Africa’s Influence on the Civil Rights Movement
One of the lesser discussed aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is how some of the leaders of the African American struggle of that era were influenced by the independence struggles that were being fought in Africa. Although there has been relatively little attention given to this connection, the connection was very significant and demonstrated the extent to which the struggles of African Americans in the 1960s was part of a larger global Pan-African struggle for liberation.
When Ghana became independent in 1957, Martin Luther King was among those who were invited to attend the independence day celebration. During this occasion, King was also invited to have lunch with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. Attending the independence celebration had a profound effect on King, who was very eager to share his experiences in Ghana. In one of his sermons King recounted Ghana’s struggle for independence. King explained that he was moved to tears by the experience.
And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.
King was paying attention to the liberation struggles that were being fought in Africa and he saw a connection between the two struggles. In his very last speech, King explained:
The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”
King expressed this connection in a more direct way during the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference, in which King stated: “Colonialism and segregation are nearly synonymous … because their common end is economic exploitation, political domination, and the debasing of human personality.” King also found that African leaders shared the same view as well. After visiting Nigeria in 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe, King stated:
I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence. They are familiar with it and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.
King particularly saw similarities between the African American struggle and the struggle in South Africa. During a 1964 speech in London, King stated:
I understand there are here tonight South Africans, some of whom have been involved in the long struggle for freedom there. In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and difficult, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We have honored Chief Lutuli for his leadership, and we know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings at Sharpeville and all that has happened since.
Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind the South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters. We can speak to the press. We can, in short, organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa, even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.
Today, great leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, are among the many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison. Against a massive, armed and ruthless state, which uses torture and sadistic forms of interrogation to crush human beings, even driving some to suicide, the militant opposition inside South Africa seems for the moment to be silenced. The mass of the people seems to be contained, seems for the moment unable to break from the oppression. I emphasize the word “seems” because we can imagine what emotions and plans must be seething below the calm surface of that prosperous police state. We know what emotions are seething in the rest of Africa, and indeed all over the world. The dangers of a race war, of these dangers we have had repeated and profound warning.
Malcolm X was much more connected to the struggles that were being fought on the African continent. In fact, Malcolm explained that Africa’s independence was one of the reasons why the Nation of Islam’s membership expanded so rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. In a speech which was given after Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, he explained: “One of the things that made the ‘Black Muslim’ movement grow was its emphasis upon things African. This was the secret to the growth of the ‘Black Muslim’ movement. African blood, African origin, African culture, African ties. And you’d be surprised, we discovered that deep within the subconscious of the Black man in this country, he’s still more African than he is American.”
Malcolm was particularly influenced by the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya. Malcolm felt that the Nation of Islam should adopt some of the tactics that the Mau Mau used in their fight to liberate Kenya from British colonialism. Malcolm also believed that an African American version of the Mau Mau could wipe out the KKK.
The Mau Mau was just one of the many nationalists struggles in Africa that Malcolm was influenced by. Malcolm, who was also a Black Nationalist, argued that African Americans should adopt nationalism because nationalism was what brought about independence for numerous countries across Africa.
Malcolm was also very vocal about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and America’s role in destabilizing the Congo. This is a topic that Malcolm spoke about very often, including at his debate at Oxford. Malcolm explained that there was a direct connection between the African American struggle and the Congolese struggle: “As long as we think — as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago — that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.”
Malcolm met with several African leaders and discussed the plight of African Americans with them. Malcolm was very encouraged by the support that those African leaders offered. Malcolm found particular support from President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Nyerere urged other African leaders to pass a resolution in support of the African American struggle. The passage of this resolution alarmed the American government. Malcolm would also befriend Abdulrahman Babu, who was a political revolutionary from Tanzania. Azaria Mbughuni explained their friendship as follows:
The growing friendship between Babu and Malcolm was not just a connection between two people, it was a linkage between Africa and the diaspora; it was reassertion of a long connection between African people in Africa and people of African descent in the struggle for freedom and human dignity outside Africa. It was the connections between Africa and the diaspora in the struggle against racial discrimination and imperialism that made Malcolm’s new mission much more dangerous to the U.S. government.
Apart from the influence that African independence had on King and Malcolm, African independence impacted the civil rights movement in other ways as well. Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) explained that it became a great political embarrassment for the United States when the diplomats from independent African nations were being denied service at segregated restaurants, so the State Department stepped in and told these segregated restaurants to make exceptions for the African diplomats. Kwame Ture, who was a college student at the time, took advantage of this by dressing up in African clothing and ordering food from these segregated restaurants.
Africa’s independence had helped to weaken segregation in America. This is an observation which King made as well. Ghana’s Minister of Finance Komla Gbedemah was denied service at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. President Dwight Eisenhower personally apologized to Gbedemah, whom Eisenhower also invited to the White House. King wrote to Gbedemah, explaining:
I am also sorry that you faced such a humiliating experience in our country. But in spite of the odious effects of that experience, I think it helped in the sense that it served to dramatize the absurdity of the whole system of segregation. The fact that the President hastily invited you to the White House reveals that America is now more sensitive to the rolling tide of world opinion than ever before.
Kwame Ture, who was born in Trinidad, became a very prominent leader in the civil rights movement. This included serving as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marching alongside King in the March Against Fear. Ture later relocated to Guinea, which was led by President Sekou Toure at the time. Nkrumah was also living in Guinea at the time, after having been overthrown in Ghana as the result of an American supported coup. Ture changed his name from Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture in honor of Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Ture recalled that he could not speak very much French when he first moved to Guinea, but he never felt excluded by the people there.
Ture was not the only African from the diaspora to move to Africa following African independence. For some, Africa offered refuge that was denied in the United States. Robert F. Williams lived in exile in Tanzania for some time while attempting to escape kidnapping charges. Pete O’Neal also moved to Tanzania to escape facing charges in the United States and Tanzania is where Geronimo Pratt spent the rest of his life after being released from prison after serving 27 years for a crime he did not commit.
The connection between the African independence and the civil rights movement is much too lengthy to fully address in this short article, but the point to be made is that it was no mere coincidence that the civil rights movement and the decolonization of Africa coincided with each other. The civil rights movement was influenced by the African liberation struggle. Of course, the African liberation struggle was itself influenced by movements and individuals from the diaspora, which is a topic for another time.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.