On December 16, 1990, in a landslide victory, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Less than a year later, Aristide was deposed in a US-backed coup and sent into exile. The following essay, first published in 1992 by Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, of UCLA’s Departments of African American Studies and History, offers some historical reflections on the possibilities of Aristide’s return to Haiti in the context of the history of Black international solidarity movements. We republish it today, well aware that at the present time elections in Haiti are long overdue — and mindful of the fact that under the guise of Opération Burkina Faso there is a strengthening movement to unseat Michel Martelly, to end the United Nations occupation, and to restore democracy to Haiti.
COULD AN ALL-AFRICAN ARMY LIBERATE HAITI?
Robin D. G. Kelley, New York Daily Challenge, June 22, 1992
The growing demand that President Bush, the Organization of American States, or the United Nations send troops to return deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power is neither unreasonable nor without precedent. Recent events in the Gulf, Panama, and Grenada come to mind immediately, though the United States’ willingness to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries is part of a very long and established tradition. It is important to keep in mind, however, that U.S. troops have never been deployed to defend a democratic regime; on the contrary, democratically elected governments have been destabilized by the United States in order to secure business or geopolitical interests, as has been the case in Cuba, Guatemala, Guyana, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, to name but a few. Indeed, we must not forget that Haiti itself fell under U.S. occupation between 1915-1934. Under the auspices of the Marines, the U.S. imposed a new constitution on the Haitian people permitting foreigners to own or lease land. When the Marines finally withdrew in 1934, the U.S. still retained control over Haiti’s customs.
These are important historical lessons, for they underscore and make all the more tenable Earl Caldwell’s recent column in the Daily News, “Army of Blacks can Solve Haiti’s Woe,” in which he ponders the possibility of a volunteer army of African-American and Caribbean “freedom fighters” restoring Aristide to power. As Caldwell reminded us, not only does the U.S. have a history of supporting such volunteer armies–citing as one treacherous example the “contras” in Nicaragua–but Haitians have voluntarily spilled blood in defense of the U.S.: two centuries ago individuals from the island of Saint Domingue (what would become modern day Haiti) joined the American Revolution against British colonial rule. And given the Bush administration’s repatriation of Haitian refugees and its refusal to take any significant action on behalf of Aristide’s government, the deployment of an army of black “freedom fighters” on Haiti’s behalf is, in Caldwell’s words, “not such a far fetched idea.”
As our own history as African-Americans makes clear, there are several important precedents for this kind of Pan-African “citizens” intervention. After Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and initiated what should be regarded as the first battle in the Second World War, thousands of African-Americans, West Indians, and Africans volunteered to create brigades and participate in the struggle to expel the Italian forces. Almost overnight an array of support organizations were formed, mainly in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to raise money for relief and medical aid, and the Pan-African Reconstruction Association (PARA) headed by Samuel Daniels initiated efforts to recruit men for Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. According to Daniels, his organization had already mobilized an estimated 1,000 volunteers in New York, 1,500 in Philadelphia, 8,000 in Chicago, 5,000 in Detroit, and 2,000 in Kansas City. Likewise, in other parts of the world, black people rallied to the defense of Ethiopia. In Jamaica hundreds attempted to enlist and at least 1,400 people signed a petition repealing Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act, which would have enabled colonial subjects to participate in the war. In South Africa, a few hundred black workers initiated an armed march to Ethiopia, until it was eventually circumvented by the British.
Initially Selassie was willing to accept African-American combatants, but pressure from the U.S. government compelled Ethiopia to cease all recruitment efforts. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration took no action against Italy for its aggression again a sovereign state, a stance no doubt linked to the race of Ethiopia’s inhabitants. Furthermore, potential volunteers were warned that they would be in violation of federal statute of 1818 governing the enlistment of U.S. citizens in a foreign army. Despite the law, an organization called the Black Legion allegedly established a training camp in upstate New York for some 3,000 volunteers, while another group made plans to purchase a freighter to carry black men to the Horn of Africa. None of these efforts came to fruition, however. According to most accounts, only two African-Americans ever reached Ethiopia–airmen John C. Robinson of Chicago’s Southside, and Harlem’s own Hubert F. Julian.
Although the promise of a African-American brigade in the Horn of Africa was never realized, Blacks discovered another ground on which to revenge Ethiopia and fight fascism directly: Spain. Black participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) marks one of the most important yet little known moments in the history of international and Pan-African solidarity. Altogether over eighty black men and one black woman (a Harlem nurse named Salaria Kee) risked life, limb, and their own U.S. citizenship to defend a legally elected government from a fascist takeover and to get back at Mussolini for the invasion. Thanks to a timely book edited by Danny Duncan Collum of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives titled, African-Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do” (G.K. Hall, 1992), we have at our fingertips an analogue to Haiti’s current crisis and an historical precedent for intervention.
By the middle of 1936, after Selassie fled to Europe and discouraged volunteers, and Italy settled into its role as colonial ruler, many of the same African-Americans involved in pro-Ethiopian solidarity work found themselves unofficially volunteering for another war–this time in Europe. In July of that year, a right-wing coup d’etat, led by General Francisco Franco with massive support from Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, overthrew the democratically elected Republican Government in Spain. When the besieged democracy failed to receive support from the Western powers, including the U.S., International Brigades were formed to defend the Spanish Republic. Altogether, an estimated 35,000 people from over fifty countries and colonies volunteered for the International Brigades, approximately 3,300 of whom were Americans.
African-Americans who responded to the call regarded the Spanish Civil War as an extension of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. “By fighting against Franco,” poet Langston Hughes observed, “they felt they were opposing Mussolini.” Black newspapers, most notably the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Atlanta Daily World, and the Chicago Defender unequivocally sided with the Spanish Republic and occasionally carried feature articles about black participation in the Lincoln Brigade. Several black medical personnel from the United Aid for Ethiopia (UAE) offered medical supplies and raised money in the community; Harlem churches and professional organizations sponsored rallies in behalf of the Spanish Republic; black relief workers and doctors raised enough money to purchase a fully equipped ambulance for use in Spain; and some of Harlem’s greatest musicians, including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie, W.C. Handy, Jimmy Lunceford, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, gave benefit concerts sponsored by the Harlem Musicians’ Committee for Spanish Democracy and the Spanish Children’s Milk Fund. Besides the few who volunteered for service or helped collect money and supplies, the Civil War in Spain attracted a number of prominent contemporary cultural figures, including Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.
Once in Spain, black volunteers distinguished themselves on and off the battlefield. Oliver Law, a Chicago radical activist and ex-serviceman, was promoted to captain and subsequently rose to the rank of commander of the Lincoln Battalion, becoming the first African-American in history to command a predominantly white military unit. Likewise, a black volunteer named Walter Garland was promoted to machine gun company commander and earned the rank of lieutenant after distinguishing himself under heavy fire. The International Brigades also boasted of three black pilots–James Peck, Paul Williams, and Patrick Roosevelt–when the U.S. Army Air Corps refused to provide flight training to African-Americans.
In the end, the Republicans lost the war and Franco ruled Spain for the next four decades. Only about half of the volunteers survived the war and few returning vets escaped injury. This, too, is an important lesson, for all wars have casualties and victory for even the noblest causes is never certain. More significantly, the defeat of the International Brigades in Spain can be attributed to the refusal of Western “democracies,” the U.S. in particular, to come to the aid of the Republic while the Nazis and Italian fascists used the Iberian Peninsula as a testing ground for modern weapons. (Indeed, rather than applaud these men and women for risking their lives in a battle America would officially join in 1941, Lincoln Brigade veterans were hounded by the FBI, a variety of “un-American activities” committees, and labeled “premature antifascists.”)
The point, of course, is that the fortunes of any volunteer army in a place like Haiti depends of international support. Yet, the very threat of a direct intervention of, say, a Toussaint L’Ouverture Brigade or a Dessalines Battalion, as Caldwell’s article implies, would certainly put the issue squarely before the Bush administration. For President Bush to reject an African-American/Caribbean “contra” strategy while continuing to repatriate Haitian refugees and refusing to offer Aristide more than mere words would expose, once and for all, the hypocrisy of this administration’s policies toward Haiti. Unfortunately, as the cases of Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930’s remind us, the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy has consistently outpaced our own community’s heroic acts of international solidarity.