Was King a Pan-Africanist? Martin Luther King and the African Liberation Movements

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Hist 101.
12/14/12
Was King a Pan-Africanist? Martin Luther King Jr. and the African Liberation Movements. By Kenechukwu Nwosu The King-era civil rights movement coincided closely with the peak of freedom struggles on the African continent. When the Montgomery bus boycott began in December 1955, all but four African nations were under colonial rule; when King delivered his last public speech on April 3, 1968, thirty-six African countries had gained their independence. Most scholarship on King’s international involvement neglects his relationship with Africa, focusing instead on his dealings with India and Vietnam. The few scholarly works that exist tend to paint far too simplistic a picture of this relationship, suggesting that the activist King was always a Pan-Africanist, who held the unchanging opinion that all people of African descent were homogeneous, and must work together to overcome white oppression. From a close study of King’s speeches, writings and actions regarding Africa, I arrive at a different conclusion. I posit, firstly, that King’s view of Africa was essentially dynamic—prior to 1957, King possessed only a cursory concern for the continent; his Ghana trip in March 1957 precipitated genuine interest in African affairs; and his continued interaction with Africans after that trip motivated him towards a deeper involvement and commitment to African issues. Secondly, I argue that despite this increasing engagement in African affairs, King never truly adopted the philosophy of Pan-Africanism. King grew up in an environment that was infertile for the cultivation of a positive attitude towards Africa. The African-American education system at the time seldom included topics dealing with Africa and its peoples. As Carter Woodson made clear in his 1933 book, The Mis-education of the Negro, “the African was excluded altogether” from the educational curriculum. “No thought was given to Africa except so far as it had been a field of exploitation for the Caucasian.” Media coverage of the African continent at the time was almost non-existent. The few stories that dotted the mass media portrayed Africa in an inaccurate, negative light, “propagating the distorted symbol of ‘savage Africans’” It is likely then that King grew up with little knowledge of, and concern for, the land of his forbears. That none of King’s writings from graduate or doctoral school, reference in any substantial regard, the African continent or colonialism, is a manifestation of this. Coretta Scott King wrote later that “we ourselves had been victims of the propaganda that all of Africa was primitive and dirty,” showing that the little knowledge King possessed about Africa was from the jaundiced image the American media painted. When King was launched into the civil rights movement in 1955, he began to show a minor awareness of African issues. An upsurge of anti-colonialist movements had generated increased African-American interest in Africa, and King was beginning to see a parallel between colonialism in Africa and racial discrimination in America. Coretta recalled that he “often compared European colonialism with Negro oppression in America” in his sermons. In a speech delivered at the Alpha Phi fraternity banquet in 1956, he noted that “ the uprisings in Africa... and the racial tensions of America… are indicative of the fact that a new world order is being born and an old order is passing away.” While he recognized that the struggles on both sides of the Atlantic were parallel, he did not advocate a connection or co-operation between them. Hence he failed to identify himself as holding any role in African struggles. Martin Luther King was invited to the Ghanaian independence ceremony in March 1957. His adviser, Bayard Rustin, had arranged for the invitation, perhaps in order to secure King’s position as a key African-American leader (other notable African-American figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, Ralph Bunche and A. Philip Randolph were...
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