Martin Luther King and the Spirit of Pan-Africanism

January 21, 2019

Last January, I had the pleasure of traveling through the Republic of Ghana. On January 10, a colleague and I—along with our students—spent time in Accra visiting the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, which is a site dedicated to Ghana’s first leader. Being on the same grounds in which Nkrumah gave his famous Independence Day speech on March 6, 1957, caused me to think about what I had read recently in Kevin Gaines’ American Africans in Ghana. In his introduction, Gaines lists a few prominent African Americans present at Ghana’s first Independence Day celebration; one of those African Americans was a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Five days after our visit to the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, my colleague shared with us a sermon that Martin Luther King preached on April 7, 1957, called “The Birth of a New Nation” that highlighted what he observed about Ghana’s independence from colonial rule. Without a doubt King’s trip to Ghana was transformative and impactful. During this time of year when Americans focus on the life, words, and work of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, they feed themselves on the regular diet of “dream” and “mountain top.” All of this is fine, but King was more than a mere Civil Rights leader. His presence in Accra draws attention to the fact that King was a Pan-Africanist on some level. Gaines asserts that King’s Pan-Africanism was “pragmatic.” He was a Pan-Africanist as it served the end of African American freedom. Yet King saw that the African American freedom struggle was connected to the independence struggles on the continent of Africa. African Americans could draw inspiration and principles from movements in Africa.

Why was King in Accra? In part, it was because of Kwame Nkrumah. In addition, it was because of the Black expatriate community already in Accra. Considering Nkrumah is considering the larger context. Before Kwame Nkrumah became the Prime Minister of an independent Ghana in 1957, he had spent ten years in the United States from 1935-1945 attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and the University of Pennsylvania. While in the U.S., Nkrumah learned about the struggles of African Americans. He was part of African American communities in Philadelphia and in New York City. As a licensed Presbyterian preacher, he preached in African American Presbyterian churches. He also read the works of the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who had led one of the largest mass movements in African American history. Nkrumah also read the works of W. E. B. DuBois, who had been the long-time editor of The Crisis, which was the widely read organ of the NAACP. During this period, Nkrumah also met and became friends with the Trinidadian-born C. L. R. James. Through these influences—especially James’ friendship—Nkrumah developed his Pan-Africanist ideals of solidarity among all people of African-descent and the political liberation of these people in Africa, the Americas, and in Europe. After a stay in England from 1945-1947, Nkrumah returned the Gold Coast (Ghana’s colonial name) and led a mass movement to overthrow British colonial rule there during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Because of Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism and his welcoming spirit toward all African-descended people, numbers of African Americans began to trickle into Ghana during the 1950s. The more immediate reason King was in Ghana on its Independence Day was at the behest of African American expatriate Bill Sutherland. He desired King to meet with Nkrumah as the latter did have an interest in building of network of liberationist throughout the African Diaspora. In addition, Nkrumah believed that African-descended people had a place in building Ghana. Furthermore, Sutherland saw similarities between King and Nkrumah: both were visionary leaders of mass movements. According to Gaines, both men de-emphasized more radical thought and vision for something more moderate in line with what the people they represented held to. King and Nkrumah both harbored more socialist ideals for their respective societies than what they articulated publicly.

Why is King’s presence in Accra on March 6, 1957 important? It revealed something critical about the American Civil Rights movement—especially the King-led movement only two years removed from the Montgomery Bus Protest. The influence of King’s presence at Accra was found in his sermon given at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a month later. In this sermon, King evoked not only the powerful Exodus imagery to draw his congregation’s thinking on Ghana’s independence, but also their own freedom that they struggled to attain in Jim Crow Alabama. King took the opportunity to educate his congregation on the history of the Gold Coast, commenting on the injustice of British colonialism. At this point, King began to articulate the deep-seated and even natural desire of every human being to be free—even the ancient Hebrews under Egyptian bondage as they were led out of that bondage by Moses. Then King jumps forward and recites the history of Kwame Nkrumah, a Moses figure as it were. The similarities King drew between Moses and Nkrumah are striking: both men left their native land, spent years in a foreign land, and both returned to lead their people out of bondage into the light of liberation. One important application King left with his Dexter Avenue congregation that Sunday was this:

Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire. Freedom is never given to anybody. For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up. And that is where the strong resistance comes. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.

This is a timeless principle for any people under oppression, and it was one of the key principles that guided the King-led movement until King’s assassination in April 1968.

King’s visit to Ghana and his observations on Ghanaian independence serves to help us understand that the American Civil Rights movement must be understood in context with anti-colonial struggles during this period. For King, African Americans had a blueprint for their struggle. All they had to do was look to Ghana, and other parts of Africa struggling for freedom against the last stages of European colonialism. King’s vision for freedom was never parochial; he rooted it in the biblical story of redemption found in the Exodus account. Through the study of African history, African Americans have a deep reservoir to draw from to gain insight into overcoming the oppressor. No movement or its outcome is perfect. King’s sermon should motivate further study of the history of African anti-colonial movements in places like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. More so than studying Africa’s history, King is an example of someone who traveled to an African country to witness the unraveling of history. For African Americans, this is of critical importance: Africa awaits! Travel there, experience the culture of an African country, and return transformed and more informed.

About the Author
  • Eric Michael Washington is associate professor of History at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also directs the Africa and African Diaspora Studies Minor program. His research interests are African and African Diaspora intellectual and cultural history.

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