When Fascist Aggression in Ethiopia Sparked a Movement of Black SolidarityRoundup
tags: colonialism, fascism, Ethiopia
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is professor of history at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, to be published by Norton in November 2020.
On Aug. 3, 1935, a day so humid you could taste the air, 25,000 Black and White New Yorkers marched down Harlem’s Lenox Avenue to protest fascist Italy’s plans to invade Ethiopia. Ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia was a League of Nations member and one of two African nations that had never been colonized. The urgency of the cause brought together Black labor, religious and pan-Africanist groups, Italian American leftists and the event’s sponsor, the Communist-linked American League against War and Fascism.
Often relegated to the margins of history, the Italo-Ethiopian War (October 1935-May 1936) brought the world home for America’s Black communities. It awakened many people to sentiments of belonging and allegiance that transcended national boundaries and sparked mass protests. Outside the United States, the war also galvanized many in the Black diaspora to the stakes of anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles. The mass reaction to the invasion of Ethiopia merits attention at a time when a new generation is engaging in sustained protest of racial injustice, and authoritarian aggression is on the rise.
Ethiopia had a special significance for many in the Black diaspora. It was an ancient center of Christianity, and the Ethiopianism religious movement of the late 19th century drew on biblical reference to the country’s special role in fostering African nationalism and independence. Ethiopia also stood as a symbol of anti-imperial defiance and African modernity. In Adwa, in 1896, Ethiopians forced Italian armed forces to retreat, putting an end to Italy’s first attempt to occupy the country. Haile Selassie, then in his fifth year as emperor, also enjoyed global fame. He inspired Rastafari, a cultural and religious movement that considered him as a messianic figure. For millions, the invasion of Ethiopia imperiled Black freedom and dignity everywhere.
For the fascists, occupying Ethiopia was not merely payback for that humiliating defeat 40 years earlier, but a chance to implement dictator Benito Mussolini’s plan to make Italy an agent of white racial rescue. The fascist regime famously persecuted leftists and ethnic and religious minorities, but it also acted to correct perceived threats to the hegemony of white civilization. In 1927, years before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Mussolini warned that white people could face extinction, while “black and yellow people” were “at our doors,” armed with “a consciousness of the future of their race in the world.”
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