SNCC workers meet Oginga Odinga
On December 21, 1963, the U.S. State Department brought Kenyan Minister for Home Affairs, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga to tour various parts of the United States prior to his appearance at the United Nations where Kenya was to become the 113th member. The Department particularly wanted him to visit Atlanta, know then as “the city too busy to hate,” to demonstrate racial progress in the United States. Black protest had been receiving worldwide attention. Mr. Odinga had criticized the United States for its systematic discrimination against African Americans and had defended Kenya’s decision to seek amicable relations with the Eastern bloc as well as Western states.
Atlanta, of course, was almost completely segregated. And once Mr. Oginga reached Georgia, the State Department deliberately bypassed SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters. Upon hearing of his arrival, SNCC executive secretary Jim Forman managed to arrange a meeting with the Kenyan leader at the Peachtree Manor Hotel, one of few desegregated hotels in the city.
“Mr. Odinga greeted us in the lobby with a warm smile,” recalled SNCC worker Judy Richardson. “He was elegantly dressed in a long, flowing traditional buba, had a bearing that was truly regal, and spoke better English than I did.” The SNCC workers did not know much about Kenya, although the “Mau Mau” revolt or “Land and Freedom Movement” had reached many of them via Black newspapers.
During their time together, Mr. Odinga talked about the history of Kenya’s liberation movement and their quest for attaining freedom. SNCC workers discussed their work on voter registration in the South. In this first meeting with an African leader, the SNCC organizers greatly admired Oginga Odinga’s frank and honest nature. The meeting adjourned with a few freedom songs, like “We Shall Overcome.” Afterwards, the SNCC group decided to discuss the meeting at a Toddle House coffee shop adjacent to the hotel, but after taking seats, they were denied service. Consequently, an impromptu sit-in took place.
The Atlanta police descended onto the restaurant and arrested the demonstrators, dragging some off to jail. While incarcerated, SNCC member Matthew Jones wrote a song that would later be recorded by the SNCC Freedom Singers called “Oginga Odinga.” The song narrated the group’s visit with Mr. Odinga, joining the refrain “Freedom Now” with “Uhuru,” the Swahili word for freedom.
According to Mary King, “This meeting was, in fact, the first concrete contact between the American civil rights movement and the newly emerging African states and liberation movements.” Increasingly, following this meeting, SNCC activists actively sought out allies outside of the confines of the U.S. for support. They also questioned the presence of the U.S. military in various parts of the world.
SNCC’s adoption of solidarity with colonized peoples around the globe helped organizers broaden their thinking about struggle for social change, leading SNCC to challenge and pressure the federal government to end injustice and oppression on multiple fronts around the world. As Matthew Jones noted, “It’s a funny thing about that word freedom. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, English or French, it’s got that certain ring to it.”
Guy and Candie Carawan, eds., Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Publications, 1990), 124.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2016), 136-137.
Judy Richardson, “SNCC: My Enduring ‘Circle of Trust,'” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 352-353.
Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1987), 164-171.
Brenda Gayle Plummer, In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 130-131.