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READ: Connecting Decolonization in Africa and the US Civil Rights Movement

African Americans and Africans created links to support each other in the struggles against colonialism and racial oppression.

Connecting Decolonization in Africa and the US Civil Rights Movement

Black and white photo of a crowd holding signs and surrounding a podium that Ghana President Kwame Nkruma is speaking from.
By Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch
African Americans and Africans created links to support each other in the struggles against colonialism and racial oppression.

Liberation and inspiration

The civil rights movement in the United States was not just a few brief events. It included the centuries-long struggles of African Americans for civil liberties and racial equality. Those efforts reached a peak in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, decolonization was developing across many territories on the African continent. Africans were fighting to gain freedom and independence from European colonial rule. The two struggles mirrored each other. Many Africans and many African Americans in this period embraced the idea that Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world had shared histories of racial oppression and oppression. Those historical bonds produced a spirit of racial solidarity.
In 1957, Ghana was established as the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from British colonial rule. Naturally, the West African nation’s independence served as a beacon for Black freedom across the African continent and the African diaspora. (A diaspora is a group of people who have been dispersed to places outside of their homeland.) It inspired African Americans and motivated their efforts in the civil rights movement. In fact, African Americans’ relationships with Africa had been shifting since the 1930s and 1940s. However, the 1950s and 1960s would bring a watershed moment. The North African nations of Egypt and Sudan gained independence in 1952 and 1956, respectively, before sub-Saharan African countries. Ghana gained independence the following year, as did Nigeria in 1960 and Tanzania in 1961. With these exciting developments, African Americans began to see their struggle for racial liberation in more international terms. They connected their own fight for civil rights in the United States with the independence movements that were sweeping Africa and other parts of the world. Each victorious rebellion against colonialism in Africa directly influenced the civil rights movement. Each seemed to guarantee the future successes of the civil rights movement. Thus, the collapse of colonialism across the African continent brought together the plight of Africans and African Americans.
Black and white photo of four men, including Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, standing on a stage.
Black and white photo of two men, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar, seated on a ornate couch.
Nkrumah meeting Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1966. © Getty Images.

African diaspora visions: Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X

Many of the leaders of independent African nations were inspired by the common struggles of their brethren in other parts of the world, particularly the United States. Several Africans who would become leaders of independent African States had studied in the United States at historically Black colleges and universities in the 1930s and 1940s. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister, was among them. During his studies at Lincoln University, Nkrumah’s political activism and experiences in Harlem and other communities strengthened his understanding of the oppressive conditions experienced by African Americans.
Nkrumah came to view the condition of African Americans as part of the larger African diaspora and global human rights battle. He called for Pan-African unity—the unity of people of African descent everywhere—through his activism in the United States and the United Kingdom. He returned home in 1947 and became the central figure in the fight for his country’s independence. By the early 1950s, Kwame Nkrumah and his political party—the Convention People’s Party—were challenging British colonial masters, paving the way for the independence in 1957.
Kwame Nkrumah invited many African Americans to join Ghana’s independence celebrations. When Martin Luther King Jr. and several other African American leaders made the pilgrimage to Ghana, the country’s independence took on greater significance for the civil rights movement. King was, of course, a central figure and spokesperson for the civil rights movement in the United States. He championed the philosophy of non-violent resistance against racial oppression, an approach that Kwame Nkrumah also embraced. The celebrations strengthened his belief that the roots of racism in America and the roots of political oppression in Africa were both planted in European colonialism. He understood that Ghana’s independence would provide inspiration for oppressed people around the world. King and other leaders left Ghana with a renewed sense of pride that revitalized their commitment to the struggles in America.
Black and white photo of Martin Luther King Jr. being fingerprinted by a police officer.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. being fingerprinted by police after his arrest during the Montgomery bus boycott. © Getty Images.
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, more popularly known as Malcolm X, was a leader in the Black Nationalist Movement and the Nation of Islam in the United States. Malcom X embarked on a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1964. This, and his visits to several other African countries including Ghana, informed his views about global Black struggles. In Ghana, he addressed the Ghanaian Parliament. His speech connected the suffering of African Americans with those on the African continent. Malcolm X met with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah where they discussed a Pan-African vision for Africans and the African diaspora. Malcolm X was also building a case that the United States was violating human rights through its treatment of African Americans. He worked to get African support for this case. Together, Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X were central in reaffirming the links between Ghana and African Americans.
Portrait of a seated, smiling Malcolm X.
Malcolm X, 1964. © Getty Images.

African Americans in Ghana: Politics, identity and nation-building

The desire to repatriate—to move back—to Africa held special meaning for African Americans. This was partly due to Kwame Nkrumah’s visit to Harlem and several other cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nkrumah invited African Americans to come “home” to assist Ghana in building their new nation-state. They could connect with their African brethren and to re-establish their cultural heritage. The unity that Nkrumah called for inspired many African Americans to return to Ghana. The country also offered refuge for Black people who were disillusioned with America’s racial problems. The gains of the civil rights movement during the mid-1950s to mid-1960s certainly had not ended the structural racism and inequality in all arenas of American life. Many African American who moved to Ghana expressed that they were looking to experience racial freedom. They also generally believed that the struggles at home and abroad were intertwined.
The community of African Americans who returned to Ghana contributed a broad range of skills and talents. They included medical professionals, lawyers, teachers, librarians, artists, writers, intellectuals, and engineers. Some African Americans returned as spouses of Africans who had studied in the United States. Others took on positions in the civil service and established various business ventures in Ghana. Prominent individuals such as W.E. B. Dubois and his wife, Shirley Graham Dubois; Maya Angelou; Julian Mayfield; Tom Feelings; and many other African Americans moved to Ghana as political exiles from the United States.
Ghanaians embraced the African American community, offering recognition and hospitality despite some cultural and linguistic differences. As they worked to integrate into Ghanaian society, these African Americans remained connected with the civil rights movement. For instance, they staged a demonstration at the American embassy in the Ghanaian capital city of Accra to coincide with the historic March on Washington in August 1963. The demonstrators carried posters that linked their own struggle to the African revolution, as well as Asian and Latin American freedom movements. Many of these posters criticized US foreign policy in those regions.
Members of this African American community in Ghana also created organizations such as the African Descendants Association Foundation and Operation Crossroads Africa. These organizations advanced linkages across countries by providing opportunities for travel to and from Africa. They also shared information about current events and the plight of both groups. Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, and the Ghanaian government abandoned his pan-African ideals. However, political instability did not destabilize these connections, which remain in place to this day.
Decolonization, the civil rights movement, and the Black nationalist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s linked African Americans and the African continent. Those links paved the way for continued cultural connections between African Americans and the events in Africa, raising the self-worth of Black people globally. African Americans recognized the magnitude of those revolutionary energies. Many now sought to align themselves with Africans and their struggle against European domination.

Into the 21st century

Two decades into the twenty-first century, as the United States reckons with its history of racism and police violence against African Americans, African nations have joined global efforts to denounce American racism. In particular, Ghanaian leaders have renewed their historical expressions of solidarity with the plight of African Americans. In 2020, the death of George Floyd sparked national and global protests of the killing of unarmed African American men and women. The President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo sent his nation’s national cloth—Kente—to the Floyd family. In 2019, a record number of African Americans returned to Ghana to mark the date four hundred years earlier when the first slave ship landed in Virginia. As part of a public campaign during this “Year of Return,” the Ghanaian government negotiated to secure several hundred acres of land for African Americans who wish to return, offering pathways to residency and citizenship. The country welcomed African Americans to the country’s shores, reminding them that they are kin, ‘brothers and sisters’ who can rebuild successful livelihoods in Ghana.
Author bio
Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch is Associate Professor of African History at Dartmouth College. Her research focuses on 20th century Ghana and West African history. She is author of The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana: 1920–1950. She has written articles on Ghanaian politics during the colonial and independence era. She is currently working on a book about Ghana’s internationalism, and the role the country played in the global and cultural politics of the 1960s–1990s.

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