"Exploring the Parallels Between the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the African Liberation Movement,"by James Pope May/June 2010 issue of Poverty & Race
The history of African and African-American struggles for liberation interacting is as multiple and organic as its various manifestations—Negritude, Black Consciousness Movement, Black Arts Movement, to name a few. What these manifestations had in common was their desire to strengthen and unify all those of African descent. This desire was bolstered by institutional and individual attempts to solve what they saw as the problem of the 20th Century—“the problem of the color line,” in the iconic phrase of W.E.B. Du Bois. These movements’ central aim was to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world. Their struggle was against colonialism and the activities of imperialist powers in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
As racism evolves and mutates as a force of oppression, so do the means to resist it. In an effort to situate and contextualize the various instances of interaction, it becomes vital to highlight crucial moments of this interaction. In this, two interconnected strains of thought become visible. The first visible point of reference is encapsulated in the movement’s intellectual framework: The writings and speeches of the movement’s leaders illuminate the importance of African and African-American collaboration against a common enemy. Secondly, we can see attempts to institutionalize this framework. Thus, not only is it necessary to study the words and ideas of the movement’s personalities, a substantive analysis of the actualization of their words and ideas in the form of the institutions they created is also useful. This level of analysis upon the similarity of African and African-American liberation movements is necessary for future direction. This becomes especially incalculable as the mutation of racism comes of age in the 21st Century. In all of its complexity and radicalism, this investigation will provide the vital context and frame of reference in order to address disease, poverty and human rights abuses plaguing Africans and people of African descent across the globe.
The Council on African AffairsWith that, a brief look into one of the many attempts to institutionalize the idea of African and African-American liberation movement interaction offers a clear view of the foundations that have been laid that can undoubtedly inform future progress. Notwithstanding the Pan-African work by pioneers such as Henry Sylvester Williams and W.E.B. Du Bois, a continuation of their groundwork can be found in the formation of the Council on African Affairs-CAA (Du Bois was instrumental in the work of this organization). Founded in 1942, CAA quickly emerged as the principal voice of anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanism within the U.S., as well as abroad. Before becoming a casualty of the Cold War and anti-communist campaigns during the early 1950s, CAA served as the central point of interaction between Africans’ and African Americans’ struggles for liberation.
Paul Robeson served as Chairman during most of the CAA’s existence, while W.E.B. Du Bois served as Vice-Chair and headed the Africa Aid Committee. Alphaeus Hunton, Jr. was the organization’s Executive Director, editor of its publication, New Africa, and the force behind much of CAA’s activities and vision.
Despite its radical politics, in the early and mid 1940s CAA benefited from the support of a wide range of liberal activists and intellectuals, including E. Franklin Frazier, Mary McLeod Bethune and Rayford Logan. The support of these three liberals should not be taken for granted. This support indicated the pervasive appeal of the CAA’s program and messages —a vital component in building a movement over two continents and uniting various groups of people with assorted interests. The CAA was able to do this by articulating and promoting a fundamental linkage between the struggle of African Americans and the fate of colonized peoples in Africa as well as around the globe.
Among the various campaigns and methods used to solidify this notion, the CAA lobbied the federal government and the United Nations; lent material support to Indian independence activists and striking trade unionists in Nigeria; and established African famine relief initiatives. All of this was done, while illuminating the connection between their work and a larger critique of the structure of human relations under colonialism and capitalism. The most significant work of the CAA was with South Africa. It is here they provided support for striking miners as well as directed worldwide attention to the African National Congress’s struggle against apartheid.
Moreover, the CAA advocated the internationalization of the African-American struggle for civil rights, supported African liberation groups, as well as advocating a position of Non-Alignment toward the Cold War’s superpowers.
The CAA’s critique of American democracy and their drive to link African and African-American struggles, as well as many of the CAA leaders’ associations with the Communist Party, their opposition to racism, poverty, etc., had become politically unsustainable by the early 1950s. As a result, many liberal supporters abandoned the CAA. Additionally, the federal government cracked down on its operations and in 1953 the Council was charged with subversion under the McCarran Internal Security Act.
As a result, the CAA’s key leaders, including Robeson, Du Bois and Alphaeus Hunton, were subject to aggressive harassment, trumped-up indictments, and in the case of Hunton, imprisonment.
Finally, in 1955, under the tremendous weight of the federal government’s activities to dismantle and disconnect African Americans from collaborating with others engaged in struggles around the world, the Council on African Affairs disbanded. although the activities of CAA succumbed to government suppression, movements toward African and African-American liberation did not disappear. There were a number of movements toward collective liberation after 1955. Nevertheless, the historical record shows that there was a turning point, a clear increase in the efforts, desire and collective need to connect.
Turning Point: The Solidification of the Linkage of Liberation StrugglesAfter Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, the youth within the Civil Rights Movement became radicalized. Accordingly, there were instances such as The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) issuing a statement in January 1966 opposing the Vietnam War. With this, SNCC became the first major civil rights organization to explicitly call for the end of a war. The importance of this identifiable global perspective of the connection to the struggles of other people of color cannot be overlooked. Malcolm’s untimely assassination galvanized the movement.
Instances of African and African-American liberation movement interaction can be found within four points of ideological parallelism: 1) A broad similarity in the arguments and rationalizations of White supremacists. These similarities were based on the accepted idea that in both Africa and America, Black people were considered intellectually and morally inferior, incapable of self-government, and therefore unfit to vote, hold office and associate with Whites on the bases of equality; 2) Pan-Africanism, as an idea and a movement, was used as a frame of reference. Politically astute African Americans and Africans did not see themselves as simply engaged in isolated combat with their own particular sets of White oppressors; 3) A comparable sense of being a minority within White-dominated, multi-racial societies; 4) Comparable social and cultural position within the Black communities. When analysis is complete, all or some of these parallels are present. In addition to this, another similarity can be extracted: At the center of these movements of resistance and liberation were the youth.
Youth activism of today uses a different method of organization, but does face some of the similar obstacles. Today, although overt racist acts are not being carried out with the same regularity and arrogance of years past, overt forms are still very much identifiable. This seems to be especially true in areas of the U.S. still determined to hold on to oppressive conceptualizations of social constructs such as race and class. However, youth, in various ways, participate in many forms of resistance. These acts are in direct response to the evolved forms of racism that youth must contend with today.
A Brief Look at Youth Activism TodayHistorically, youth have responded to external forces in relation to their sense of self-worth and value. Given the realization of their internal identification with possibilities and self- worth, it is not the primary impetus in moving youth to action. Rather, it is the relationship to the larger systemic elements (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, nationality) that have created a climate of resistance.
Examining the historical record, it is clear that youth have participated in resistance movements all over the globe, from Tianmen Square to anti-war movements. This notion is especially true in reference to the African-American community, in particular during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
During this time, the issues of poverty, racism, war and sexism were taken up by young people. Within the African-American community, youth activism in schools, churches and civic organizations was celebrated. In many areas of social engagement, youth could be found on the front lines fighting for substantive change and justice. However, today, while the issues of poverty, racism, war and sexism have not disappeared from the national, state or local arenas, Black youth are seemingly silent when we compare their level of activism to their counterparts from the 1960s.
Are youth of today engaged? Have the gaps in inequality closed? Is there a need to organize resistance movements? These questions may be answered with the application of an innovative frame of reference that can offer an original perspective on contemporary forms of activism. The logic in this evolved examination will ultimately illuminate new forms of activism that may diverge from previous strategies utilized by youth. Moreover, this frame of reference will provide a fresh look at forms of resistance and create a holistic approach to address the evolutionary forms of inequalities and injustice.
Several factors must be included in this frame of reference. They are: 1) A conscious resistance to narrow definitions dictated by the majority-accepted perspectives of examining activism; 2) The role of technology and mass media; 3) The impact of racial integration; 4) The reduction from collective action to reliance upon individual rights; 5) The reduction in the emphasis of upon a racial consciousness and/or identity; 6) The generational disconnect from our elders; 7) The impact of globalization on culture; and 8) Greater influence of hip-hop on activism.
Points of Difference and CongruenceDuring the Civil Rights Movement, resistance programs responded to blatant racial oppression. Accordingly, this presented youth activism within the movement with clear goals. However, globalization, the notion of a post-racial America and an identifiable increase in Black socio-economic advancement has rendered racist inclinations as being latent. As a result, race is no longer the only variable to consider when developing resistance goals.
It may be argued that current platforms for youth resistance in the post-Civil Rights era reflect the greater climate of a misguided acceptance of the notion that “we have arrived”—a notion that is constructed on material conceptualizations of social status based upon the ability to engage in inordinate consumer-based excursions.
More precisely, integration has created a false notion of inclusion, with the perception that Black youth are reaping advantages from this new- found access to opportunity. This frame of reference has had deleterious effects on the need to organize and mobilize the community against a clearly defined enemy. In turn, the youth of today are deemed too afraid to take on the system and instead turn their frustrations towards other ends, a sort of coping mechanism that forces them to retreat within the comfort of living on the periphery of society.
Additionally, the Civil Rights Movement did not secure economic power for many in the Black community. Accordingly, a class divide was created between those with access to education and political capital and those without.
Abject poverty and a dire lack of resources remain a constant. Interestingly enough, youth of today are disproportionally impacted by the inequities of poverty. As a result of the above—a large portion of the youth, today, simply cannot relate to the plight of other Blacks—these are the masses of Black people who live in poverty.
The rise of the media and growing dependency on technology has shifted the resistance strategies utilized by African-American youth. For instance, the protest music of the 60s and 70s evolved into hip-hop, which then shifted into the negativities of “gansta rap” and more recently a market-driven “pop” rap. Due to corporate-controlled media and the proliferation of technological advancements, progressive youth are found in what is called the “underground.”
Today’s youth may not see voting as a tool of resistance. Many question whether it is worthwhile. Their logic finds root in the notion that voting in a system that is antagonistic and oppressive to the minorities—especially with youth—can be counter-productive. While many suggest that the logic for voting is located in the fact that Black people have not adequately been at the tables of power, voting for inclusion becomes essential. However, the counter-argument is that once we get there, we lose sight of the goal, mission and vision of what got them there in the first place. All of these instances of difference and congruence contribute to the dilemmas as well as potential power of youth activism.
James Pope is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Howard Univ., where he also teaches a variety of courses, and a Research Affiliate at Trans-Africa Forum (www.transafricaforum.org), where this article originally appeared, and is reprinted with permission. A copy of the original, with copious documentation, is available on their website. j_amespope@yahoo. com
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