John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

This past week the United States lost two civil rights activists: John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.  While most people are probably more familiar with Lewis, the two activists worked together in Nashville in 1960 on the sit-in campaign.  Vivian was about fifteen years older than Lewis who was a college student at Fisk University and became a leader in the movement there along with other activists including Diane Nash.  Vivian was part of the cohort, led by James Lawson, who ran workshops to train the younger activists in nonviolent organizing strategies.

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The young activists who participated in the sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville were physically attacked and jailed.  John Lewis described what that was like:

“Growing up in the rural South, you learned it was not the thing to do.  To go to jail was to bring shame and disgrace on the family.  But for me it was like being involved in a holy crusade, it became a badge of honor.  I think it was in keeping with that we had been taught in the workshops, so I felt very good, in the sense of righteous indignation, about being arrested, but at the same time I felt the commitment and dedication on the part of the students.”

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An economic boycott of all of the downtown stores put pressure on the city to confront the issue of segregation and enabled the entire town to mobilize around the issue of injustice.  When the home of a prominent Black lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed, the students and other activists marched to City Hall to speak with the Mayor.  C.T. Vivian characterized it as “the first big march of the movement.”  He continued:

“We filled Jefferson Avenue: it’s a long, long way down Jefferson.  After a while there was a bit of singing, and as we came closer to town, it was merely the silence of the feet.  We walked by a place where there were workers out for the noon hour, white workers, and they had never seen anything like this.  Here was all of four thousand people marching down the street, and all you could hear was our feet as we silently moved, and they didn’t know what to do.  … There was a fear there, there was an awe there.  They knew that this was not to be stopped, this was not to be played with or joked with.”

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The discussion with Mayor Ben West turned out to be an important turning point in the Nashville campaign.  When confronted by Vivian and Nash, West admitted that he thought it was wrong for the citizens of Nashville to be discriminated against solely on the basis of their race.  The bombing of Looby’s home had created a strong momentum against segregation that motivated thousands to march and ultimately created an opening for a powerful expression against injustice.

Today, we face another opening for expressions against injustice and progressive movement.  The deaths of these two leaders at such a pivotal time seems to point to the responsibilities for those of us who are still here.  Vivian and Lewis, and so many others, made their contributions to the struggle against injustice.  And now it is our turn, the younger generations, to stand up and make our contributions to the ongoing movement.  Making a commitment is the first step to finding a personal stake, locating our own talents that can serve the movement.  If you worry that you don’t know what to do or whether you are strong enough, the activists in 1960 felt the same way.  Diane Nash summarized:

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“I remember realizing that with what we were doing, trying to abolish segregation, we were coming up against governors, judges, politicians, businessmen, and I remember thinking, I’m only twenty-two years old, what do I know, what am I doing? … The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things you didn’t even know were there.  Such as courage.”

Looking to their examples of courage from the past, we must look inside ourselves and allow the movement of today to reveal the parts that we will play in this next chapter of the struggle.

All quotes from: Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, editors, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).

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Looking at the Civil Rights Act from 2020

The summer of 2020 is a good time to ruminate upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as July 2nd marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of this significant legislation.  The law originally outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, and it was extended in June by the Supreme Court to include protections for LGBTQ citizens as well.  In the ‘60s it represented a culminating moment in the history of the nonviolent protests of Black Americans because it helped dismantle de jure segregation.  It was also a climax in the legislative battle against entrenched Southern Democrats.  History books often simplify the passage of this bill into a discernible moment of completion in the classical phase of the civil rights movement.  Racial segregation was declared illegal; thus, a primary goal of direct-action nonviolence had been met.

Yet, as the succeeding decades have demonstrated, the law has not purged the country of racism or even the vestiges of de facto racial segregation.  In the speech delivered the day he signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson seemed to sense that a single law would not eliminate the racist mindset that permeated America.  He hinted at the possibility of a longer struggle when he noted that freedom could “be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”  We have witnessed this year one way for the Civil Rights Act to be renewed and enlarged to include homosexual and transgender people and this is quite promising.

However, as the summer protests against police brutality have demonstrated, there is still much work to do to eliminate institutionalized racism in the U.S.  Johnson pointed out that the Civil Rights Act represented “a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.”  A law, no matter how morally sound, can only alter the outward trappings of racism like segregation signs and hiring policies, it cannot transform individual hearts.  If there is no collective action coupled with moral courage to dismantle the status quo of white privilege and create something new and more egalitarian, then the poison of racism is not alleviated, it is only slightly abated.  This is where we are today, half a century later.  We have all drunk from springs poisoned by white supremacy, male dominance, and profit over people.  These were the foundational practices of the United States from the earliest days of colonial settlement in North America.  None of the rhetoric of natural rights, that emerged during the Revolutionary era, changed those basic practices.  They are still the norm today.

And they will continue to be the norm until more people heed the call that Johnson made at the close of his speech.  He urged “every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife—I urge every American—to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people—and to bring peace to our land.”  Only a united front of action such as suggested here will truly transform the nation and, in Johnson’s words, “close the springs of racial poison.”  Every individual American must make a commitment to stand against racism every day in order for those poisoned springs to be closed for good.  2020 has already been a historic year.  Let it be the year that the United States finally locates its moral consciousness and begins to systematically eliminate racism in individual hearts and across institutions with committed action.  The pandemic has laid bare the extent of the poison in U.S. society.  The only question now that remains is what will our generation do with this moment?

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We Need History Now

In the classic 1963 essay “A Letter to My Nephew” James Baldwin wrote of white people in the United States that “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

The events unfolding around the country in recent weeks following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police illustrate that Baldwin’s observation is just as resonant today. Baldwin reminds us in the essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” that policemen are hated in the projects because they “reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil rights commissions are set up.”

Most people in the United States, sadly, have consistently lacked the moral courage to take an honest and forthright look in the mirror and truly see the history of the nation.  The stakes of understanding one’s history could not be higher because one cannot understand one’s identity (individually or collectively) without acknowledging and processing one’s history.  Rather than doing the painful work of self and community reflection, the United States has built a false identity of exceptionalism and prestige based on untruth.  These untruths have proliferated for so many years that many people are highly invested in them.  This makes it even more difficult to examine the truth of history from a place of respect that recognizes basic human dignity.  Baldwin summarized in the essay “A Talk to Teachers”, “What passes for identity in America is a series of heroic myths about one’s heroic ancestors.”

The crux of the present issue is this: the United States was founded upon a fundamental paradox.  The rhetoric of this paradox makes promises about equality and natural rights; however, there was no substantive action to support the rhetoric.  The rhetoric was made up.  It is myth.  The truth is told in the historical record.  The historical record shows that the British North American colonies were founded to make profit for investors, Lord Proprietors, the elite.  They were successful at doing this through cash crops, shipping, trading, and this went on from the early 1600s to the mid-1700s.

Yes, there were some Puritans as well as Quakers and French Huguenots who sought religious freedom in the colonies.  But the colonies existed for one primary motive: accruing wealth.  The desire for money was so powerful that it motivated people to reject the fundamental humanity of those who were slaughtered, enslaved, and oppressed.  Anytime groups of people attempted to unify and challenge the wealthy ruling class, they were forcibly shut down.  (See, for example, the Stono rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion, Shay’s rebellion, the Whiskey rebellion …)

No where is the basic paradox of the United States more clearly portrayed then with the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  This document, penned primarily by a slave owner, purports to recognize the natural rights of all humans while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the enslavement of Africans or the mass murder of Native Americans.  This is a pivotal moment and one that illuminates much about American identity.  Slave holding and murder were ignored, even celebrated at times, in favor of wealth creation.  This means that the society created with this document was unashamedly born in an environment dominated by violence and greed.  Both the oppressed and the oppressors are inheritors of this bifurcated legacy which plays out in the news every day.

This paradox breeds injustice: racial oppression, class division, gender discrimination, you name it.  Two factions are constantly at odds with one another: the the promises of equality and justice that are written down clash with the practiced precedents of enslavement, genocide, white supremacy, gender inequality.  When there is little to no acknowledgement of the historical record or it is replaced by a mythology of grandiosity, it is a recipe for confusion, conflict, and lack of understanding.  The only solution is acknowledgement and serious introspection.  Baldwin explains, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I am a man, but if you think I am a nigger, it means you need it.  Why? … And the future of the country depends on that.  Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

The belief in racial superiority, and other forms of injustice, has enabled the elite power structure to remain pretty firmly in place.  Historian Howard Zinn explains why racism and class division were necessary to the power structure carved out during the colonial era, the basic tenets of which remain today:

“The upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians and poor whites.  This bought loyalty.  And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device.  That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending slavery or inequality.”

In short, racism was an invention to help the wealthy consolidate power and make more money.  The rhetoric of equality was a myth invented so that those with little or no wealth would help the wealthy stay in power.  There is a certain genius in this myth as testified by its fortitude.  Unfortunately, it is morally bankrupt.  Groups of determined individuals have, for centuries, been trying to push the United States to live up to the ideals expressed in its founding documents.  These are the abolitionists, the freedom fighters, the teachers, writers, activists, artists, who have endeavored to spread the light of justice.  These are the Black Lives Matter advocates.  These are the marchers who protest across the country this week, this very day.

These people believe that the Fourteenth Amendment can more than a “sleeping giant” as activist Paul Robeson once labeled it.  These are the people who have looked at the history of the United States and believe that we can do better.  These are the people who, like Zinn, understand that when one acknowledges history and sees that injustice has been long standing, also see that it is not ineradicable.  Because all of these systems of injustice have been built by humans.  “This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, [or] dismantled,” Zinn explains, But “It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized.”  Zinn suggested that “the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status” could help create the “unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”

Does the United States have the moral courage to look truthfully at its history and begin to disentangle it, maybe even create something new?  Can we create historical conditions that have not yet been realized?  I don’t know.  James Baldwin once said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”  Choosing to stand against racism, and all injustice, is a lifetime commitment that plays out every day.  It is that kind of commitment motivated by historical introspection, taken on by individuals, that can pave a new path for this country.  Until more people make that commitment, cyclical conflict will continue.

A strong first step is to read:

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam”

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Paul Robeson, Here I Stand

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

 

 

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What I Learned From My Students During the Pandemic

One of the courses I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology is a two-semester freshman seminar that serves as a space to build written and oral communication skills as well as introducing students to humanistic methods of inquiry.  For students at a STEM school, these required classes sometimes represent the rough equivalent of getting a root canal over fifteen weeks.  However, I have to say that I have had some fine groups of students in recent years and the two groups I had this semester (Spring 2020) will definitely stand out in my memory.  It seems almost serendipitous that this semester we had been exploring the theme of “Understanding Happiness” when the pandemic hit and we had to scatter across the country and meet via online platforms.

It seemed ridiculous not to talk about the current crisis since it has impacted almost every area of our lives.  And it seemed nearly impossible to close a course on happiness without considering how the idea of pursuing happiness has been altered by this virus.  I know that my students are dealing with crowded houses that are ill equipped for engaging in thoughtful prose as well as all manner of stress inducing problems from unemployment to illness.  Nevertheless, I was very moved recently by many of the responses to an online written reflection.  We have studied happiness from many angles including philosophy and religion, history and the arts, psychology and economics.  I asked the students if they could apply one of the strategies discussed this semester to the current crisis, what would it be and why.

Many of the students wrote about Epicureanism and its largely hedonic approach to sensory pleasure as a means of navigating through each day of sheltering in place.  These responses included typical eighteen-year old perspectives like playing video games with friends around the country, reading memes, and posting to various social media platforms.  But numerous students also wrote about more thoughtful activities like sewing masks, baking for neighbors, running errands for senior citizens, raising money for local health care workers, and creating platforms for musicians to share their art.  These acts of kindness provided a sense of purpose and solidarity that John Stuart Mill or even Aristotle might appreciate.

Additionally, several students demonstrated a striking astuteness and wisdom beyond their years in reflecting on how one can pursue happiness in the midst of this global crisis.  Here are three observations that inspired me.

1. This too shall pass

One student referenced the wisdom of Ecclesiastes (which we read at the beginning of the semester, in another lifetime) and said she took comfort in the notion that “life comes in seasons” and she knew that a time of difficulty will be followed by a different time.  There will be celebrations in the future and life is never “always good or always bad.”  Striking a similar cord, another student took a long, evolutionary view of the present quarantine.  He ruminated, “isn’t adaptation what being human is really about?”  Humans have survived for millenia, he continued, by overcoming obstacles and maybe the post-corona years will offer an opportunity to encourage people to stop and appreciate life.

2. Do Something Productive With This Time

While it is tempting to pass the time at home in largely thoughtless pursuits like passively watching videos, one student pointed out that when we all look back on this experience we aren’t going to remember the time spent zoning out in front of the computer.  There still needs to be meaning in our lives and individual progress, he suggested.  Find a balance between hedonia (fleeting pleasures of the senses) and eudaimonia (longer lasting well being and fulfillment of one’s potential).  While dozing and watching Netflix probably won’t make a lasting or satisfying impact in our memories, creating art might.  Start a new artistic hobby or pick up an old one, several students advised.  Make something that you will be proud of when this is all over.  And you might learn something new about yourself in the process.  Isn’t that one of the foundations of pursuing happiness?

3. Go Inward

One student has used a quote from Artistotle’s Nichomachean Ethics as a compass through this uncertain time.  Aristotle proposed, “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too a day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”  Realizing that this specific moment is only a small part of one’s lifetime can be a source of reassurance.  Additionally, numerous students turned to the Stoics.  If one understands that happiness ultimately comes from within the individual then one can learn how to help oneself through difficult external circumstances.  Stay off the hedonic treadmill of the internet, one student advocates.  Use this time instead to “look inside one’s self and consider how they can still take some sort of fulfilling action in their lives.”  And, falling short of discovering fulfillment, one can always mindfully take comfort in appreciating the precious details of everyday life and making sure nothing is left out, kind of like the Japanese practice of shisa kanko.

It was pondering these insights that inspired me to write this post.  I was debating about taking a nap this afternoon.  Then I thought, I’ll probably get more lasting fulfillment if I write this blog and remember, perhaps years from now, how encouraged I was by the insights from this group of students.  They not only transitioned beautifully to online learning in the middle of the semester, but they all helped themselves and me to find meaning in an uncertain time.  Thank you to CAL 105 M and CAL 105 N.  I will never forget you all.

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

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Considering Gratitude

The 1863 proclamation which created the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States – a time when many stop and consider gratitude – opened with this thought: “The year that is drawing to its close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”  This acknowledgement of blessings from nature stands out to me because it was made during one of the darkest hours in American history as the Civil War ended lives, divided families, and destroyed acreage with no clear end in sight.  Was this a ploy to bolster optimism during a man-made catastrophe?  Maybe it offered a specific way of understanding gratitude as recognizing the good outcomes in life over which man exerts little control.20191216_081921

An article by scholar Jeremy David Engels got me thinking more about how gratitude can function in everyday life.  While researching his book The Art of Gratitude, he discovered that in many traditions the notion of gratitude is linked with the idea of obligation – as in owing a “debt of gratitude.”  Some practitioners of this go so far as to recommend that people record a ledger to remember the gestures that must be repaid.  Gratitude, in this conception, is like a calculation.  Your office mate brings lunch one day so you take note in order to reciprocate.  You send a gift to a family member and then expect some sort of similar acknowledgement.

Engels argues that this transactional approach to gratitude, which stresses indebtedness,  can become dangerous because “relationships cannot be calculated with numbers on a page” and might cause us to “miss out on what is most important.”  What is most important?  Engels proposes a different perspective on gratitude that emphasizes interconnectedness.  For example, if he says he is grateful for clean air that acknowledgement also recognizes the fact that all creatures need air to breathe and it connects living beings in the common pursuit of a basic necessity for life.  Additionally, he points out that threats to something like clean air or water cannot be solved independently but must be tackled collectively.  We all need one another to survive and this understanding can create opportunities to practice a community-oriented gratitude.  “Focus on what is necessary,” he writes and, “work together with others to make it possible for all to live well.”

20191216_082641I would like to add a third perspective on gratitude explicated from the Thanksgiving proclamation.  Being thankful can also be a vehicle for noticing the bounties of life, the moments that are fortuitous, the ways in which an individual or community has been blessed.  Highlighting the positive outcomes, especially those over which we have little control, can help us to remain grounded.  When we bask in the hubris of our human ingenuity, gratitude reminds us that there are forces greater than our own at work in our lives and our universe.  Source energy, God, Nature, Lady Luck: however one conceives of the presence of spirit, they all signify that there are events which occur that we cannot attribute to our own striving.  When those occurrences bend toward the positive, we can notice them through gratitude; when they offer struggle, we can use them as points of growth.

In a meditation group that I lead, one participant recently noted that she finds gratitude to be difficult.  This got me thinking about why one might grapple with being thankful.  Conceiving of gratitude as a ledger, could become stressful.  If one believes that gratitude must be constantly repaid, it could be overwhelming.  Viewing gratitude through a lens of connectivity could also be daunting.  Western culture tends to be rather individualistic so admitting the need for community could make gratitude seem complex or fearsome.  Using gratitude as a mode of recognizing the good in life, could also be troubling.  It means giving up the myth of human control and relinquishing the notion that meritocracy, or hard work, always leads to success.  Sometimes beneficial outcomes are more serendipitous, and not entirely related to human skill or talent.  But this runs counter to much of what we are taught about hard work and human capability.

Perhaps the Stoic philosopher Epictetus left us with one of the most practical visions of gratitude in his handbook for living.  A modern translation offers this interpretation of his words: “If you take a broad view of what befalls each person and appreciate the usefulness of things that happen, it is natural to give thanks to the Ultimate for everything that happens in the world.”  While it sounds logical, taking such a broad view is not easy.  But, Epictetus assure us, it will have rewards.  He says straightforwardly, “Practice having a grateful attitude and you will be happy.”

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I am grateful for the lovely trees I photographed on a walk while visiting South Carolina.  They made me feel connected to the environment, and the visual complexity of their array of shapes and angled branches brought me joy.  I felt honored to consider the many years of history they must have witnessed from their vantage points.  It was humbling to realize that I had nothing to do with their creation and, yet, they enhanced my experience of the walk greatly.  I can give back to them only by recognizing them here, fondly remembering, and offering thanks to Nature for their existence.

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Mindfulness at the Museum

Join me Saturday mornings from 10:00 – 11:00am for guided relaxation, breathing and silent meditation at the Hoboken Historical Museum (1301 Hudson Street).

Starting October 19 through December 2nd.  Cost: $10.

Sign up online or just walk in.

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Make time for Joy

 


This sounds almost frivolous in today’s world, yet reflecting on what brings us joy is the essence of wisdom in perilous times.  – Mark Matousek


During the warm months when the weather is nice and the days are long, it is especially easy to make time for joyful endeavors.  There is so much ugliness and strife that enters our lives daily, let’s not forget to bring some joy into our lives each day.  As Mark Matousek points out, the pursuit of joy is not frivolous but the essence of wisdom.  Indeed, it is necessary for our spirits and our bodies.  It’s a question worth pondering: what brings me joy?  Give it some thought, perhaps while listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, which never fails to remind me that there is true beauty in this world.  And that brings me joy.

 

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New Short Story!

My short story “In the Zone” was recently a Finalist in the Diana Woods Memorial Creative Nonfiction Contest.

It is a story about a speech competition in which I competed in the tenth grade.  I was inspired to write it last year when I was studying global meditation traditions and learning more about the idea of being in the flow.  This story is about the first time I achieved that state of consciousness.challenger

The story is dedicated to my father, Marshall G. Swindall.

Read the story here.  I hope it brings some light into your day!

 

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Celebrating Paul Robeson in The North Star

A re-imagined version of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star has recently been launched online for the twenty-first century.  In the spirit of Douglass’ advocacy for liberation, the new publication contains analysis of current events and historical perspectives on race and social justice issues.

Check out my recent featured article: “Celebrating Paul Robeson’s Legacy of Art and Activism.”

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The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World is out in paper back

upf coverNOW AVAILABLE IN PAPER!

The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anti-colonialism, 1937-1955
Lindsey R. Swindall
Original Price: $24.95
Discount Price: $18.00
Use Code AU319 online until March 31
The Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Council on African Affairs were two organizations created as part of the early civil rights efforts to address race and labor issues during the Great Depression. They fought within a leftist, Pan-African framework against disenfranchisement, segregation, labor exploitation, and colonialism.
By situating the development of the SNYC and the Council on African Affairs within the scope of the long civil rights movement, Lindsey Swindall reveals how these groups conceptualized the U.S. South as being central to their vision of a global African diaspora. Both organizations illustrate well the progressive collaborations that maintained an international awareness during World War II. Cleavages from anti-radical repression in the postwar years are also evident in the dismantling of these groups when they became casualties of the early Cold War.
By highlighting the cooperation that occurred between progressive activists from the Popular Front to the 1960s, Swindall adds to our understanding of the intergenerational nature of civil rights and anticolonial organizing.
Reviews:
“Adds much-needed texture to the growing historiography on African American protest politics and the global understandings of racism during the 1930s and 1940s.”—American Historical Review   
“Those wishing to explore the CAA or the SNYC or the connections between the U.S. South and the black freedom and anticolonial struggles will be glad that Swindall has helped enrich that understanding.”—Journal of American History
“A useful, well-researched reminder that the U.S. struggle for racial civic inclusion domestically and anticolonial fairness internationally was more ideologically and tactically diverse than popularly portrayed.”—Choice
“Provides a detailed examination of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the Council on African Affairs (CAA) to situate these black-labor-left coalitions as part of the long civil rights movement.”—Journal for the Study of Radicalism

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