The link between African Americans and Africans is a long, deep, complex, biological and social connection. Black people on each side of the Atlantic look to the other for inspiration as part of the global African diaspora, brought closer now than at any other time over our communal 400+ year history because of advances in technology and transportation.
Martin Luther King Jr. was drawn to Africa as most, if not all, African Americans are. For him, in the late 50s, was because he believed that because of colonialism, those on the continent could most closely relate to the struggles of racism in the United States.
His fight for freedom and equal rights for African Americans made him popular among African leaders. In 1957, he received a personal invitation from Ghana’s new Prime Minister Kwame Nkuramah to attend that country’s Independence celebrations. And so, in March that year, he and his wife Coretta Scott King, made their first trip abroad to Ghana’s capital, Accra to witness the British Union Jack flag coming down for the last time, and the new Ghana flag going up.
Dr. King later recounted how he felt when he learnt he would be coming to the West African in a radio interview:
“…the minute I knew I was coming to Ghana I had a very deep emotional feeling, I’m sure. Thinking of the fact that a new nation was being born symbolized something of the fact that a new order is coming into being and an old order is passing away. So that I was deeply concerned about it. And I wanted to be involved in it, and be a part of it, and notice the birth of this new nation with my own eyes. So that that is why I’m here.”
He believed that the events there stood as a symbol of hope for other nations. This same thought was repeated a month later when he delivered a sermon to the congregation at a Baptist Church in Montgomery. Titled “Birth of a New Nation”, Dr. King did much to educate others about the Africa he knew most saw merely as the “Dark Continent”. In his part sermon – part history lesson, he highlighted various countries across the continent, including Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya, and of course Ghana. Dr. King spoke about exploitation, the “scramble for power”, and about the pain and suffering of its people. He uses Ghana’s story and the journey of Prime Minister (later President) Kwame Nkuramah to help inspire those in the congregation, saying:
“Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy…Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison. When I looked out and saw the prime minister there with his prison cap on that night, that reminded me of that fact, that freedom never comes easy. It comes through hard labor and it comes through toil. It comes through hours of despair and disappointment.”
Dr. King continued with his labor, always maintaining close relations with many African leaders, again traveling to West Africa in November 1960 to attend the Inauguration of Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe in Lagos.
Little was know about that visit, up until last year. One summers day in August, in what was likely a dusty corner in a dark attic, a tape was discovered in a house in Tennessee. Described as “extremely rare discovery”, it was simply labelled: Dr. King interview, Dec. 21, 1960. The tape contained at least 10 minutes of never before heard audio of Dr. King. He had much to say about Africa, including thoughts on his trip to Nigeria:
“I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence. They are familiar with it and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.”
Four years later, Dr. King lent his voice to speak out against racism in South Africa. En route to Oslo in December 1964 to receive a Nobel Peace Prize as the youngest recipient at that time, King stopped off in London where he spoke at the City Temple Hall. There he stood in front of a crowd, calling for continued sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government, and further urging those part of the civil rights movement to continue their fight, both for their own rights and in solidarity to those in South Africa.
“It is in this situation, with the great mass of South Africans denied their humanity, their dignity, denied opportunity, denied all human rights; it is in this situation, with many of the bravest and best South Africans serving long years in prison, with some already executed; in this situation we in America and Britain have a unique responsibility. For it is we, through our investments, through our Governments` failure to act decisively, who are guilty of bolstering up the South African tyranny.”
Dr. King continued spreading this message and other messages, fighting for the ideals he so famously captured in his 1963 “I have a dream speech”. Less than five years later he was assassinated.
The coincidence that the US presidential inauguration takes place on MLK Day every four years is especially poignant when the president being inaugurated hails from Africa. On MLK Day 2013, Africans and African Americans celebrate our collective accomplishment in that the leader of the free world for the next four years is a member of our tribe.