Rep. Mickey Leland Was the Embodiment of Black Internationalism

Benjamin Talton

In the 1970s and ’80s, internationalism was central to black politics. And few better personified that commitment than Texas congressman Mickey Leland, who fought tooth and nail to end US support for South African apartheid.

Rep. Mickey Leland (D-TX) in 1989. (Andrea Mohin / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

When a plane carrying African American congressman Mickey Leland crashed in Ethiopia on August 7, 1989, killing him and all fourteen others on board, Leland tragically accomplished in death what he had not been able to in life: normalize diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the United States. Since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, which had brought a Soviet-allied military junta called the Derg and its chairman, Mengistu Haile Mariam, to power, relations between the two nations had collapsed.

In response to the Ethiopian famine of 1983 to 1985, however, Leland was able to overcome Cold War politics and one of its leading purveyors, President Ronald Reagan. Drawing on a commitment to internationalism born of his roots in the Black Power movement, Leland — a six-term congressman from Houston — helped pressure Reagan and his own colleagues in Congress to provide Ethiopia with millions of dollars in food aid and funding.

By the time Leland returned to Ethiopia in 1989 — this time to help address a crisis originating in another part of Africa’s Sahel region, the Second Sudanese Civil War — he was lobbying a new US president, George H. W. Bush, to normalize relations with Mengistu. But it was only in the aftermath of Leland’s death, with Ethiopian and US search and rescue teams working together to locate his missing plane, that a direct line of communication between the two countries’ leaders finally opened. Unfortunately, rapprochement would not take black internationalism to new heights but instead signal its high-water mark in US electoral politics.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Benjamin Talton, author of In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics, about Leland’s tenure in Congress, his extensive work on African issues, and the 1970s and ’80s as the peak of black internationalism among US politicians.

Arvind Dilawar

Why did you decide to focus on Mickey Leland as the embodiment of internationalism among black politicians in the US?

Benjamin Talton

It was only after I embarked upon a close study of his political life through his political archive, newspaper articles, and interviews with his friends and colleagues that I began to truly discern how exceptional the depth and breadth of his internationalism was as an elected official in the United States during the 1970s and ’80s.

But the seed for my interest in Leland was planted much earlier. He is mostly known for the historic search to locate the plane that was carrying him and his delegation to a refugee camp operated by the Ethiopian government and international volunteer organizations. The search for the plane and the subsequent news of the death of all those on board was a major story in the US media, and it profoundly moved me as a teenager with a keen interest in African politics and culture.

Africa’s presence in African American politics and popular culture during the 1980s was an inverse of its absence today. Africa loomed large in music, intellectual interests, and politics. I was struck at the time by the footage of Congressman Leland with African heads of state, visiting villages and schools in Africa, and protesting the US support for the apartheid regime on the streets of Washington, DC. He appeared to me all that I wanted to be when I grew up.

Twenty years later, as I immersed myself in his records, I was impressed with the depth of his support of sovereignty, humanitarian initiatives, and development projects in Africa, but also in Central America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. He mostly did so from the standpoint that US foreign policy in these regions, centered as it was on anti-communism, was counterproductive to the goals of social and political stability in those countries and the well-being of their citizens. It was from his broad, consistently people-centered political approach to global affairs that I cast him as the embodiment of internationalism among African American politicians.

Arvind Dilawar

How did Leland’s radical background distinguish him from other, better-known black politicians?

Benjamin Talton

Leland developed his political ideology and honed his political skills as a student activist and organizer during the late 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement, Black Power activism, and labor organizing were common training grounds for African American politicians who gained prominence during the 1970s and ’80s. But for those who entered electoral politics, whether as mayors, city council members, or members of Congress, their priority was elevating domestic issues tied to the concerns of their largely African American constituents into the Democratic Party platform. This was important, hard, and often radical work. But it was narrow and, I argue, shortsighted.

Leland shared most of his colleagues’ aspirations and worked toward these goals beside them, but his perception of the global dimensions of the black struggle in the US sharpened during his days as a student, his travels in Africa, and his work with Latinos in Houston. It fostered his urgency to work toward transforming the structures of US power and its role in global affairs.

Ending US relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa was a core foreign policy issue for African Americans, and Leland was key to achieving that goal. He wanted to harness similar focus and energy for a movement to end hunger not just in Africa but the world. He saw the United States’ excess agricultural production as an injustice so long as masses throughout the world continued to starve. He pushed, with some success, to steer US resources to address global hunger, but he failed to achieve his goal of using the US response to Ethiopia’s food crisis in 1983–85 as a model for how the United States might assert itself for global peace and shared prosperity.

More broadly, Leland’s roots in leftist activism and organizing, coupled with his relationship with leftist leaders, including Fidel Castro in Cuba and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, fueled his adamant and often bold opposition to the United States’ Cold War framework. He was among the few US elected officials with direct and frequent communication with Castro, and he made several trips to Cuba. In the book, I describe his trip to the Soviet Union to build support for a US-Soviet backed initiative to end the civil war in Mozambique. He also traveled to Vietnam with a congressional delegation to lay the groundwork for renewed diplomatic ties between Vietnam and the United States.

Leland’s sustained commitment to global leftist politics and support for the sovereignty of leftist governments in the Global South distinguished him from his colleagues. Many African Americans had backgrounds that were shaped, like his own, by radical leftist activism and organizing. But Leland was among the few who brought his political orientation and priorities into the halls of the most powerful government in the world.

Arvind Dilawar

How did the United States’ response to the famine in Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa differ?

Benjamin Talton

The US government was resistant to directly addressing both issues in the early 1980s. The Reagan administration refused to approve requests for direct food assistance to Ethiopia because of the Derg’s professed Marxism and its close ties to the Soviet Union. Reagan had faith in the efficacy of humanitarian assistance to support US allies and sway regimes outside of the direct US sphere of influence to conform with US interests. He rejected the notion of apolitical assistance to a humanitarian crisis in a communist country.

That’s what makes the history fascinating to me. In response to the activism of Leland and his colleagues, and pressure from international volunteer organizations and US allies in Europe, the Reagan administration reluctantly became the source of the largest direct food-aid program to Mengistu’s government by the middle of the decade.

South Africa reflected a similarly exceptional adjustment to US policy. South Africa was an important Cold War ally of the United States, and Reagan steadfastly opposed legislation that might economically and politically undermine the white-minority regime. The Congressional Black Caucus, which was comprised of the African American members of the House of Representatives, led the push to transform US foreign policy toward South Africa.

The United States was the only Western nation with active anti-apartheid activists in its government. The Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed strict sanctions on South Africa, was a historic victory, and demonstrates the possibilities of what an international alliance of activists, labor, and political leaders might achieve.

Arvind Dilawar

Why did internationalism among black politicians peak in the 1970s and ’80s, then peter out?

Benjamin Talton

At no other point in US history did African American elected officials exercise similar influence on US foreign policy toward Africa and the Caribbean. Many — Mickey Leland among them — saw themselves as political actors in solidarity with the global left.

The ongoing activism and organizing of African American elected officials were key to the strength of internationalism during the 1980s. I point, in the book, to Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, who served from 1955 to 1980, as the architect of that model: constant activism inside and outside of Congress, coalition building with domestic and international organizations, delegations to Africa and African American communities where they wanted to draw public attention, and continually submitting legislation aimed at transforming US policies, even when it was doomed to receive insufficient support from their colleagues. Part of the intent behind the strategy was to alter the discourse on Africa and the Cold War.

During the 1990s, several factors undermined African American political solidarity and influence on US foreign policy and, by extension, their force as a bloc within Congress. The end of white-minority rule in southern Africa removed opposition to that country’s abject racism as a consensus issue. Positions on African issues — from the Sani Abacha regime’s flagrant violation of human rights and undermining of democratic processes in Nigeria to the civil war in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda — became more difficult to discern. Also, as the number of African Americans in Congress increased and the African American vote became a critical factor in Democratic Party electoral successes, senior positions within the Democratic Party and Congress became available and highly sought after. African American members’ solidarity and internationalism were casualties of political success.

The decline of Africa’s significance in African American politics and popular culture also reflects the changing nature and fortunes of politics in Africa. African American leaders were a conduit to the US government for African anti-colonial leaders and the leaders of newly independent governments. In the struggle against Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola, African American leaders organized congressional hearings and US speaking tours for anti-colonial leaders. But ultimately, African governments preferred more direct contact with their counterparts in the US government.

Arvind Dilawar

How has the conception of humanitarian intervention changed from Leland’s time to our own?

Benjamin Talton

This question is important, because not enough of us pay close attention to the marriage of humanitarianism and militarism and its implications for the constraints on sovereignty in Global South nations.

Leland was caught amid the changing meaning and nature of humanitarian intervention. His goal was for humanitarian assistance to serve as a platform for peace between nations. He believed — admittedly naively — that the interventions must not be political. In his estimation, humanitarianism must be limited to resolving crises. He could not conceive of humanitarian intervention synonymous with military intervention.

The proliferation of international volunteer organizations and their bureaucratization was also a significant development in the years following the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) and accelerated further during the 1980s. It is now an industry with little to no international oversight and quality control. Even worse is the industry’s record of successfully resolving the humanitarian crises in which it intervenes.

I firmly believe that historians must present histories of unsuccessful movements and initiatives. Leland was by no means a failure. He set out to end the US employment of anti-communism as the basis for foreign policy in Africa, which he helped achieve. But he also set out to remake the United States as a moral leader in the world, at the head of a coalition of nations with a shared commitment to ending global hunger. Today this goal remains well beyond our wildest dreams.