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Thu, 05.25.1972

African Liberation Day in America, a story

*On this date in 1972, America affirmed its first African Liberation Day.  The event took place in Washington D.C.  This recognized the invasion of the 1884 Berlin Conference, the highpoint of white European competition for territory in Africa, a process commonly known as the Scramble for Africa.

Originally started in 1955, buses arrived all morning, delivering people from as far away as Boston, Cleveland and Houston. More than 10,000 African Americans were preparing to march out of the predominantly Black neighborhood of Columbia Heights of the nations capitol and make their way to the National Mall. Male and female, young and old, neatly dressed and sporting fatigues, they came to demonstrate against systemic racial inequality. Following nationalist Queen Mother Moore they snaked through Embassy Row and Rock Creek Park as conga players played.

At first, residents hung out their windows cheering a spectacle that later gave way to the surprised faces of white dog-walkers as one of the largest all-Black demonstrations Washington had ever seen paraded into more affluent areas of town.  As the mile-and-a-half-long column passed through Embassy Row and Foggy Bottom, marchers paused to hear speakers speak out against physical symbols of global Black oppression like Rhodesia’s information office, South Africa’s embassy and even the U.S. State Department. The crowd eventually streamed onto the National Mall, chanting, “We are an African people.”

This first American African Liberation Day was a day when Black Americans stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters fighting colonialism and white-minority governance in Africa. The list of speakers and organizers included Angela Davis, poet Amiri Baraka and Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs Jr. With simultaneous marches in San Francisco, Toronto and Antigua, the event represented the genesis of what Komozi Woodard called “one of the most important forces for African liberation in African American history.” At its heart was a reassertion of a transnational African identity that hinged not just on ethnicity but also on a shared history of marginalization and a common hope for the future.

Black Americans had long demonstrated an interest in African freedom, from the protests that erupted after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 to activists like Shirley Graham Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., who journeyed to independent Ghana to engage with Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. But a focus on domestic civil rights and American identity dominated the early 1960s, pushing such internationalism to the side. This declining attention to global affairs coincided with an apparent victory for decolonization.  After 1947, dozens of African and Asian nations freed themselves from Europe’s empires, culminating in 1960’s “Year of Africa,” when 17 states established independence. But Black Africans in the southern third of the continent were fighting for independence from governments unwilling to negotiate namely, Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia and Portuguese Angola and Mozambique.

University of Texas professor Minkah Makalani said African Liberation Day continued the Black internationalist tradition, “though it reflected the most radical strains of Black Power by placing the U.S. alongside Portugal and South Africa as an imperial power.” Those ongoing African revolutions captured the imaginations of many African Americans who felt the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement hid ongoing social and economic inequalities. Apart from fighting, parties like FRELIMO in Mozambique were also trying to construct new nations around universal education, communal commerce and free healthcare. African Americans were inspired not only in the armed self-defense championed by the Black Panthers, but also in more mundane calls by academics and community organizers for Black control of banks, businesses and local government.

This African Liberation Day was an opportunity to support independence struggles abroad while thinking more creatively about how to solve problems at home. African World argued the event fought against the “thinking patterns of the Black community,” which saw the world “only in terms of the local and the immediate, and only in terms of pieces of the whole.” The goal was to identify common sources of global inequality, like state violence and economic exploitation, and explore strategies for combating them. The 1972 organizers hoped to change not only official policy but also business practices that they considered complicit in reinforcing transnational racism, targeting, for example, Gulf Oil with a boycott because it paid Portugal for Angolan oil and hired few Blacks in the United States. The hope was that direct action would aid African liberation and unifies Black Americans, providing a common starting point to work together on domestic problems. This massive Washington march announced a new unity of purpose.

Though largely forgotten today, African Liberation Day produced a renewed sense of pride, which helped popularize Afro-centric cultural practices. This, as well as Portuguese decolonization in 1975, led to the formation of TransAfrica, an advocacy group that arguably became the most influential critic of American support for Rhodesia and South African apartheid. And while TransAfrica could not produce a unified Black voting bloc, solidarity with African revolutions helped legitimize Black Power’s criticism of pervasive state violence and calls for communal organizing that have since become integral parts of American politics.

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