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African-American Movements

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The term African- (or Afro) American Movements refers to organizations made up of members of the African diaspora in the Americas who are campaigning for a wide range of aims, including to fight against the persistence of racism and racial discrimination or to combat economic, social and political disadvantages. In this regard, it has to be distinguished from cultural (Negritude, Harlem Renaissance) or religious phenomena (Candomblé, Voodoo, Santería) which are also identified with the “black” populations of the Americas.

When dealing with the question of political mobilization of people of African descent from a comparative inter-American perspective, one of the main questions is to explain why only the United States witnessed the emergence of long-lasting and mass-based racially consciousness organizations. In the rest of the Western Hemisphere, including Brazil with the largest “black” population, the movement produced predominantly short-lived local or regional groups with only limited memberships. The reasons for this failure have to be seen on an ideological level as a consequence of the persistence of the powerful idea of “racial democracy” in Latin America, which declared every mobilization based on ethnic or racial origin to be in itself “racist”, but also in divergent strategies to achieve social advancement and inclusion.


While racially-based organizations have a long history in Latin America, especially in the form of religious lay-brotherhoods, civic and recreation societies, only at the beginning of the 20th century did the heartland of “African-America” see the emergence of black or coloured organizations with a political outlook. The first noteworthy attempt to mobilize the non-white population of African origin after the end of the struggle for the abolition of slavery was made in Cuba, where in 1908 former black and mulatto members of the liberation army formed the “Partido Independiente de Color” which advocated for the compliance with promises made during the anti-colonial struggle at the end of the 19th century towards racial inclusion. However, the political establishment reacted violently. In the 1912 “race war”, at least 2000 members and followers of the party lost their lives in brutal massacres.

In the United States, the “National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People” was founded in 1909 with W.E.B. Du Bois as one of its main national representatives, advocating for full civil and political equal rights between black and white Americans. Other important organizations founded in the first half of the 20th Century were the “Universal Negro Improvement Association”, led by Marcus Garvey, campaigning for the repatriation of the Diaspora to the African homelands or the “Frente Negra Brasileira” (Sao Paulo, 1931), which criticized the privileges of European immigrants vis-à-vis the Afro-Brazilian labor force. Some of the Latin American movements were successful inasmuch as the populist governments between 1930 and 1970 established programs of social and economic reforms and expanded the public sector, which opened venues for upward mobility for the population of African descent.

Civil Rights Movements and Aftermath

During the 1950s, the struggle to overcome racial discrimination gained new impetus in the United States with the formation of the Civil Rights Movement. The main objective of the activists was to overcome racial segregation and to restore voting rights in the South, based on campaigns of civil resistance. Later on, more radical organizations like the “Black Panthers” or the “Nation of Islam” used a militant rhetoric of racial pride and asked its members to dissociate themselves with white America.

The North American Civil Rights Movement, alongside cultural developments in music and dance, the revival of African religions as well as the decolonization struggle in Africa were able to add new strength to different forms of black mobilization in Latin America. Again, Brazil was at the forefront, reaching 343 “black” organizations of different purposes in 1989.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the Durban World Conference against Racism in 2001 provided the background for new activities by Latin-African-American organizations, appearing united for the first time at an important international event. The main political achievement of the new African-American movements have to be seen in approaches by some governments towards the introduction of affirmative action measures and the recognition of collectively-owned communal land titles and territorial autonomy rights (see Constitutions of Brazil 1988, Colombia 1991, Ecuador 2008).


Apart from the United States, African-American organizations have struggled to establish themselves as a major political force, even if recent processes in Latin America seem to confirm a “racialization from below.” Andrews (2007) argues that the incapacity of the movements in the South to mobilize their potential constituency is related to internal divisions of gender, race and class. In the 1990s, because of the negligence of gender-based problems in the existing movement, Afro-Latin-American women have founded independent organizations that engage in regional and transnational exchange. Because of the still more fluent forms of racial stratification in Latin-America in comparison to the United States, the population of African descent in the Caribbean and in South America has always been more heterogeneous and generally leaning to a greater extent towards comprehensive forms of mobilization, mainly through labour unions or religious congregations. As the state has proved for a long time to be the most accessible provider of relief through job opportunities and social programmes, most people of African descent have from a historical standpoint been less critical towards the ruling political class than their North-American counterparts. Neoliberal reforms of the 1990s and the pressure of globalization have put this “faith” in the state under question and given rise to the emergence of new organizations whose ability to persist is still doubtful.

Jochen Kemner

Please cite as:
Kemner, Jochen. 2012. “African-American Movements.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspective. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/a_African-American-Movements.html.


Andrews, George Reid. 2007. Afro-Latinoamérica 1800-2000. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert.

De la Fuente, Alejandro. 2001. A nation for all. Race, inequality, and politics in twentieth-century Cuba. Chapel Hill [u.a.]: The University of North Carolina Press.

Finzsch, Norbert / Horton, James O. / Horton, Lois E. 1999. Von Benin nach Baltimore. Die Geschichte der African Americans. Hamburg: Hamburger Ed.

Hanchard, Michael George. 1994. Orpheus and power. The movimento negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945 – 1988. Princeton, NJ [u.a.]: Princeton University Press.

Mullings, Leith ,Ed. 2009. New Social Movements in the African Diaspora. Challenging Global Apartheid. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sullivan, Patricia. 2010. Lift every voice. The NAACP and the making of the civil rights movement. New York [u.a.]: New Press.

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