Early Africa Connections
From its beginning, SNCC linked its struggle for civil rights within the United States to anti-colonial struggles being waged in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “We identify ourselves with the African struggle as a concern for all mankind,” read the organization’s statement of purpose, drafted at its founding conference at Shaw University in the spring of 1960. Ms. Ella Baker noted with enthusiasm that the youthful organization “repeatedly…emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implication of racial discrimination for the ‘whole world’ and the ‘Human race.’” Their connection with Third World liberation movements would strengthen in the following years as SNCC increasingly came to understand that the Civil Rights Movement was part and parcel of a larger Movement that was worldwide.
Growing up in the fifties and early sixties, many young Black people were aware of the swelling anti-colonial tide on the African continent. “As I came of age,” remembered Charlie Cobb, “the things that are dramatic in my memory are the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the events in Little Rock, the events in Montgomery, Alabama, and tangled in are the independence of Ghana and the Mau Mau struggle in Kenya.”
Others, like Gloria House, learned about liberation movements through travel. In Paris, France in 1961, she met African students who supported the revolutions being waged in their home countries. They “helped make revolution real for me,” she recalled. Still others learned about global anti-colonial struggles via college, especially on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that had African and Caribbean students. Recalled Stokely Carmichael of Howard University, where he was a student from 1960 until 1964, “That time and place had a tangible, intoxicated air of Pan-African motion and internationalism. . .It was soul stirring.”
As SNCC’s work intensified, so too did the organization’s connection with African anti-colonial struggles. SNCC’s organizers, engaged in voter registration drives in the Deep South, were beginning to see the complex, structural racism that underwrote Black second-class citizenship. “We were beginning to think of ourselves as constituting an internal colony of the United States,” explained Gloria House. By 1963, SNCC adopted African liberation rhetoric to describe its voter registration work in the Deep South. At the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, SNCC’s chairman John Lewis proclaimed, “One man, one vote,’ is the African cry, it is ours, too. It must be ours.”
Feelings of solidarity were strengthened when SNCC members got to meet African revolutionaries and diplomats in person. In December, 1963, SNCC workers in Atlanta were able to meet Kenya’s Home Affairs Minister, Oginga Odinga at his downtown hotel. Afterward, they sat down in a Toddle House restaurant next door and were refused service. “We were kinda high on meeting this black leader, and so naturally we refused to leave the restaurant, and we all got arrested,” remembered Charlie Cobb. The name Oginga Odinga spread through the organization after that, even inspiring a Freedom Song–”Oginga Odinga”.
In the fall of 1964, Harry Belafonte offered to send a SNCC delegation to the newly-independent Guineain West Africa. After the failure of the Democratic Party to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the national convention that summer. SNCC was seriously questioning whether integrating into the Democratic Party was a path they wanted to take. In looking for alternative paths to Black power, they looked towards the newly formed African nations for inspiration and solidarity, and so Belafonte’s offer was timely. “The Guineans had to start from scratch in every area of national life,” noted SNCC’s executive secretary Jim Forman, “and they survived.” The trip stirred deeper conversations within the organization about its connection with global anti-colonial movements.
Julian Bond, “SNCC: What We Did,” Monthly Review (October, 2006), 14-28.
Clayborne Carson, et al., eds., The Eyes on the Prize : Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).
Gloria House, “The Road to Internationalism: A SNCC Movement Worker Reflects,” Black History in Struggle (January/February 2013), 14-17.
Julius Scott, “Atlanta to Zimbabwe: Charles Cobb,” Southern Exposure (January, 1981), 85-88.
Fanon Che Wilkins, “The Making of Black Internationalists: SNCC and Africa Before the Launching of Black Power, 1960-1965,” Journal of African American History (Fall 2007), 468-491.