The United States is universally recognized as a land of great wealth and resources. Yet, in this land of plenty, millions of individuals—a disproportionate percentage of them black—lack the financial resources necessary to achieve a life free of poverty.
—Congressman Mickey Leland
Congressman George Thomas "Mickey" Leland departed Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport on August 7, 1989, on a Twin Otter plane with his thirteen-member delegation of Ethiopian and American relief workers and policy analysts. They were bound for Fugnido, a town near Ethiopia's border with Sudan. This was Leland's seventh official humanitarian mission to Africa in his nearly decade-long drive to make U.S. policies toward the continent more closely reflect his black internationalist vision of global cooperation, antiracism, and freedom from hunger. In many respects, the Horn of Africa and southern Africa were his test cases. Over the previous six years, he had led the cause in the U.S. House of Representatives for the approval of consistent U.S.-government-sponsored humanitarian assistance to Marxist-ruled Ethiopia and several other African countries enmeshed in a food crisis web. By any measure, Leland was Congress's champion for U.S. humanitarianism in Africa during the final decade of the Cold War, while he simultaneously helped craft a new policy toward South Africa for the United States centered on human rights and antiracism.
Leland and his group were traveling to Fugnido to visit Pinyudo, one of three massive refugee camps operated by the Ethiopian government that sheltered tens of thousands of people, mostly children, from southern Sudan. Following an eleven-day walk and a stroke of good fortune, these children would meet soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who would escort them to one of the camps. When Leland planned his visit, the plight of these young Sudanese had yet to become the fashionable celebrity and media-driven cause that would emerge in the 1990s. They would become known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" and the dramatic tales of their trek to Ethiopia would capture the hearts of Americans and Europeans. During the 1980s, however, they were merely casualties of a civil war with regional implications. Few individuals and institutions outside of Ethiopian, southern Sudanese, European, and American relief organizations had shown more than a passing interest in escapees from southern Sudan. Leland hoped his mission to Pinyudo would attract U.S. media, government, and public attention to the refugees' condition and the critical but wanting assistance the Ethiopian government provided them. He trusted the power of these children's stories and images to spark an international relief effort and expose the complex contradictions of Cold War geopolitics that linked Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and the United States.
Leland and his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus engaged African issues during a period in which African Americans reached their point of greatest influence on U.S. foreign affairs. The 1980s was the first time in U.S. history that African Americans as a bloc directly shaped U.S. foreign policy and the social and political narratives that influenced public opinion. Leland was motivated in his activism inside the U.S. Capitol, on the streets of Washington, D.C., and in his hometown of Houston, Texas, by an understanding that interrelated forces lay behind hunger, deprivation, and injustice throughout the world. The social and political milieu of 1960s Houston, as well as the broader, international dimensions of Black Power and the Third World, informed Leland's approach to global affairs. He frequently expressed his sense of obligation to serve a global constituency, particularly the hungry and displaced in Africa. He envisioned the United States putting geopolitics and its Cold War ideologies to the side to lead an international humanitarian relief effort and to ultimately end the problem of hunger in the world.
African Americans' efforts to shape U.S. foreign policies from inside Congress, and specifically as members of the Congressional Black Caucus during the late 1970s through the 1980s, show that Black Power and related iterations of black radicalism in the United States neither completely died out in the early 1970s under state attack nor disappeared as African American politicians won offices as members of the Democratic Party. As Global South solidarity fractured as a force against Western hegemony and neoliberalism, activists continued in its afterlife to deploy the strategies of the 1960s and early 1970s New Left, Black Power, and civil rights movements to advance discreet political causes, even from within the government. The U.S. Congress was ill-suited for radical activist members, but Leland and his colleagues did their best with the power and political resources they possessed to redefine the United States' relationship with Global South nations.
This book presents Leland as emblematic of the afterlife of international radicalism in the United States. Leland's political career, particularly as it relates to African affairs, highlights the global dimensions of black politics during the 1980s and the myriad ways Black Power and civil rights ideologies, organizing strategies, and political aspirations of the 1960s and early 1970s informed the rapidly transforming domestic and international political environment of the period. Once in political office, first in the Texas state legislature and then in the U.S. Congress, Leland continually affirmed his solidarity with the declining number of leftist regimes in the Global South. Yet the Reagan administration's emphasis on anticommunism as the centerpiece of its foreign policies toward Global South nations was an obstacle to the goal of Leland and other African American politicians, ambassadors, and activists to elevate Africa's significance during the 1980s in U.S. debates on human rights, sovereignty, aid, and development. They applied their energy and political capital to ending U.S. government and corporate support for white-minority rule in Africa, which they successfully forged as a consensus issue. Leland hoped that the food crisis in the Horn of Africa and southern Africa's Frontline States—Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania—might attract public attention in ways similar to the ways apartheid in South Africa had. His premise for a U.S.-centered movement to end hunger in Africa appealed to most members of nongovernmental organizations and received his congressional colleagues' endorsement, but he did not rally public support for ending hunger as he and his colleagues had gathered support against white-minority rule in South Africa.
Despite Africa's prominence in Leland's activism and political thinking, his career shows that the continent was an ephemeral point of heightened political interest for African Americans. One of this period's great paradoxes was that the movement against apartheid in South Africa contributed to African Americans' unprecedented prominence in U.S. foreign affairs. Breaking down white supremacy in southern Africa was the glue between African American and South African activists. The two groups were not joined closely around other political issues in comparable ways. In the early 1960s, the South African Communist Party labeled state-sanctioned white supremacy in South Africa "colonialism of a special type." However, the end of this "special type" in 1994 was labeled a victory for democracy and the ballot, but not a liberation. The language of national liberation was no longer relevant in South Africa. Democracy, rather than liberation, had taken hold in the country. Democracy is a political process, while liberation is a state of being. The end of overt white supremacy in South Africa removed the onus of equality and justice from the U.S. government and placed it on the African National Congress (ANC)-controlled government, ushering in a postradical era of waning activism. Absent blatant white supremacy in Africa, African American leaders applied differing interpretations of issues and events on the continent and pursued what often became conflicting approaches, which weakened their voice in U.S. foreign policy.
Leland recognized these contradictions in African American leaders' relationship with Africa and strived to draw public attention to diverse issues on the continent, from civil wars in Angola and Mozambique to humanitarian crises in Sudan and Ethiopia. He played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement, but Ethiopia's famine in 1983-85 rather than apartheid in South Africa was Leland's signature issue in Congress. As the famine became international news, journalists and reporters, together with relief organization workers, crafted a narrative of helplessness and state failure in Ethiopia. This narrative redefined the scope and mission of international relief organizations and the international politics of food aid in the Global South throughout the decade. Leland also sought to sideline Ethiopia's complex issues in favor of a streamlined human-interest narrative of events behind Ethiopia's crisis. In speeches, interviews, and congressional hearings, Leland also repeatedly insisted that the U.S. government had an obligation to address the needs of poor and hungry people in the United States that equaled its obligation to end hunger elsewhere in the world. Leland believed that if the U.S. public was made fully aware of the food crises in Africa they would find the U.S. response unacceptable.
These issues—the legacies of Black Power and civil rights in African American politics, the domestic and international anti-apartheid movements, U.S. humanitarian relief for Marxist Ethiopia, and the effects of the end of the Cold War U.S. involvement in African affairs—are at the center of this book, but they were far from being the defining features of Leland's politics. Beyond African American economic and political empowerment, pan-Africanism, and humanitarianism, Leland held strong positions on most domestic progressive political issues, including Native American land rights, geriatric health care, anti-nuclear proliferation, minority representation on U.S. television, and, perhaps most prominently, hunger and homelessness in American cities. He remained ahead of his time by calling for immigration reform and celebrating Latino cultures as part of the fabric of U.S. society. He addressed his colleagues in Spanish from the House floor while making a statement in support of retaining bilingual clauses in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He wanted his colleagues to appreciate the challenges many Latino citizens faced.
When he embarked on his seventh congressional delegation in August 1989, Leland was a forty-four-year-old, deeply charismatic, fiercely compassionate black radical American. He was also an elected Democratic official, representing Houston's largely African American and Latino Eighteenth Congressional District. Above all, he was a self-proclaimed "citizen of humanity." The events surrounding his death would help ignite a turn of events in the Horn beyond anything he had ever imagined, beginning with the Leland party's flight from Bole that never arrived in Fugnido. In hindsight, Ethiopian authorities should not have allowed the plane to leave the airport. Dense, low-hanging clouds over Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, disoriented veteran pilot Captain Assefa Giorgis as he attempted to fly the plane through an impossible storm. For the aid workers waiting to welcome the Leland party at Fugnido and the aviation officials back at Bole, it must have seemed that the plane simply vanished. Nothing mechanical at takeoff had signaled trouble. During the six days following the plane's departure, friends, families, and colleagues held out hope that the Leland party was just missing and had survived. They would later discover the reality: just fifty miles from Fugnido, one of the plane's wings had clipped a tree and caused it to crash into one of the colossal mountains that define Ethiopia's landscape. To locate the plane and possibly rescue the Leland party, the United States and Ethiopia launched a historic joint mission that grew into the largest, most expansive search for civilians in Ethiopian and U.S. history. This unprecedented venture accelerated reconciliation and ultimately marked the end of Cold War antagonism in U.S.-Ethiopian relations.
During the days leading up to and following his funeral, Leland held the U.S. media's attention to a degree he would never have dreamed of when alive. Fellow lawmakers and activists celebrated him as a model politician and humanitarian. Newspapers and television news programs aired stories of him helping the oppressed, poor, and homeless around the world. Today, nearly thirty years after his death, Leland's place in the history of U.S.-African affairs and U.S. politics is easier to discern than in the weeks and months after his death. His political ideologies and aspirations were forged during the radical struggle for civil rights and Black Power and ultimately absorbed humanitarianism and human rights.
There were several memorial services in Washington, Houston, and Addis Ababa. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) held a service at the Lincoln Memorial for its staff members who had died in the crash. The Ethiopian Herald reported that Abune Zena Markos, archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, presided over a service beneath the beautiful stained-glass windows of the historic Holy Trinity Cathedral, "in the presence of archbishops and solemnly attired clergy representatives of various churches and monasteries in and around Addis Ababa," for the sixteen Ethiopians and Americans who died in the plane crash. In Houston, five thousand mourners gathered for a two-hour service in Texas Southern University's gymnasium. Jesse Jackson was among the invited speakers and described Leland's political path as one worth following, stating that doing so would lead to the right side of history: "If you're for Mickey Leland, you'll choose a national health plan over a stealth [bomber] plan. If you're for Mickey, you're for ending apartheid in South Africa and freeing Mandela. You'll wipe out these slum houses in the Fifth Ward right here in the shadow of downtown where all these millionaires live if you're for Mickey." He praised Leland for his "unselfish service to humanity." Jackson went on to predict, "They will be naming streets after Mickey, schools and highways and federal buildings."
The burial service for Leland took place in Houston at St. Anne's Catholic Church on Saturday, August 19, where "a long line of sweating mourners," as Jim Simmon of the Houston Chronicle described, "curved around the driveway of the church yard on Westheimer and Shepherd." Over 650 people squeezed into the historic Spanish-style church's sanctuary and many stood in the side aisles. The more than 550 mourners who could not find space in the church gathered in a tent across the street and listened to the service over loudspeakers. It is unlikely that St. Anne's church had ever held a similar service. Its blend of Baptist and Catholic was characteristic of Leland's style. The "political power brokers sat knee-to-knee with common folk from Leland's inner-city district," Simmon reported. "Saxophonist Kirk Whalum filled the church sanctuary with the bluesy strains of 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' and the Rev. Jesse Jackson brought the crowd to its feet with a thundering eulogy."
Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza's more traditionally Catholic homily followed Jackson's charismatic eulogy. Fiorenza emphasized Leland's charitable actions, describing him as one whose "work put him in contact with the famous and powerful, but he never lost a special love and genuine concern for children and the elderly, for the poor and the homeless . . . for the powerless people of the world." Jackson and Fiorenza eulogized Leland with the central theme that his death charged all who knew him with the responsibility to push his cause forward. "Mickey is not in that box, just as Jesus was not in that tomb," Jackson declared, gesturing to the simple pine casket that would soon hold his body. "And because Mickey is not in that box and because Jesus is not in that tomb, death has not freed us of the burden of Mickey's mission. The challenge that we have today . . . is for those of us who remain to protect the integrity of Mickey's mission." Jackson concluded with his trademark exhortation to "keep hope alive!"
In the decade after Mickey Leland's death, with the end of abject white supremacy in southern Africa, African American political leaders ceased to engage in African affairs as an ethnic bloc in a robust and informed manner. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, African Americans had exerted a postradical influence in U.S. policy toward Africa, and the Global South generally, that had never been seen before and that has yet to reemerge. During the first decade of the 2000s, there were individual African Americans who had a far greater influence on U.S. foreign policy than those of preceding generations, but they operated with fundamentally different sensibilities, goals, and strategies. Most important, they were policymakers, ambassadors, and lawmakers, and one was even a president for whom race was secondary to national identities and interests. President Barack Obama, Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other members of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations who were African American shared links to diverse black communities, but their links to the typical black political communities were marginal. Where the lawmakers and ambassadors of the 1970s and 1980s had their roots in the civil rights movement, Black Power, and trade unions, those who attained positions of influence in the 2000s had their political roots in the Democratic Party or, as in the case of Powell, the military.
This book examines how African Americans successfully influenced U.S. foreign policy, as well as failed to do so, from inside and outside the government during the postradical environment of the 1980s. It explores the links among the electoral politics, community activism, and community organizing that propelled African Americans to reach their point of greatest influence on U.S. policies toward African and other Global South countries. Congressman Mickey Leland and his colleagues drew on the ideologies, practices, and aspirations of the broader movement of black radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and inspiration from pan-Africanism, decolonization, and revolution in the Global South to advance African American interests and represent African interests from inside the government. Their radical work marks a moment of transition. Global radical leftist activism and revolutionary political imaginings receded as neoliberalism and political conservatism emerged as the dominant paradigm in domestic and international affairs. The radical activism of the former period ended European colonial rule in South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and fueled the U.S. movement for social and economic justice in the United States and a number of political revolutions in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa, including those in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Maurice Bishop's New Jewel Movement in Grenada, and Thomas Sankara's revolution in Burkina Faso. Leland represented a vision of a black post-Cold War foreign policy that looked beyond national borders to try to benefit all of humankind. But he was one of the examples of radical politics during an era when the political left was descendant globally. Examining Leland in this context inspires a fundamentally different way of thinking about the relationship between African American political voices and geopolitics, as well as the relationship between Africa and the United States more broadly during the closing decade of the Cold War.