The Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and for racial justice in the United States hailed the leader of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro for his radical, anti-imperialist legacy Monday, calling for mourning of his passing to take the form of picking up his torch of revolutionary struggle and resistance.
But the Black Lives Matter movement is far from the first progressive Black movement in the United States to draw inspiration from the Cuban leader, while many of the movement’s predecessors fighting for civil rights, Black power and socialism simultaneously caught Fidel’s attention over the years.
Fidel Castro often spoke about solidarity as a sacred cornerstone of the Cuban revolution. Here are five ways that solidarity between Fidel’s Cuba, the Black Panthers and other radical movements, and the Black community in the U.S. have been on display over the years.
1. Black Panthers Drew Inspiration from Cuban Revolution
The Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist and Black nationalist organization founded in 1966 to fight against racism and for real changes in Black economic and political power on the heels of victories by the civil rights movements, found inspiration in the Cuban revolution and African liberation struggles. Some of the group’s leaders came of age as activists amid the revolution Fidel led that successfully toppled the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959. The Black Panthers shared Fidel’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and quickly developed a strong commitment to anti-imperialist internationalism, another tenet of the Cuban revolution.
2. Fidel Castro Visited Malcolm X in Harlem
While visiting New York in 1960 for a U.N. meeting where he delivered his marathon four-and-a-half hour debut speech, Fidel Castro and his Cuba delegation ditched their Midtown Manhattan hotel and headed for a stay instead at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem. It was there that Fidel held a brief meeting with Black activist and internationalist Malcolm X, in which they exchanged sentiments of solidarity in their struggles. The meeting kicked off a series of other meetings at the Theresa Hotel. He also arranged a lunch for the hotel’s working-class African-American staff during his stay.
In a speech in Harlem four decades later, Fidel Castro remembered his inaugural visit to Harlem in 1960. He recalled being pushed out of the hotel in Midtown after a dispute, saying he faced the choice of pitching a tent on the U.N. grounds — an option, he joked, didn’t seem unreasonable to a former guerilla rebel who had only recently left remote mountain camps — or to go to Harlem. “I decided immediately, ‘I’m going to Harlem,’” he said, “‘because my best friends are there.’”
3. Cuba Offered Asylum to Political Prisoner Assata Shakur
Fidel Castro granted political asylum to Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur in 1984 when she fled to the island after living as a fugitive in the United States in the wake of her 1979 escape from prison in New Jersey. Assata had been convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a 1973 shootout that ensued after she and two others were pulled over for having a broken taillight. She has long maintained her innocence.
Supporters including Angela Davis have described her as a political prisoner. In a 1998 open letter to Pope John Paul II, Shakur wrote of Cuba: “This is not a country that is rich in material wealth, but it is a country that is rich in human wealth, spiritual wealth and moral wealth.” In 2005, Fidel Castro publicly defended Shakur as a “fighter” saying in an interview that she had been “lynched by an all white jury.”
Aside from Assata Shakur, other activists that claimed they were targeted with political persecution in the United States also took refuge in Cuba, including political activist and rapper Nehanda Abiodun, accused of helping in Shakur’s prison break, among other charges. Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton also took refuge in Havana, though he later returned to the United States where he faced charges.
4. Fidel Castro Defended Jailed Journalist Mumia Abu Jamal
In the same 2000 speech in Harlem where he recalled visiting the neighborhood in 1960, Fidel Castro also gave a nod to the fight for freedom for jailed Black journalist and activist Mumia Abu Jamal, found guilty and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia Abu Jamal has long maintained his innocence and continues to serve life in prison without parole while suffering a deterioration in his health.
“I know that you have been engaged for a while in a very just struggle, a struggle that our people fully support as well,” Fidel told his audience in Harlem in 2000. “The struggle for freedom for journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, condemned to death, whose unjust sentence has raised a huge movement of public opinion worldwide.”
Fidel continued: “It’s not a disgrace to be poor, it’s not a disgrace that some kids or teenagers can commit a failure, the disgrace is that in this century now beginning, with all the technical advances … there are children, teenagers, citizens in our planet living in marginalization.”
5. Fidel’s Cuba Offered Aid to Hurricane Katrina Victims
In the wake of the 2005 strike of Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately affected African-Americans in a way that laid bare structural racism, Fidel Castro pledged to send some 1,600 medics and field hospitals together with over 80 tons of medical supplies to the United States — an offer for help that Washington rejected.
“It was clear to us that those who faced the greatest danger were these huge numbers of poor, desperate people, many elderly citizens with health situations, pregnant women, mothers and children among them, all in urgent need of medical care,” Fidel Castro said in a 2005 address to medical professionals assembled in Havana and willing to participate in the emergency relief effort. He added that “regardless of how rich a country may be,” well-trained health professionals are what’s needed in such times of crisis.
“Perhaps those unaware of our people’s sense of honor and spirit of solidarity thought this was some kind of bluff or a ridiculous exaggeration,” he continued, gesturing toward the State Department’s rebuff of the aid offer. “But our country never toys with matters as serious as this, and it has never dishonored itself with demagogy or deceit.”
Despite the U.S. economic blockade that had by 2005 already crippled Cuba for decades, Fidel Castro still extended a hand to a people in need of a gesture seen as showing solidarity with Black communities. In its latest statement, the Black Lives Matter movement highlight the move.
“We are indebted to Fidel,” the movement wrote, “for … attempting to support Black people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when our government left us to die on rooftops and in floodwaters.”