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Looking back into the future: Civil Rights and Pan-Africanism in a “marginalised” world

By Kafui O. Tsekpo:

www.indiewire

Introduction

Equality at all levels of human endeavour is important for the progress of the human race. In this article, I will deviate from what has been the norm, “hero worshipping” of individuals whose sacrifice of time, energy and intellectual prowess helped to start and flame up Pan-Africanism and the Civil rights movement and the achievements it managed to chalk during the period of the struggles. Rather, this piece will attempt to bring to the fore the problems of society which these two movements sought to eradicate.

The Two movements: Civil Rights and Pan-Africanism

There is a symbiotic relationship between Pan-Africanism and civil rights in America. According to Salma Maoulidi, Pan-Africanism gave rise to the civil rights movement in the US and to independence and anti-imperialist movements in Africa.[i] Pan-Africanism had its origins as a movement of intellectual protest against ill-treatment of blacks all over the world.  It was initiated by the blacks of America and the West Indies whose ancestors came from Africa.[ii]  Martin defines Pan-Africanism as “the attempts by African peoples to link up their struggles with their kindred and compatriots in the Americas and around the world for their mutual benefit.” Shepperson states “Pan-Africanism was a gift of the New World of America to the Old World of Africa.”[iii] It was an expression of the feelings of the people of African descent regarding their condition of helplessness and degradation. It was a movement created because black people across the world were tired of having the ‘slave’ mentality that had been ingrained in them for decades. The movement was created because, they decided they were better than how they were treated, and if they stuck together they knew that they could change to world.

In the view of Marah, the Pan-African movement was an “emotional, cultural, psychological and ideological movement that began among the African Diaspora in the Western hemisphere, for a closer purpose, so that African people could feel secure, attain political, economic as well as psychological power vis-à-vis other races or world regions.”[iv] Pan-Africanism advocated the commonness and unity of Africans and people of African descent, seemingly oblivious to Africa’s rich cultural vastness and diversity and its huge potential of forging a humane world order yet to be unleashed. Early pioneers moved to reclaim the dignity of the African, instil pride in being African and forge an African identify from a shared culture. At the outset, therefore, Pan-Africanism is grounded in an ideology of resistance from colonial and European domination. According to Maouldi:

“At inception, Pan-Africanism was tied to strong intellectual, labour and other social movements e.g. student movements, revolutionary movements and literary movements. Pan-Africanism was a central thesis in their advocacy for equality and the end to injustice of all forms. Political agitation for the rights of black people was going on simultaneously both in America and in the continent calling for the end of oppression of black people.”[v]

Similarly, the civil rights movement in America has its origins in the centuries-long efforts of African slaves and their descendants to resist oppression, racial discrimination and abolishing of the institution of slavery right from the Atlantic Ocean, through the plantations to the independent states of America. The civil rights movement in America was a mass protest movement against racial segregation and discrimination in the southern United States that came to national prominence during the mid-1950s. In essence it was a movement of African ‘Black’ Americans to ‘fight’ for their right to equality, to be recognised in body and mind as having the same God-given abilities, and to exercise their inalienable rights as humans and citizens of America. This is succinctly summed up by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter written from the jail in Birmingham “We have waited more than 340 years to exercise our constitutional and God given rights.”[vi]

Both movements aimed to champion the African ‘black’ race, bridging the gap that has been created by imperial domination of the world and to create a world order where all persons are treated and respected on equal terms and joined forces together to make the world a better place for all. Today, though one cannot conclusively say America is free from the injustices that were fought for in the Civil Rights Movement, the movement nonetheless made a significant impact on American society culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned all forms of discrimination in America, at least on paper.

The early roots of Pan-Africanism demonstrate a strong kinship between Africans in the Diaspora and continental Africa. Indeed, the movement was birthed and spearheaded in the Caribbean and in the United States predominantly by intellectuals advocating for the dignity of Africans. The Pan-Africanist movement which originally was populated by the Caribbeans and African-Americans started to gain prominence among the Africans in the Diaspora and on the continent. Pioneers like Henry Sylvester Williams from Trinidad organised the first Pan-African Conference in London. Edward W. Blyden W.E.B. Du Bois one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), sponsored the Pan-African Congress of 1921, 1923 and 1927, Martin Delany developed the re-emigration scheme which was later taken up by Marcus Garvey, the founder of a nationalist movement – the Universal Negro Improvement Association – which promoted black pride and advocated for repatriation to Africa.

It is also not surprising that the origins of the movement in the continent are tied to an elite class, part of which was resettled Diaspora in West Africa, led by activists like S. L. Akintola of Nigeria or Wallace Johnson from Sierra Leone[vii]. Wallace Johnson for instance was noted for his fierce criticism of the British Colonial administration in West Africa. Most importantly the conference highlighted the ills of imperial domination of Africa:

“European presence in Africa had resulted in regression of indigenous democratic political systems had been replaced by autocracy; constitutional reforms which in reality led to continued Africans’ enslavement; indirect rule and assimilation was an instrument of oppression and encroached on the rights of Africans and their rulers; European-imposed artificial boundaries that obstructed effective state formation. On the economic front, Europeans were systematically exploiting African resources, Africa’s unique forms of industrialisation had been obstructed by the imperialist powers with standard of living fallen below subsistence levels; land and mineral rights of the people were alienated; there was no freedom to form independent trade unions and co-operatives to advance their interest; the one-crop export oriented economy was in the hands of the European merchants and financial capital beyond the control of the government Africans.”[viii]

Most nationalists on the African continent were at different stages in their struggle against colonialism and its ills introduced and inducted to Pan-African ideology. At the Pan-African conference held in Manchester, prominent Africans such as Jomo Kenyattaand Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana as secretaries and organisers respectively; others, such as Julius Nyerere, were in attendance. The conference impacted positively on the African caucus that was attended mainly by students studying in Europe and America. It implanted the Pan-African ideology in them, converting them into “willing disciples” who saw the usefulness of the ideology in their self-understanding and appreciation of the ills that dominated society and the need for Africa to be liberated from the imperial domination by the West. Personalities like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Dr Hasting Banda -Malawi, Obafemi Awolowo (Nigeria), Ibrahim Garba-Jahumpa – Gambia, Jaja Wachuku – Nigeria and Ako Adjei and Joe Appiah of Ghana among others came back to lead their respective countries’ struggles for independence or served in various capacities in the post-independence government as well as becoming leading advocates for the total liberation of the African continent and its people from imperial domination; colonialism and apartheid.

The rise of independent Africa accelerated the momentum of the civil right movement in America. It underpinned the decision of many young civil rights activists in the U.S. to take charge of the destiny of the movement by substituting the white liberals who were holding back the movement. With organized labour controlled by racist bureaucrats, and the socialist left small and weak, nationalism seemed a viable alternative for black radicals such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture). They travelled to Africa to meet with leaders of newly independent nations and anti-colonial movements. Activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) read the words of the Black Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon as a guide to action. By the mid-1960s, Black Nationalism had swept through the United States; behind the slogan of Black Power.[ix]

Pan-Africanism as an ideology is concerned with promoting the African race, culture, potentials and achievements. It is concerned with creating an equal and just society where every person is able to live a meaningful life and no one or race is supreme. Celebrated writers and champions of the Pan-African course such as Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), Franz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth), Nkrumah’s (Africa Must Unite), and many literary pieces by Du Bois, Padmore, Garvey among others were all attempts to reconstruct and explain global relationships from a African perspective.[x] All the while, it is also sending a message to the world of the need to break away from the imperialist/capitalist domination of the world that only seeks to divide society and crate enmity amongst humanity.

Conclusion

It is imperative to note that the injustices of racial discrimination, inequality and slavery among others that gave rise to the movements of Pan Africanism and civil rights are still rife is our societies today. They are manifested in forced labour, low wages in factories and offices, inequality on the basis of sex and colour, hunger and starvation as result of greed exhibited among a minority few, and xenophobic attacks and the like that are flaunted daily before our eyes on our screens and streets. Considering that the existing world order continues to create segregation between the rich and the poor, man and woman and among persons with various ethnic backgrounds, one may not be very far from right to describe the existing order as inhumane and a scar on societal consciousness. The commemoration of Black history month, must challenge us as a people to rigorously think about the kind of legacy the current world order is charting and how we can contribute in turning around the current tide in tune with objectives of the two movements. We must be guided by the spirit of the Civil Rights and the Pan-African movement to tackle the root causes of this unfolding legacy. The youth of Africa must be challenged and inspired by this, and lead the charge towards creating a better future grounded in Pan-African ideas.

 

________________

This is an excerpt of a speech given on behalf of the ALC at a dinner to commemorate Black History Month organised by the African Heritage Association (AHA), which is affiliated with the 1000th Air Refuelling Wing (ARW) of United States Army, RAF Mildenhall. Cambridge, England.

Kafui O. Tsekpo is a Leadership, Security and Society Fellow with the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London. He is a young Africanist scholar whose primary research focuses on issues in African Development.

 

NOTES

[i] Maouldi, 2009 Contemporary Africa and Pan-Africanism http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/55476. Retrieved on 07/02/14.
[ii] ibid.
[iii] George Shepperson, Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 8 [1986], Art. 5
[iv] John K. Marah. African People in the Global Village, An introduction to Pan-African Studies. University Press of America, 1998
[v] See Maouldi, 2009 Contemporary Africa and Pan-Africanism http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/55476. With emphasis Retrieved on 07/02/14.
[vi] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with emphasis.
[vii] See Maouldi, 2009 Contemporary Africa and Pan-Africanism http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/55476. retrieve d on 07/02/14
[viii] See http://www.youthcouncil-namibia.org/docs/5thPANC.pdf
[ix] See http://socialistworker.org/2012/10/05/origins-of-pan-africanism
[x] See Maouldi, 2009 Contemporary Africa and Pan-Africanism http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/55476. retrieve d on 07/02/14

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2 thoughts on “Looking back into the future: Civil Rights and Pan-Africanism in a “marginalised” world

  1. Pingback: Pan-Africanism Revisited | Moorbey'z Blog

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