used atomic weapons to bomb other cities. Sadao Asada, “The Mushroom Cloud and National Psyches: Japanese and American Perceptions of the Atomic-Bomb Decision, 1945-1995,” in Laura Hein and Mark Selden, ed. Living With the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 177.

[9] See John Dower, War Without Mercy. Dower describes American’s genocidal rage towards the Japanese after Pearl Harbor; Laura Hein and Mark Selden, ed. Living With the Bomb, 42, 55.

[10] “Negro Scientists Played Important Role in Atomic Bomb Development,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1945, p. 1; “Negro Scientists Help Produce 1st Atom Bomb,” Chicago Defender, August 18, 1945, p. 1; “7,000 Employed at Atomic Bomb Plant,” Washington Afro-American, August 18, 1945, 1.

[11] Ted Coleman, “Young Dr. Wilkins Among Chicago U. Laboratory Heroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1945; George Schuyler, “Dr. William J. Knox Headed Group at Columbia University,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1945; Letter to the Editor-Jimmy Williams, “Atom Bomb in the Hands of the Negro,” Chicago Defender, October 20, 1945.

[12] Peter Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb, and the Apocalyptic Narrative.” Japan Focus, July 28, 2007. Kuznick’s apocalyptic narrative argues that U.S. actions have even a greater relevance to citizens living in the aftermath of the atomic bombings who must continually grapple with the long-term ramifications, particularly the threat of extinction.

[13] “Splitting the Atom of Race Hate,” Chicago Defender, August 18, 1945.

[14] “Are We Prepared for Peace?” Washington Afro-American, August 18, 1945, p. 4.

[15] J.A. Rogers, “Roger Says: Atomic Bomb May Disclose that Civilized Man is Headed Back to the Caves,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 1, 1945; S.I.Hayakawa, “Defense Against Atomic Bomb,” Chicago Defender, November 24, 1945.

[16] According to an August 16, 1945, Gallup poll, 85 percent of respondents approved of the use of the bomb. By October, 53.5 percent endorsed the bombing of both cities and an additional 22.7 percent regretted that the United States had not quickly used atomic weapons to bomb other cities. Sadao Asada, “The Mushroom Cloud,” in Living With the Bomb, 177.

[17] “Atomic Bomb Brings Fear of Cave Life, Joblessness,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 18, 1945, p. 17.

[18] George Schuyler, “Views and Reviews,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1945; “Views and Reviews,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 15, 1945; “The World Today,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1945, p. 1; “Are We Prepared for Peace?” Washington Afro-American, August 18, 1945, p.4.

[19] Zhang Juguo, W.E.B. DuBois: The Quest for the Abolition of the Color Line (New York: Routledge, 2001), 149; Gerald Horne, Black & Red, 277.

[20] W.E.B. DuBois, “The Winds of Time: Negro’s War Gains and Losses,” Chicago Defender, September 15, 1945.

[21] W.E.B. DuBois, quoted in Zhang Juguo, W.E.B. DuBois, 151.

[22] W.E.B. DuBois, Letter to DuBois Williams, October 8, 1946, reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, ed. W.E.B. DuBois: The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois Volume III Selections, 1944-1963 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978), 117.

[23] Langston Hughes, “Here to Yonder: Simple and the Atom Bomb,” Chicago Defender, August 18, 1945; Zora Neale Hurston, Letter to Claude Barnett, July 21-26, 1946, reprinted in Carla Kaplan, ed. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 545-546.

[24] On March 15, 1950, the meeting of the World Partisans of Peace was held in Stockholm, and 150 delegates from eighteen countries attended the meeting. At the meeting the Appeal was adopted unamimously. Gerald Horne, Black & Red, 126; Zhang Juguo, W.E.B. DuBois, 154.

[25] Gerald Horne, Black & Red, 126.

[26] The Baker and Confectionary Workers, Local 13, American Federation of Labor all voted to support the Appeal and to get 3,000 signatures in New York City. The International Longshore and Warhousemen’s Union, District 2 of the International Woodworkers, Ship Scalers and Dry Dock Workers, Cannery Workers 7-C, Hope Lodge 79 of the International Association of Machinists, Marine Cooks and Stewards, and the Office of Professional Workers Union all supported the Appeal. Gerald Horne, Black & Red, 127.

[27] Ibid., 128.

[28] Ibid., 134.

[29] Carol Anderson, “Bleached Souls and Red Negroes: The NAACP and Black Communists in the Early Cold War, 1948-1952,” in Window of Freedom, 93.

[30] “World Peace Plea Is Circulated Here,” New York Times, July 14, 1950, p. 7; “Peace Proponent Asks Atom Pledge,” New York Times, July 17, 1950, p. 5; “600 More Peace Signers,” New York Times, August 14, 1950, p. 15; Allan Taylor, “Story of the Stockholm Petition, New York Times, August 13, 1950, E6; Walter H. Waggoner, “Acheson Derides Soviet Peace Bids,” New York Times, July 13, 1950, p. 1.

[31] Part of DuBois’s letter to Dean Acheson on July 14, 1950 was published in the New York Times, July 17, 1950, p. 5, with the headline: “Dr. DuBois Calls on Acheson to Promise U.S. Will ‘Never Be First to Use Bomb.’” The text of the full letter can be found in The Correspondence of W.E.B. Dubois, 303-306.

[32] Gerald Horne, Black & Red, 126.

[33] Ibid., 131,151.

[34] The Correspondence of W.E.B.DuBois, 311.

[35] W.E.B. DuBois, “I Take My Stand,” April 29, 1951, in Philip S. Foner, ed. W.E.B. DuBois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses 1920-1963 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 243-245.

[36] W.E. B. DuBois, In Battle for Peace (Millwood: Kraus-Thomson Organization Limited, 1976), 74-80.

[37] Quoted in, Black & Red, 179.

[38] Ibid.

[39] W.E.B. DuBois, Letter to DuBois Williams, July 17, 1950, reprinted in The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois, 288.

[40] W.E.B. DuBois, In Battle for Peace, 37.

[41] Ibid.

[42] W.E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), 29.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire, 4-5.

[45] Rustin, quoted in Brenda Gayle Plummer, Window of Freedom, 1; Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 215.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 219-220.

[48] Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 231.

[49] John D’Emelio, Lost Prophet, 257.

[50] Richard Taylor, Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1965 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 158.

[51] Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism, 235.

[52] Ibid., 160-161.

[53] Ibid., 165-166.

[54] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living,” Ebony, December 1957, reprinted in Clayborne Carson, ed. The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.,Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement January 1957-December 1958 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 327.

[55] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address at the Thirty-sixth Annual Dinner of the War Resister’s League,” February 2, 1959, reprinted in Clayborne Carson, ed.The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade January 1959-December 1960 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 122.

[56] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Farewell Statement for All India Radio,” March 9, 1959, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume V, 135-136.

[57] Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Walk Through the Holy Land,” Easter Sunday Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, March 29, 1959, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume V, 173.

[58] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” April 13, 1960, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Volume V, 424.

[59] Marin Luther King, Jr. “Keep Moving form this Mountain,” Address at Spelman College, April 10, 1960, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume V, 416.

[60] Gil Scott Heron, From South Africa to South Carolina, liner notes, re-released April 7, 1998. (Original release date 1976.); It was an evolution of events in the 1970s that led to the first massive Savannah River protest beginning September 29, 1979. Environmental awareness and protests elsewhere raised concerns about Department of Energy facilities such SRS. Plans to recycle plutonium in spent nuclear fuel at Allied General Nuclear Services in Barnwell near SRS attracted activists in 1976 to try to prevent the facility from being licensed. Eventually, the Carter administration blocked funds for Allied General, but the seed was planted for future protests against SRS. The growing nuclear freeze movement also swept up people into protesting SRS, for a time the nation’s sole producer of weapons-grade plutonium. There were scattered demonstrations and arrests in the mid-to late ‘70s at SRS and at two nearby facilities, Allied General and Chem-Nuclear low-level radioactive waste dump. Gil Scott-Heron brought national attention to SRS with the song “South Carolina (Barnwell).”Tom Corwin, “War Against Weapons: Activists Mount Protests Against SRS Nuclear Projects.” The Augusta Chronicle (November 28, 2000),

[61] Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 14.


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