1968, the year that Africa shaped the US

It is 50 years since 1968, dubbed by the CNN’s new four-part series as “the year that changed America”. The United States, however, was only one facet of a global cluster of events. A distinct marker of the 1968 political revolts was their “unprecedented globalisation of radical consciousness”, as put by historian Arif Dirlik.

One less familiar dimension of the global effect of 1968 concerns the decolonisation that swept through Africa in the 1960s. African independence offered a vision that resonated with people of African descent across the Atlantic Ocean. The rise of the Black Power movements in the US during the late 1960s was accompanied by a rekindled interest in African politics.

Black Power politics were interwoven with the political climate of 1968. Key historical events, such as the urban uprisings that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, the 1968 Olympics Black Power salutes by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and the conspicuous presence of the Black Panther Party in public discourse, rendered Black Power a force to be reckoned with in the unfolding events of 1968.

For American civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, who popularised the political slogan “Black Power”, Africa became a lifelong centre of political activity. Born in 1941, he became a political activist during his student years at the historically black Howard University. Alongside King and Malcolm X, he became an icon of the African-American struggle against racism.

He embodied the turn from black resistance predicated on nonviolence and racial integration to a more militant and transnational kind of politics. The mainstream civil rights movement had sought to redefine the American nation to fully include its black constituents. But advocates of Black Power imagined an alternative community that did not correspond with the boundaries of the American nation.

The emerging Third World movement and its principled opposition to colonialism provided Carmichael with a new vocabulary to describe his disenchantment with the vision of integration. African-Americans, he argued, were part and parcel of the Third World. They were colonial subjects of the white majority and no constitutional means could solve their colonial subjugation.

Defining African-Americans as a colonised people provided Carmichael with new ways of identification that went beyond the American nation. Equipped with a sense of Third World solidarity, he embarked in 1967 on an international tour to forge relationships with global revolutionaries. His travels to Africa, and Guinea in particular, had a profound effect on him and led him to embrace revolutionary pan-Africanism.

Pan-Africanism, the idea that people of African descent worldwide formed a nation, had played a significant role in African-American politics until the early Cold War period. But with the red scare that followed World War II, pan-African activism became increasingly impossible to sustain in the US.

Pan-African activists linked their domestic struggle with anti-colonialism in Africa but this was too great a threat for the American establishment, whose strategic alliance with the European colonial powers was top priority.

Conceived outside of Africa in the African diaspora, pan-Africanism travelled to Africa after World War II to become the leading ideology of decolonisation. With its relocation to Africa, the pan-African principle of unity between people of African descent translated into an ideal of continental political unity, a “United States of Africa”.

Carmichael’s international travels brought him into close contact with the exiled Ghanaian leaderKwame Nkrumahand Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré, two of the main proponents of this “continental” form of pan-Africanism.

In early 1968, Carmichael and his new wife, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea. This decision was motivated by a sense of political deadlock in the US exacerbated by an increased threat posed to his freedom by the FBI counterintelligence programme. The adoption of Guinea as his home was accompanied by a significant ideological shift.

Once the “bad boy” of American radicalism, Carmichael’s move to Africa also marked his total conformity with Guinean pan-Africanism. This state-sanctioned ideology had come to include internal political repression in Guinea, which Carmichael minimised in favour of the revolutionary potential he ascribed to pan-Africanism. Carmichael articulated his political evolution from Black Power to pan-Africanism as the “land-base” theory.

African nationalism’s emphasis on territorial sovereignty became the main component in his political thought. According to him, African decolonisation had provided people of African descent with an unpre­cedented opportunity.

“The only position for black men is pan-Africanism. We need a land base,” he said. “In the final analysis, all revolutions are based on land. The best place, it seems to me, and the quickest place that we can obtain land is Africa.

“We need land and we need land immediately, and we must go to the quickest place for it.”

The political visions that accompanied African decolonisation had provided many Black Power activists in the US with an alternative political community. African independence materialised a form of pan-African nationalism that African-American radicals perceived as commensurate with their black identity. Carmichael’s land-base ideology prioritised Africa and trumped notions of African-American uniqueness.

Carmichael had brought his pan-Africanism to an extreme conclusion of complete immersion in Africa. But in this he was an exception that proved the rule: African decolonisation was everywhere in the Black Power political imagination. Accordingly, 1968 is incomprehensible without factoring in the African dimensions of the year that changed the US.

Daniel Salem is a PhD candidate in the department of history, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and a researcher in the European Research Council project Apartheid-Stops 

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