How Steel Sharpened Steel: The Connection Between the Civil Rights Movement and African Independence Movements
In the center of Nairobi, Kenya, there’s a street with dozens of shops that sell school uniforms and household goods. The street, which also has a few restaurants, is well known, as it crosses through one of the main stages for matatus (micro-buses) that run through the city. The street’s name is Dubois Road.
On the other side of Africa, in Ghana, the illustrious W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre also bears the name of the great Black American intellectual.
At Lincoln University, the oldest historically Black college in America — located in southeastern Pennsylvania — one of the buildings just past the front gate is Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall, named after Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. Both are among the alumni.
All across Africa, on the backs of buses and other forms of transportation, you’ll see pictures of Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. And what makes this important is that they are not simply a coincidence.
One of the most dynamic periods in African history was during the 1950s and 1960s, when many African nations achieved independence from the European colonial powers. In 1957, Ghana gained its independence from Britain and was soon followed by 17 other African nations in 1960 and numerous others in the following years. Independence leaders such as Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Toure and other figures were influential in developing the political and cultural structure to make independence a reality.
Interestingly enough, one of the most dynamic periods in Black American history was in the 1950s and 1960s, in what is commonly known as the Civil Rights Era. During this time, Black Americans began to further assert their rights — not just their American rights but also human rights — as citizens of the world.
What should be known is that these two movements were not completely separated, nor were the ideas and strategies implemented independent of one another. By the 1950s, many Africans began to take advantage of the opportunity to study in the United States. And due to the racial nature of American society during that era, most students attended historically Black colleges and universities. As noted, Lincoln University boasts two African presidents as alumni, and other HBCUs during that era had numerous students from across the continent.
The development and change which occurred in Africa and America were contemporary movements, and their collective success were viewed as such. The African leaders and people were very much influenced by their experiences in America — at HBCUs and their time spent living, talking and learning among Black American activists and thinkers. Nkrumah was so much influenced by his time in America that he would name Ghana’s football team, the Black Stars, after the shipping line company started by Marcus Garvey. During the 50s and 60s, and in the subsequent independence era, a number of Black Americans were invited to Africa to give advice on overcoming the colonial system. Independence leaders recognized the benefit of American ideas and saw Black Americans as natural allies to their nations.
The contribution of DuBois was invaluable in that he offered a scholarly critique of colonialism at the United Nations, and he offered advice and regular feedback to African independence leaders in their nascent years. His assistance would be rewarded in the latter years of his life as he relocated to Ghana, where he would serve as a personal adviser to Nkrumah until his death.
And it was from the spirit of the African independence movements that many Black American leaders began to envision their own struggle for human rights in America. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Ghana’s independence ceremony and went on to note, “This event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions — not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America. … It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”
In addition to King, other figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunch, Horace Mann Bond and others traveled to Ghana for the ceremony. During this era, many American government leaders began to view the Civil Rights Movement with greater suspicion and actively began to monitor its leaders and their international ties.
In the late 1950s, Malcolm X would go on a fact-finding mission on behalf of Elijah Muhammad but would make his more-important and ultimately influential trip to Africa in 1964 upon leaving the Nation of Islam. It was during this trip to Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Liberia, Egypt, Algeria, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika) and Guinea that Malcolm begin to further refine his position on race and the struggle for Black Americans. Malcolm X noted that in Africa, the people were able to achieve a higher level of independence and freedom than in America, “which is supposed to be the citadel of freedom.”
It was during his trip to Africa and the support he received from leaders such as Nkrumah, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Ben Bella and others that he formulated his ideas to take the case of African-Americans to the United Nations.
Malcolm’s trips to Africa were the impetus to transform his challenge to America’s treatment of Black Americans as not just an issue of civil rights but one of human rights. He noted how the atrocities committed in Africa, Hungary, Latin America, the Congo and among the Jewish people of the Soviet Union were brought before the United Nations, yet the problems of the Black American were relegated to the United States. Many observers have identified this shift in Malcolm’s strategy actually made him a bigger threat to the global influence of the American government, and quite possibly led to his untimely death.
Nelson Mandela served as a symbol of the fight against oppression not just across Africa but also in America. Many Black leaders looked toward his fight against apartheid and his imprisonment as part of the wider struggle against global oppression. Many American universities, both Black and white, initiated campaigns to call for democracy in South Africa and an economic embargo to bring about a change. Malcolm X referenced the struggle of South Africa’s Black majority in the 1960s, and in later years Mandela would have a cameo role at the end of Spike Lee’s film “X.”
In the 1970s, Black Panther leader Stokely Carmicheal (Kwame Toure) relocated to West Africa and married Mariam Makeba. There, he became an advisor to the Guinean president Ahmed Sekou Toure and remained in Africa for the rest of his life. In the 1970s a number of other Black Panthers moved to various parts of Africa for fear of persecution due to animosity with the American judicial system. Upon the overturn of a faulty conviction, Geronimo Pratt decided to move to Tanzania where he remained until his death in 2011.
The collective efforts of W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Nelson Mandela as well as other HBCUs, organizations in Africa and America and hundreds of thousands of individuals contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the African independence movements. When we look at the following years, in which Black Americans and Africans began to attend “traditional” universities in America — resulting in less interaction between African and Black American leadership — we simply don’t see the same level of progress and development on either side.
There’s a well-known saying that “steel sharpens steel.” The idea implies that strong people moving in a positive direction, will assist, advise and strengthen other people moving in a similar direction. As we collectively forge ahead, the collaboration between Africans and Black Americans will be essential in developing a more sustainable and brighter future on both continents.
And when we look at the past, the present and the future, we can note many potential benefits in the areas of education, investment, ideals and political development. Thus, establishing formal links for a greater vision will be paramount. It has happened in the past, and it must happen in the future.