Dominant narratives about United States’ history will usually wax nostalgic for the patriots who fought for liberty and egalitarianism during the American Revolution. But, arguably, those liberal ideals were never really meant to serve anyone but White settlers. Even today, ideas of American exceptionalism—like President Donald Trump’s "America First" agenda—are largely weaponized against communities of color.
In his new book, "An African American and Latinx History of the United States," historian Paul Ortiz challenges these dominant narratives by placing African Americans and Latinx people at the center of U.S. history.
Ortiz illuminates how Black and Brown people built multiracial movements through the 1700s to the 21st Century to achieve civil and democratic rights. In the book, the author and professor of history at the University of Florida, argues that African American and Latinx activists were inspired by what he’s coined as "emancipatory internationalism" or the longstanding rejection of Eurocentric philosophies of liberty in exchange for the freedom struggles of the Global South.
And in the author’s note, he emphasizes the significance of archiving this expansive history for future generations:
"I want to ensure that no Latinx or Black children ever again have to be ashamed of who they are and of where they come from. Collectively speaking, African Americans and Latinx people have nothing to apologize for. Every democratic right we enjoy is an achievement that our ancestors fought, suffered and died for."
Here are just a few ways that African American and Latinx people fought for self-determination.
The Underground Railroad to Mexico
Before Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865 formally abolishing slavery, Mexico had already ended it 34 years earlier. Under José María Morelos and Vicente Guerrero—two Afro-Latinx leaders in Mexico’s independence movement—enslaved Black people from as far away as Florida sought sanctuary south of the border. But their exodus prompted slavery’s American proponents to invade Mexico, as White settlers attempted to spread slavery and other racist policies to the far reaches of the North American West.
Tejanos, or Texans of Mexican descent, supported Black refugees who fled from enslavement, providing them with shelter and guiding them to safe routes across the Rio Grande Valley. Black Seminoles also moved south, and many became border guards against Texas authorities and vigilantes. Until the United States abolished slavery, the Underground Railroad expanded into Canada, as well as Latin American and Caribbean countries—including Mexico City, Haiti and the Bahamas—and created a global resistance movement against slavery.
Cuban Solidarity in the late 1800s
During the Reconstruction Era Black abolitionists in the United States turned their attention to antislavery and liberation struggles in the Global South. In 1872, New York City became an epicenter for the Cuban solidarity movement, where Black organizers held the first Cuban Anti-Slavery Committee convention. The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet delivered the keynote speech, calling on attendees to unite in the international movement for Cuban independence. Spanish envoys were sent to the convening to disrupt the address but were instantly shut down by participants.
A year later, organizing centers emerged in cities across the United States. In Baltimore, African Americans and Cubans met at the city’s ports to update one another. Also in 1873, The National Civil Rights Convention held in Washington, D.C., passed resolutions in support of Cuban independence. Leaders of the Cuban Anti-Slavery committee continued to meet with Cuban insurgents to organize and they staged petition drives, ultimately gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures from African American voters.
The Act of Chapultepec Forges a Pathway to the Modern Civil Rights Movement
In the winter of 1945, towards the end of World War II, leaders from nations in the Americas and the Caribbean convened in Chapultepec, Mexico, for the Inter-American Conference on War and Peace to discuss sovereignty and unity in the Western Hemisphere. While U.S. delegates focused on trade and security, Haiti presented a resolution declaring that democracy would never be achieved unless every country abolished policies that promoted racial discrimination. Conference delegates agreed to include a resolution for "equality of rights and opportunities […] regardless of race" in the final Act of Chapultepec.
African American and Latinx civil rights organizations now had the legal precedent to fight back against discriminatory laws in the United States. In the 1940s, the Act of Chapultepec was an essential argument when the first American-born Latinx senator elected to Congress, Dennis Chávez, worked alongside civil rights leader Anna Arnold Hedgemen and the NAACP to create a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Congress rejected the bill, but the Chapultepec conference remained a pathway for the civil rights and Chicanx movements. In the decades that followed, the U.S. would suppress the civil rights movement and promote violent military interventions in Central and South America.
The Rainbow Coalitions in the late 1960s and 1980s
In 1969, galvanized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, the Black Panther Party’s Chicago branch created a unified movement to combat poverty called the Rainbow Coalition. The group united people in Chicago’s poorest communities, working with the Latinx Young Lords and the White Young Patriots under the banner of class struggle. They organized free food campaigns, staged direct actions and created health and education programs. The class-focused movement came to an end on December 4, 1969 when Chicago police, conspiring with the FBI, shot and killed 21-year-old Panther leader Fred Hampton as he slept next to his pregnant wife. In the 1980s, Rev. Jesse Jackson formed the second iteration of the Rainbow Coalition to build support for his 1984 presidential campaign. Although Jackson did not credit the Black Panther Party for founding the original coalition, he used the platform to support farm workers’ unionizing efforts and a Congressional health plan for all Americans.
“An African American and Latinx History of the United States” by Paul Ortiz is available to purchase at Beacon Press as part of the Revisioning American History series.