In May of 1972, tens of thousands of African Americans gathered in Washington, D.C. Young and old, radical and moderate, they united not in protest of the government’s treatment of blacks in the United States, but rather on behalf of their distant kin fighting revolutions in Africa. At the first African Liberation Day, black peoples in the western Diaspora sought to change American foreign policy, which continued to actively support the colonial empire of tiny Portugal and the minority regimes of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa. The crowd marched through the streets of the capital, carrying signs proclaiming solidarity with the liberation struggles and condemning the economic discrimination that kept blacks subservient at home as well as abroad. The parade of activists made stops at the State Department and the embassies of the southern African regimes, where government and community leaders urged listeners to adopt the African revolutions as their own and boycott corporate partners like Gulf Oil and Polaroid that helped sustain minority rule. This demonstration culminated on the National Mall – renamed Lumumba Square for the festivities – where an estimated 25,000-40,000 people joined organizer Owusu Sadaukai (Howard Fuller) in chants of “We are an African People.” This demonstration in Washington, described by one participant as the largest all-black assemblage in the city’s history, was a symbol of a much larger movement that developed at the end of the Black Power era. Disillusioned both with the slow pace of civil rights in the mid-1960s and the ideological divisiveness of groups like the Black Panthers, African American leaders sought a common ground on which they could build a political and social movement that would unite the entire black community. They found a solution in the ongoing revolutions occurring in southern Africa. Since the wave of decolonization had begun to sweep through the continent in the late 1950s, black Africans had been struggling for self-determination against recalcitrant minority white governments. Nationalists adopted armed revolution and wholesale social reconstruction as necessary tactics in the face of official resistance to reform. By 1972, the armed conflicts in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique in the south and Guinea-Bissau in the northwest had swung in the favor of the freedom fighters, while South Africa’s harsh system of segregation known as apartheid had dramatized for the world the stark inequality that separated the races under minority rule. The two faces of Africa – heroic struggle and racial injustice – provided African Americans a rallying cry as they sought to address the systemic economic and political problems that continued to plague their own communities. This sense of shared struggle gave birth to a solidarity movement, where African Americans pledged support to African liberation and sought to use these continental models of self-determination to change conditions in the United States. For their part, Africans joined in this exchange of equals, with exiles helping to lead local movements and nationalists encouraging the support of their brothers abroad. GBH cameras were there at almost all stages of the construction of this movement, documenting the interactions of African peoples across linguistic, spatial, and experiential gaps. This collection will explore these exchanges, using episodes of Say Brother to illuminate the leaders, events, and campaigns that helped reignite a commitment to African liberation in the national imagination. Though the celebration of African Liberation Day would fade along with the 1970s, this identification with the continent had important effects on black communal identity and would feed directly into the more famous anti-apartheid movement of the next decade.
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Malcolm X is an essential figure for understanding the growth of the solidarity movement with the African liberation struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. For years before his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm had been trying to push the conservative nationalist group toward greater radicalism and solidarity with a transnational struggle of black peoples. The refusal of the Nation and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, to commit itself to what Malcolm later referred to as anything “Pro-African” played a small role in the growing division that would eventually end in the charismatic young preacher’s exile. After his break with the Nation, Malcolm embraced the need for transnational solidarity with struggling Africans. Much of this transformation evolved from Malcolm’s changing views of race and identity, which grew from his journeys in the Middle East and Africa. He committed himself to the new cause of racial unity, in which Africans of all religions and politics must unite in order to control their communities and voting power together. This new perspective was actually less antagonistic toward whites, recognizing that sufficiently committed activists could aid the cause, but it argued that a single block of “dark skinned people” at the national and international level would better able to wield collective power against the entrenched, racially exclusive power establishment. His conversion to this more secular, internationalist outlook at the end of his life provided a radical alternative to the strict non-violence of the Civil Rights movement that seemed unable to address the economic and social problems of the black community.
Unfortunately, Malcolm’s death prevented him from fully formulating what Manning Marable has recently called the “secular basis for common ground” to unite the black American community. Much of the next decade’s experiment with Black Power was an attempt to unite African Americans behind a political program that would allow them to take meaningful economic and political control of their own communities. This search for power was more sweeping and militant than the Civil Rights movement allowed, and young blacks began to question the effectiveness of non-violent integration in terms of economic and political empowerment. Referring to this generation as “the Africanists,” Black Power thinker Rolland Snellings noted that many had participated in Civil Rights activism before slowly drifting toward more radical solutions. Calling for complete systemic reform, they found themselves in closer alignment with African revolutionaries demanding wholesale change at a quicker pace. Lacking strong organizations and developed ideology, they found in this later incarnation of Malcolm X a spokesperson who was traveling their same journey of discovery. In death, he attracted even greater attention. Young African Americans looking for ways to incorporate the international model of progressive social transformation into their own communities adopted his unfinished ideology of black internationalism and attempted to develop it into a complete system of thought.
The African Liberation Support Committee became home to two such logical outgrowths of Malcolm X’s complex final years. Both drew on international conceptions of black power to influence their ideological programs. As the GBH interview with chair Owusu Sadaukai demonstrates, one side of this debate adopted a leftist view of the world and black organizing. Heavily influenced by the socialist African liberation groups from the Portuguese colonies and Zimbabwe in particular, they believed that monopoly capitalism and imperialism explained the plight of black peoples. The search for profit by companies and individuals encouraged racial exploitation as a way of dividing the working class while the seduction of individual advancement also undermined black unity in the form of neo-colonialist black governance in Africa and social divides within the black American community. Racial inequality in this model was the byproduct of an unjust capitalist system. A commitment to socialist ideology and action would unite oppressed peoples across the world and could even make space for properly progressive white allies. In so doing, these leftists linked their struggle not only with African revolutionaries but with a longer line of Third World leaders like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Gamal Abdel Nasser who had also inspired Malcolm X. Sadaukai and others suspected that this socialist internationalism represented the natural progression of Malcolm X’s incomplete transformation to secular Pan-Africanist.
In contrast, another wing of the ALSC adopted a more race-based, nationalistic view of the American and global contexts. Heavily influenced by Kwame Nkrumah, famed Black Power radical Stokely Carmichael championed a specifically African form of “scientific socialism,” which differed from the leftist tradition. His iteration of the ideology was critical of capitalism, but not necessarily because of its monopoly characteristics. Rather, capitalism ran counter to traditions of African “communalism.” Under this ideology, racism did not evolve from capital’s attempts to divide the working class but from the clashing of races and European attempts to subdue darker peoples. In this view of the world system, Carmichael proclaimed “Pan- Africanism is the highest form of Black Power.” This was an exclusionary vision of solidarity, which made room only for darker peoples who understood the specific experience of racial exploitation. Discussions of capital distracted from the central factor of race. Eventually ALSC member Haki Madhubuti (Don Lee) would dramatically reject the leftist model of ideological solidarity when he dismissed Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as “another set of white boys that are just as racist as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, etc., each using their special system of control both steeped in and based on white supremacy.” Yet in 1972 and 1973 when the first African Liberation Days occurred, these alternative ideologies had not yet divided the movement. Both Sadaukai and Carmichael seemed legitimate and non- exclusive heirs to Malcolm X’s legacy. GBH’s examination of contemporary political thought during its “Black History Week” program featured both internationalist thinkers alongside Malcolm X without a trace of contradiction. These different readings of “scientific socialism” would have important repercussions for the ALSC and black internationalism.
African Liberation Diplomacy
The African liberation struggles played important roles in shaping the thinking of these competing internationalists. African nationalists recognized the African American community as a potential base of support for their revolutions, and they actively cultivated this burgeoning transnational solidarity. The socialist nationalists of Portuguese Africa were by far the most active liberation organizations during this period. They identified the peoples of the western states as useful allies in their fight against colonialism. In contrast to South Africa and Rhodesia, Portugal was an American ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The small Iberian state used the military and financial aid that accompanied its membership to fund three colonial wars in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. In 1961, the socialist parties of each colony united together in the Conferência das Organizações Nacionalistas das Colónias (CONCP), which adopted the goal of mobilizing western opinion against this support for the Portuguese empire. The Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) would become the most active of these parties in courting U.S. opinion. FRELIMO’s first president, Eduardo Mondlane, had received his PhD from Northwestern, married a white American, and worked for the United Nations in New York. When it became clear that the Washington government would not abandon its Cold War ally in Lisbon no matter how antiquated its colonial policies, FRELIMO and the CONCP refocused their efforts on developing a mass movement in the United States. Popular opinion they hoped, could pressure the government into changing its policies. With strong ties to two of the largest black urban populations in the United States and connections within the Methodist Church, Mondlane began to assemble a network – both white and black – sympathetic to the cause of African revolution.
As relatively impoverished, stateless organizations, the nationalists depended on a single tool to build this transnational movement – personal diplomacy. Mondlane in particular traveled widely in the United States, speaking to religious, university, and black communities about the plight of Mozambique and the need for revolution. Though efforts in the early 1960s did not produce major organizing, they did provide FRELIMO and its allies with a network of sympathizers who sought ways to support the struggle as best they could. As the radicalizing effects of Malcolm X and the 1960s pushed African American youths to seek alternatives to the Civil Rights movement, they came into contact with Mondlane and FRELIMO through this web of contacts. Sadaukai, Robert Van Lierop (discussed below), and many others became active in support of the anti-colonial cause due to such personal relationships or through the influence of acquaintances allied with the Mozambican party. As interest grew, the liberation groups dispatched permanent representatives to key western countries since the commitment to armed revolutions limited the travel schedules of leaders like Mondlane. Through this complicated people’s diplomacy, the Portuguese Africans built a broad coalition of national organizations committed to their cause that included a growing number of African Americans.
FRELIMO spearheaded organizing in the United States, but it was not alone in its efforts. As interest began to grow, especially in the African American community, other nationalist organizations joined their Mozambican ally in appealing to the more radicalized American public. The most important was the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), a CONCP party led by the charismatic agronomist turned revolutionary Amilcar Cabral. The PAIGC never sent a permanent representative to the United States, but Gil Fernandes became a kind of roving ambassador to the western alliance, appearing often in the United States and the countries of Europe. In the Say Brother video ostensibly on Southern Africa (actually featuring a discussion of the West African Portuguese colony), Fernandes illustrates the kind of personal diplomacy that the nationalists used extensively to build support for their cause. The immediate interaction between revolutionary and audience served as an important element in growing the solidarity movement, occurring not only with representatives from the PAIGC and FRELIMO but also the African National Congress and the Zimbabwe African National Union throughout the 1970s.
Mondlane and FRELIMO may have laid the early foundations of this interpersonal network, but PAIGC leader Amilcar Cabral became the face of progressive African revolution. After Mondlane’s assassination in 1969, Cabral’s revolutionary writings became the literature of the self-sustaining activist movement that FRELIMO had hoped to create throughout the 1960s. Part of his appeal lay in the fact that the revolutionary African thinker eschewed rigid theoretical models. He famously told his party comrades to remember that “the people are not fighting for ideas . . . They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” The individual circumstances of each country had to shape the activities of reformers and revolutionaries within a broad socialist redistributive agenda. Nonetheless, his famous treatise, “Return to the Source,” delivered in Cuba in 1966 and widely reproduced, argued for the conscious suicide of the educated middle class in order to lead the anti-colonial revolution. This view of flexible social change was especially attractive in the United States, where the majority of African Americans who adopted the internationalist ethos in the early 1970s were college-educated radicals who demanded reform but questioned the strategy of launching violence in the streets. Cabral’s iteration of socialism urged oppressed peoples to identify the source of their oppression and develop effective strategies for taking control of their communities. As a socialist, he defined the enemy as monopoly capitalism and imperialism, and he expected Africa peoples in the Diaspora to share this ideology, explaining to gathering of African Americans in 1972 that while racial Pan- Africanism was valuable “it is better to be a brother and a comrade.” According to Cabral and his CONCP allies, capitalism was the primary enemy of African peoples worldwide, but the specific manifestations differed greatly across national contexts as did the necessary strategies to combat it. The influences of Cabral and FRELIMO fed the growth of black internationalism, but it also pushed the solidarity movement increasingly to the left.
African Liberation as Model
By the early 1970s, African Americans had adopted the African revolutions as models for domestic revolution, but it was not at all clear how black Americans could adopt appropriate actions given their place as a minority people in a predominantly white country. Looking abroad for inspiration, a domestic armed struggle seemed unlikely to succeed and few mainstream groups considered the option. Nonetheless, blacks were able to take some universal lessons from their continental brothers. Broad concepts of leftist ideological analysis, unity, community empowerment, self-sacrifice, and gender equality were all major features of the socialist African struggles in particular, and they resonated powerfully with African Americans looking for new models of action. The examples of independent African leaders inspired some action, particularly Julius Nyerere and his political and economic ideology of ujamaa (roughly translated as “familial cooperation”). However, the strongest identification involved the revolutionary states that were still struggling for freedom. In Portuguese Africa in particular, the nationalist groups represented an ideal model for American blacks. They unified a number of distinct linguistic and cultural identities behind the creation of a new egalitarian national model that gave African peoples the right to direct their own lives. This idea of progressive unity spoke directly to Malcolm X’s unfinished ideology. It also made sense to Snelling’s Africanist generation, which had seen internal factionalism and ideological divides hamper the creation of an assertive political base for blacks in the United States. As a result, the liberation movements in Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in particular became models for inspiration and emulation in the United States.
The film A Luta Continua about FRELIMO’s social transformation of Mozambique provides a window into the way that African Americans viewed the exportable aspects of African revolution. Actively collaborating with FRELIMO, lawyer turned filmmaker Robert Van Lierop went behind the front lines in Mozambique to the liberated territories in order to bring the party’s accomplishments to light in the United States. He was accompanied on his trip by former SNCC photographer Bob Fletcher and joined for a short while by Owusu Sadaukai, who had been in Tanzania for an educational conference. Van Lierop believed that a film by blacks for the African American community would best translate the Mozambican revolution. Surprising to many even today, the film about revolution includes only one scene of fighting. Rather, it emphasizes successful nationalist efforts to improve education, medical facilities, and social cohesion that most paralleled the needs of blacks in the United States. Indeed, from its opening scene, the use of reporting on the Attica Prison Rebellion to introduce Mozambican freedom fighters forces the audience to confront the revolution’s links to a larger global struggle for equality.
Van Lierop goes on to examine multiple aspects of FRELIMO’s social program in its liberated territories. Through images and his measured narration, he examines the party’s decentralized leadership model, its struggle against gender inequality, the use of cultural amalgamation to create a national identity, and a number of other topics. For the sake of discussion, one example will demonstrate how Van Lierop and many of his contemporaries sought to use the liberation model to spur action in the United States. FRELIMO’s educational reforms became a canvas on which to paint the shortcomings of the black community. To Mozambicans, “education is not a way to achieve upward mobility or isolate themselves as an intellectual elite nor is it a meaningless abstraction that leads to dependence on external economic conditions.” Instead, it stood as something inherently practical, preparing the educated to lift others out of ignorance and use such skills to advance the cause against Portuguese colonialism. Though lacking in nice buildings and materials, the shared goal of revolution united teachers and students and made the system work despite superficial shortcomings. The director is blunt in his narration:
When school is out, the teachers do not go one way, into cars for a trip home to exclusive suburbs, while the students go another way deeper into a ghetto. Instead, they are all part of the same mass movement, and the teachers live, work, and struggle in the bush with all of the people . . . You will never hear of teachers from FRELIMO striking over issues that affect only their own economic interests at the expense of the community. You will never hear of students or teachers being disrespectful of each other or assaulting each other.
Here, FRELIMO offers the solution to the weakness of the black American community. Committed activists must sacrifice the trappings of the capitalist-imperialist system in favor of communal unity in order to sustain a meaningful social revolution. FRELIMO is struggling as much against the personal inclinations of the individual revolutionary as against the larger system that seeks to undermine the movement. During a period when African American activists were gaining firsthand experience with the corrupting influence of power in places like Newark, this lesson had a major effect on the way they came to view both domestic unity and identification with African movements.
Upon its release in 1972, the film became a major factor in explaining FRELIMO ideology to American audiences. Van Lierop was incredibly liberal with rights to the film, meaning that almost any organization that could raise the money to order a reproduction could use it – including the Boston ALSC that presented the film on GBH. This meant that A Luta Continua appeared thousands of times nationwide, on television broadcasts, and in countries around the world. In Chicago alone, there were over 100 screenings between the spring of 1973 and 1974 – half occurred in the black community. A Luta Continua came to represent the entirety of the CONCP struggle for socialist liberation, helping to support solidarity campaigns for the MPLA in Angola and the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau as well as Mozambique. It would remain important after the collapse of Portugal’s empire in 1975, when Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa began to dominate the agenda. As such, the film symbolized the promise of African liberation for thousands of Americans. The way anti-imperial activists used the film to advance their cause was even more important than the number of showings. Van Lierop believed that the film should inspire local action, realizing the promise of the FRELIMO model for organizing. The director regularly appeared alongside his film, helping to convince viewers that the African independence fight was theirs as well. Occasionally, nationalists like Shafrudin Khan would provide a direct bridge between the audience and the subject. The film allowed Americans to participate in the revolution, either by joining in activities or donating directly to FRELIMO. The discussion that follows GBH’s presentation of the film records just this kind of exchange, urging action in the Boston area. The film challenged the way black Americans related to their communities and encouraged them to take part in their own crusades for self-determination. A Luta Continua and similar films linked local and continental struggles, inspiring African Americans to turn their sympathies into actions and assisting the growth of organizations like the ALSC.
Activism and Action
African Liberation Day and the formation of the permanent African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) was an outgrowth of this interest and desire for action regarding continental liberation. When Owusu Sadaukai visited Mozambique in 1971, his discussions with FRELIMO officials led him to undertake the task of building an organization that could mobilize the African American community. The educator returned to the United States with a desire to commit himself and the American community to the cause of African revolution “through massive Black protest and demonstration against U.S. involvement in Southern Africa.” The result was the first African Liberation Day, which united a broad array of the African American leadership into a single steering committee that included Newark’s Black Power sage Amiri Baraka and his nationwide Congress of African People, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council Ralph Abernathy, Black Panthers Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis, Black Scholar editor Nathan Hare, Lucius Walker of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, four congressmen, and dozens of others. Finally, this ad-hoc organization, brought together by the appeal of black liberation, achieved the unity that Malcolm X had desired.
On May 27th, the tens of thousands of blacks gathered across the country to protest American complicity in supporting Portugal and the minority regimes of southern Africa. Reflecting all political ideologies, ages, and regional backgrounds they converged on major cities across the country to demonstrate their support for African liberation and incorporate an element of revolution into their own lives. Roughly 7,000 people gathered in San Francisco, while smaller crowds of roughly 3,000 each rallied in Toronto and Antigua, attesting to the transnational nature of the movement. By far the largest demonstration was held in the main city of Washington DC, where marches and rallies included between 25,000-40,000 people. GBH documented the March on Washington, preserving for prosperity both the impressive images of the thousands of marchers as well as the speeches of various delegates delivered in front of the embassies and State Department that represented the oppression of continental Africans. The success of this first rally led to the founding of the ALSC as the organization tasked with organizing annual celebrations and creating a firm foundation for material and political support to the African movements.
It is important to understand that the ALSC was more than an event planning committee. Rather, it represented the tip of the iceberg in what had become a major movement. Local ALSC committees and other organizations ran programs to educate communities about the African revolutions and their importance to the lives of local peoples. In addition to screenings of films like A Luta Continua, there were strikes against the import of Rhodesian steel, protests of festivals honoring Portugal as a NATO ally in military cities like Norfolk, VA, and political organizing to elect black officials that would change these and other policies. The second celebration of African Liberation Day recognized the localized importance of the struggle by holding individual rallies and marches in more than 30 cities across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. These individual marches made the foreign revolutions local by concentrating their protests on companies that operated in southern Africa, including Gulf Oil, Polaroid, and the Portuguese airline TAP. Such marches were less likely to affect high level American policy, but they made the connections between African peoples more tangible for the average person.
The year-round organizing that accompanied these annual celebrations is perhaps best symbolized by the black boycott against Gulf, which was led by the local Boston Pan-African Liberation Committee (PALC). Under law student Randall Robinson and South African exile Chris Nteta, the PALC conducted a major national campaign to educate black communities about the ongoing struggles in southern Africa and mobilize action against Portugal’s single largest corporate partner. Local activities began in 1971 with an initial offensive against Robinson’s own Harvard University, which held $19 million worth of Gulf stock. Demanding that Harvard divest, PALC members and students occupied an administration building for a week in 1972. Though unsuccessful in forcing the university’s hand, the group gained nationwide attention that helped launch a campaign beyond Boston. Though Nteta in particular remained an important local figure urging black action in support of liberation (appearing regularly on Say Brother), the PALC became a national presence, distributing broadsides in 25 major cities. Robinson successfully pushed to incorporate the anti-Gulf campaign into ALSC activities and gained sponsorship from notable figures such as Amiri Baraka, Jesse Jackson, Paul Robeson, Charles Rangel, and Andrew Young. Eventually, the PALC cooperated with the predominantly white Gulf Boycott Coalition, which helped organize campaigns in cities across the United States. Gulf never removed its operations from Angola, but cities, universities, and organizations across the country sold off their Gulf stock in a show of support. The campaign was building momentum in 1974 when the Portuguese Empire began to unravel after a bloodless coup toppled the Lisbon dictatorship. Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and the rest of Portugal’s colonies would all be officially independent by the end of the next year. With victory achieved, the Gulf Boycott fizzled, though activists like Robinson and Nteta would continue to be active in later campaigns against apartheid at the local and national levels.
1974 also witnessed the end of the ALSC. Through two years, the organization had successfully united African Americans behind the cause of African liberation. During these years, however, the leftward drift of the leadership under the influence of FRELIMO and Cabral had alienated nationalist members of the organization like Stokely Carmichael. The divide became apparent in a number of internal debates on the questions of official rhetoric, the role of whites in the African Liberation Day celebrations, and donations to competing liberation groups in Angola. Each side claimed victories, but the committee leadership increasingly drifted toward a socialist reading of the international context. Shortly after the April coup, a number of local committees defected, while the national conference held in May was riven by ideological debates. The united front effectively dissolved, though local iterations of the African Liberation Day would continue (with various ideological makeups) until the end of the decade.
The near simultaneous collapse of the Portuguese Empire and the ALSC did not end African American identification with the liberation struggles. The victory legitimized an African solidarity network that would become the foundations for the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. Many activists who took up the fight for Portuguese African freedom continued to demand change in southern Africa after Portugal retreated. Most importantly, the CONCP states’ effective selling of their socialist movements to the United States legitimized a leftist internationalism that rejected Cold war divisions in favor of transnational unity. New organizations like Randall Robinson’s influential TransAfrica and the Southern Africa Support Project drew on the activists and communal ties that had first been developed within the ALSC. When anti-apartheid activists went looking for people to support protests and divestment campaigns at the behest of radical groups like the African National Congress, they found, according to former activist Joseph Jordan, “a receptive audience among people whose consciousness had been raised during the campaigns of the 1970s.” This new consciousness owed a debt to the generation of American “Africanists, Malcolm X, and the earlier diplomacy of radical African nationalists.