Continuing south, the three streams of protesters converged on the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument. There, a broad coalition of the country’s leading black political figures, from the African People‘s Congress Amiri Baraka to DC Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy, engaged in a protracted struggle against colonialism and white minority rule in Africa and in the country.
Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Africa Liberation Day, one of the most influential gatherings in modern African American and DC history. Although rallies were held in dozens of US cities, Canada and the Caribbean, the DC event was the largest and most significant. After the 1972 protest, organizers continued to stage the protest, gathering in Malcolm X Park from 1973 to 1991.
DC African Liberation Day helped rally and nurture a powerful group of anti-colonial activists in the nation’s capital. In the 1980s, these organizers were key to African-American-led mobilizations against the US invasion of Grenada and the Reagan administration’s support for anti-democratic forces in South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. DC’s Africa Liberation Day was also an important cultural touchstone for many black Washingtonians, who gathered each year to reaffirm their connection to Africa and the peoples of the Diaspora — and to debate the how we could all be free.
Since the late 19th century, many African-American activists embraced an international view that identified racism and inequality in the United States as, to quote WEB Dubois, “but a local phase of a global problem.” This understanding of the relationship between conditions at home and abroad returned to the forefront of black consciousness in 1971. That year, the Nixon administration and its congressional allies decided to import chrome from the brutal white minority regime in Rhodesia, in defiance of UN sanctions. The administration has also decided to continue to provide military aid to Portugal, which was desperately struggling to retain its colonies in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau.
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These moves outraged Owusu Sadaukai (born Howard Fuller), a nimble and intense Black Power activist and founder of Malcolm X Liberation University in Durham, NC Sadaukai had recently visited anti-colonial rebels in Mozambique, who told him that African Americans could struggle by protesting the US government’s support for colonialism and by sending money and material aid.
In early 1972, Sadaukai, joined by Cleveland Sellers, Florence Tate and other experienced young Black Power organizers, endeavored to do just that, forming the African Liberation Day Coordinating Committee. and setting up a headquarters at 2207 14th St. NW. From this storefront, they have planned an international demonstration for the last Saturday in May.
Black Washingtonians responded enthusiastically. School board president Marion Barry led the local steering committee and Blackman’s Volunteer Army of Liberation, a local drug treatment organization, pledged to serve as marshals. Official Washington was less supportive. In an internal memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed without evidence that Africa Liberation Day “represents the potential for extremely serious civil unrest” and dispatched his agents to spy on members and funders of the ALDCC.
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Between 10,000 and 25,000 marched in DC and another 30,000 attended events in San Francisco, Toronto, Dominica, Antigua and Grenada. The day was a triumph.
Capitalizing on their success, organizers transformed the ALDCC into a standing committee in support of African liberation and pledged to establish coordinating committees in cities across America that could host the Day each year. of the liberation of Africa. In 1973 they held another rally in DC, with a mostly local crowd of 4,500 braving the cool, wet weather to raise $40,000 for African freedom fighters. Organizers held small protests in 20 other cities across the United States.
Although successful, the broad coalition that organized African Liberation Day in 1972 and 1973 was fragile. Functioning as a black united front, it encompassed nearly every political persuasion in the African-American community, from the revolutionary Black Panther Party to the white-glove Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Almost immediately, coalition members began to fracture over strategy.
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The first to break away from the group were the liberal reformers, many of whom believed they could best achieve their goals by working through corporate America and the Democratic Party. Then some of the main organizers, including Sadaukai, rejected the united front strategy favored by black nationalists and adopted Marxism-Leninism.
Between 1974 and 1977, DC African Liberation Day became a cacophony of sectarian debate. At the Howard University conference that preceded the 1974 rally, organizers argued over the “right” way to lead the fight for black freedom at home and abroad. In 1977, old friends and collaborators were in open ideological conflict on the streets of the District.
That year, civil rights activist turned pan-African socialist Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) rallied members of his Pan-African People’s Revolutionary Party at the southern end of Malcolm X Park, while members of the African-dominated by Marxist-Leninists The Liberation Support Committee met at the North End. The African Liberation Support Coalition, a splinter group led by Chicago activist Abdul Alkalimat (born Gerald McWhorter), rallied half a mile away in Kalorama Park. All three denounced the others, with Ture calling the organizers of the competing rallies “political amateurs” and Alkalimat calling the A-APRP leader a “narrow” nationalist.
With its dedicated local activists and strong international network, A-APRP took control of DC African Liberation Day in 1978 and maintained it until the event ended in 1991. Putting its own stamp on the proceedings, Ture asked participants to dress in white to symbolize “purity, justice and peace”.
Each year, participants held a short walk through Adams Morgan or up Embassy Row before retiring to Malcolm X Park for speeches and entertainment. Crowds were smaller but still significant, with 1,500 in attendance in 1979, 3,000 in 1983, and 2,000 in 1985. Vendors set up shop in the northern part of the park, selling black history books, fabrics waxes, shea butter and incense. While the entertainment was impressive, ranging from South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela (1979) to DC’s own African Heritage dancers and drummers (1983), attendees always created their own drumming circle, swelling the group that came together. every week in the park since 1965.
Many activists who were not members of A-APRP continued their work in other DC organizations. A group of Capitol Hill employees and scholars formed the TransAfrica Forum, which became the leading African-American lobby for Africa. Several local women activists founded the Southern Africa Support Project, which educated black people in DC about events in southern Africa and raised funds for insurgent groups like the African National Congress. An interracial group of activists formed the DC Bank Campaign to demand that DC institutions stop doing business with white minority governments in southern Africa.
And all of these groups came together to lead the legendary Free South Africa Movement, which introduced the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 into Congress and forced Reagan to sever ties with that country‘s white supremacist government.
As this anti-colonial coalition achieved its greatest successes, many DC residents walked away from Africa Liberation Day. The Washington Job reported that “several hundred” gathered at Malcolm X Park in 1986, and only 200 in 1990. The following year, A-APRP sponsored its last DC rally.
Kojo Nnamdi, the longtime WAMU radio host who marched in 1972, said that year’s African Liberation Day “was the first time there was a demonstration of mass around the liberation of southern Africa” in the district. It was not the last, however, and the many campaigns it inspired made the city an epicenter of the international effort to end colonialism and white minority rule in Africa.
George Derek Musgrove is an associate professor of history at UMBC. He is the author of the site blackpowerindc.umbc.edu and co-author, with Chris Myers Asch, of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital”.