The origins of Pan-Africanism

October 5, 2012

Lee Sustar explains the roots of Black nationalist ideas that won a mass following.

WITH BLACK politics typically associated with Black elected officials and participation in the mainstream system, as it has been since the 1980s, it is all too easy to dismiss Black nationalism as a thing of the past.

Yet the basis of Black nationalism in America--a racist system that excludes all but a minority of Blacks from participation in the economic and political mainstream--remains.

Except for the heyday of the Congress of Industrial Organization in the 1930s and 1940s, and some important but scattered strikes in the early 1970s, multiracial working-class unity in struggle has not been the rule in the history of the U.S. working class.

Every "hate" strike by white workers, every lynching by a white mob and every racist caricature in popular culture can push Black workers into accepting the arguments of Black nationalists. This was a factor in the rise of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement in the 1920s and of the radical vision of "Black Power" in the 1960s.

BLACK NATIONALISM in America is as old as Black America itself. Its revival after the Second World War was sparked by the Pan-Africanist Congress, a loose confederation of Black Americans, West Indians and Africans formed at the turn of the century.

The History of Black America

Largely maintained by the U.S. radical W.E.B. Du Bois, Pan-Africanism was the Black intellectuals' alternative to Garveyism. Meeting simultaneously with the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War, the Pan-Africanist Congress petitioned the colonial powers to allow Black self -determination in Africa and called for an end to segregation in the U.S.

During the 1920s, Pan-Africanism was irrelevant next to Garvey's mass following. Du Bois bitterly opposed Garvey's emigration scheme, organizing a few small congresses in Europe and New York.

But Garveyism disintegrated after a government clampdown on the movement in the late 1920s. And by the late 1930s, the ideas of Pan-Africanists began to attract Black leftists who were disgusted with the way Stalinist Russia tailored its support for Black liberation to meet the needs of the USSR's foreign policy.

George Padmore, a Trinidadian who had been assigned by the Communist International to direct the organization of Black workers, quit that position in 1933, after the German Communist Party refused to ally with the Socialist Democratic Party as Adolf Hitler came to power.

Padmore set about putting a Pan-Africanist program into action, forming the International African Service Bureau and launching a journal that aimed to unite Black liberation struggles in Africa, the Americas and the West Indies. He was assisted in this project by another Black Trinidadian, CLR James, who had recently joined the Trotskyist opposition to Stalin.

In the turmoil of the Second World War, Pan-Africanism "came of age," Padmore wrote years later. A Fifth Pan-Africanist Congress was held in October 1945, in Manchester, England, only a few weeks after the war's end. This time the meeting attracted the future leaders of independent Africa, including Kwame Nkrumah, who would lead the struggle to turn Britain's Gold Coast colony into Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta, who led the opposition to British rule in Kenya.

As Padmore wrote in his 1965 book Pan-Africanism or Communism:

Here at long last was a philosophy evolved by Black thinkers which peoples of African descent could claim and use as their own. The days of dependence on the thinking and direction of their so-called European friends who had so often betrayed them were over. From henceforth Africans and peoples of African decent would take their destiny into their own hands and march forward under their own banner of Pan-Africanism, in cooperation with their selected allies.

Nkrumah's Constitutional People's Party, organized with a specifically Pan-Africanist program, captured the attention of Blacks around the world. In a world sharply divided by the Cold War, Pan-Africanism seemed to point to Black self-determination beyond the control of Washington or Moscow.

In the U.S., Pan-Africanist ideas were promoted through Du Bois' Council on African Affairs, which included Paul Robeson, the internationally known singer and actor and probably the best-known Black civil rights activist of the early 1950s. Robeson, who outraged New York music critics by treating Black gospel as serious music, urged American Blacks to explore African traditions and learned several languages himself.

THE APPEAL of Pan-Africanism rose with Ghana's final break with Britain in 1957. Nkrumah, who had studied in the U.S., closely followed the U.S. civil rights movement and invited Martin Luther King Jr., now widely known for his leading role in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. King was impressed by the achievements in Ghana. "At bottom," King told an Anglican priest during a visit to Ghana, "both segregation in America and colonialism in Africa were based on the same things--white supremacy and contempt for life."

King, who also visited Nigeria on that trip, later served on the American Committee on Africa. He wrote to Black activists in what was then Southern Rhodesia, later renamed Zimbabwe after an anti-colonial revolution:

Although we are separated by many miles, we are closer together in a mutual struggle for freedom and mutual brotherhood. We realize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Therefore we are as concerned about the problems in Africa as we are about problems of the United States.

The success of Nkrumah united Black leftists who had long been in opposing camps. Padmore, who had become increasingly anti-communist, became a minister in Nkrumah's government, while Du Bois, who had joined the Communist Party, moved to Ghana to live out the final months of his life in 1961. James, who broke with the Trotskyist movement in the late 1940s, also became a supporter of the Nkrumah government.

The rise of independent Africa underpinned the decision of many young civil rights activists in the U.S. to push aside white liberals who were holding back the movement. With organized labor controlled by racist bureaucrats, and the socialist left small and weak, nationalism seemed a viable alternative for Black radicals such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture).

Like other civil rights activists, they traveled to Africa to meet with leaders of newly independent nations and anti-colonial movements. Activists in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee read the words of the Black Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon as a guide to action. By the mid-1960s, Black nationalism would sweep through the U.S.--behind the slogan of Black Power.

First published in the December 1986 edition of Socialist Worker.

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