10/07/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Civil Rights Movement and Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

In April 2009, President Obama spoke in Prague about his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. He declared, "As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it." He then went on to discuss a litany of plans, including negotiating a new START treaty and ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), something that had not happened since it was adopted in 1996.

Four years later, speaking in Berlin, President Obama again called for eliminating nuclear weapons and reiterated his strong desire to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. While Obama had taken a number of concrete steps since taking office to reduce our nuclear arsenal, including the passage and ratification of a new START treaty, he was unable to do the same with the CTBT.

It was no coincidence that Obama's Berlin speech was almost fifty years to the day that President Kennedy delivered his famous "Peace" speech at American University, in which he rejected the militarist, Cold War policies that defined his first two years, and called for a nuclear test ban. However, having the first African American president also advocate for nuclear disarmament should not come as a surprise. President Obama was simply following in the path of those before him. Indeed, since 1945, many in the African American community, including some of the most prominent black leaders in U.S. history, actively supported nuclear disarmament, often connecting the nuclear issue with the fight for racial equality and liberation movements around the world. And it was due, in part, to these black activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife, Coretta, that President Kennedy was able to pass the partial nuclear test ban treaty fifty years ago this week.

Since the late 1950s, Dr. King spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons, linking the Bomb to the black freedom struggle. King consistently called for an end to nuclear testing asking, "What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?" Following the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, King called on the Government to take some of the billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons and use those funds to increase teachers' salaries and build much needed schools in impoverished communities. Two years later, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King argued the spiritual and moral lag in the modern man was due to three problems: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He warned that in the nuclear age, man must eliminate racism or risk human annihilation.

Dr. King's wife largely inspired his antinuclear stance. Coretta Scott King began her activism as a student at Antioch College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King worked with various peace organizations, and along with a group of female activists, began pressuring Kennedy for a nuclear test ban. In 1962, Coretta King served as a delegate for Women Strike for Peace at a disarmament conference in Geneva that was part of a worldwide effort to push for a nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Upon her return, King spoke at AME church in Chicago saying: "We are on the brink of destroying ourselves through nuclear warfare...the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement must work together ultimately because peace and civil rights are part of the same problem."

Throughout the summer of 1963, Coretta Scott King and other black activists urged the President to respond decisively. A month before Kennedy's speech at American University, two thousand women descended on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. demanding a nuclear test ban. The activists marched through the halls of Congress meeting with various members. Amy Swerdlow in Women Strike for Peace, notes that Coretta, who could not attend, fully supported a nuclear test ban, wiring a message that stated in part: "Peace among nations and peace in Birmingham, Alabama, cannot be separated." Her husband agreed. Dr. King explained the SCLC and the nuclear test ban advocates' objectives were indeed the same. "In supporting the philosophy of nonviolence, we feel that this is a philosophy which is remarkable (sic) similar to those persons who so strongly advocate a Test Ban Treaty," he wrote. King argued that the SCLC would not "accept the premise that our engagement in a struggle for racial justice in America removes us from the arena of concern over the Test Ban Treaty."

Their work paid off when the U.S. Senate approved the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in September by a vote of 80 to 19--14 more than the required two-thirds needed to pass. According to James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, Kennedy advisor Ted Sorenson noted that no other single accomplishment in the White House gave the President greater satisfaction. Kennedy, however, could not have done it without the work of these activists. Perhaps no one knows this more than President Obama, which explains why, when asked if Dr. King would support his candidacy, the future President responded: "No, Dr. King would call on the American people to hold me accountable...change does not happen from the top down. It comes from the bottom up."

Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book on Stanford University Press, Links in the Same Chain: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Global African American Struggle for Freedom, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.