LONDON — A trip from Gatwick Airport to London’s central city is visible confirmation that national entities are no longer restricted to imaginary geographical boundaries.
Among the United States-based businesses passed en route: T.G.I. Friday’s, Pizza Hut, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Nike, a Chevrolet dealership, KFC, Hilton Hotel, Hyatt Hotel, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Blockbuster.
But the leading U.S. import for blacks living in the United Kingdom is the modern civil rights movement.
That was repeatedly made clear during a recent trip abroad, as an American delegation accompanied the Rev. Jesse Jackson to London, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham and Liverpool.
Everywhere he went in the U.K., the civil rights leader was treated more like Michael Jackson than Jesse Jackson — he was hounded by people seeking autographs, photos or simply a peek at the former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During a stop at a local community center, for example, dozens of people lingered for more than an hour after Jackson’s speech, ignoring repeated appeals from organizers to vacate the building.
They weren’t the only people waiting — there was intense media interest in interviewing Jackson. And he accommodated journalists, sometimes doing three or four back-to-back interviews.
“Barack Obama will be America’s next president,” Jackson told reporters. “He stands on the shoulders of many well-known and yet nameless and faceless freedom fighters who made this day possible.”
While some African Americans suffer through what could be called “Jesse fatigue” after watching him on the national stage for more than four decades, Jackson is often treated like a head of state when traveling abroad. And when he interacts with blacks, he gets rock-star treatment.
Karen Chouhan, the organizer of Jackson’s trip to England, said Americans underestimate the impact of the civil rights movement abroad.
“We see the example in the U.S. of the civil rights movement, a struggle that has taken over 40 years, from when black people had no right to vote to a black president today,” said Chouhan, head of Equanomics, a London-based organization that seeks economic parity for people of color. “It gives us hope that we can achieve the same thing.”
Some activists here see a parallel between the plight of African Americans in the U.S. and blacks in Britain.
“In the London mayoral election, the person who became the mayor was known for having called black people ‘piccaninnies’ and saying they had ‘watermelon smiles,’” recalled Chouhan. “Yet, he was still elected mayor of London. That’s incredible in a city with a black population of 38 percent. He appealed to whites in the suburbs and that’s why he got elected.
“We can’t let that happen again. We must use our voting power and our economic power to much greater effect.”
Blacks here flock to Jackson in part because he remains King’s most visible political heir.
At virtually every stop, he was asked whether a Barack Obama-like figure could become prime minister of Britain. Jackson flipped the question, asking if white voters here had matured enough to elect a qualified person of color. At that point, reporters usually shifted to another topic.
As Jackson acknowledges, he is not the first African American to become involved in international affairs.
Others that predate him include W.E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Dr. King.
But the combination of the civil rights protest model, widely copied by other groups seeking to empower their communities, and the election of Obama on Nov. 4 have arguably made Jesse Jackson more popular abroad than he is at home.
Each time he was introduced during the weeklong trip, the civil rights movement or Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, or both, were credited with paving the way for Obama’s victory.
Without prompting, people were eager to discuss President-elect Obama.
“We’re all excited about Obama,” my driver, Renford Carr, told me on the trip from the airport. He jokingly asked, “Is it true that they are going to call the White House the Black House?”
Chouhan says she, too, is excited.
“It has given us permission to aspire, to hope that we can do that too,” she said. “The message of change, hope and equality is what we want to pick up. We already have change, we already have hope, but we don’t have equality. That’s what we want to accomplish.”
Obama’s victory has sparked calls for stronger ties among black people around the world.
“If we can join hands across the water with the U.S., and if we can join hands in Europe and with Africa, that’s the internationalization of the movement that we need,” said Chouhan. “It increases our clout. Together, we’re stronger, and Rev. Jackson is making that possible for us.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach.