Fighting for Freedom in Africa
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
A new book explores the largely untold history of activists in America who fought for the freedom and equal rights of Africans. "No Easy Victories" was co-edited by William Minter. He became involved with African activism while teaching school in Mozambique during the 1960s and '70s. Minter says several multiracial groups and individual activists emerged in America to support African liberation. Sylvia Hill was one of them.
Mr. WILLIAM MINTER (Co-Editor, "No Easy Victories"): Sylvia was part of a group called Southern Africa Support project that had worked in D.C. in terms of education and mobilization around South African liberation in the local community, in the churches, with the trade unions, in the schools. And it was really the people connected with that group, mostly African-American women, who were the key people, who, behind the scenes, put the demonstration together.
CHIDEYA: What were some of her accomplishments?
Mr. MINTER: What Sylvia and her group - and she would be the first person to say - it's not one person, it's a group - were able to do was to build the understanding of South Africa so that when it really hits the television, really hits the news, people are ready to be mobilized.
CHIDEYA: When you think about movements like this - this happened to be about South Africa, but social justice movements in general - is there a tipping point where the force of the movement - you can almost feel it building because there are many people who want to accomplish many things in this world. Not all of them get accomplished. Some don't get accomplished for decades. Was there a moment when you could feel the debate shifting on South African apartheid?
Mr. MINTER: I think in terms of people's awareness about South Africa in the United States, you can really point to a succession of events taking their initiative from things happening in South Africa and from the struggle there, and then a response here and around the world.
So the African National Congress, organizing the defiance campaign against apartheid in the early '50s, with thousands of people getting arrested for defying racial laws. Actually, several years before, large numbers of people began to be arrested in campaigns in Montgomery and otherwise in the south. That had its impact here, both in terms of - really, also, it was one of the examples that people here are built on.
CHIDEYA: That's not necessarily known a lot, that people inside the U.S. civil rights movement would look for inspiration to Africa.
Mr. MINTER: Exactly. And that's sort of one of the things that we wanted to do our book about. There's a very nice quote from Nelson Mandela that we cite in the book. When he first visited the United States about the - after being released from prison, he was interviewed by a reporter from Ebony magazine who asked him - this may not be the exact words but it's what I remember - Mr. Mandela, can you tell us, you know, how your movement learned from or gained inspiration from the U.S. civil rights movement? And he answered very diplomatically. Yes, you are correct. We have many similarities and we have learned much from each other. It goes both ways.
And it did go both ways and the impact not just to South Africa but at the independence of Ghana and on a broader scale, the independence of India and Gandhi had a tremendous impact here that is really neglected. It sort of dropped out of the history. And people, even when they tell the history of the civil rights movement, they tell it as if it was something just happening here and as if it wasn't part of the same wave of resistance leading to the independent, anti-colonialism, anti-apartheid. I mean, the fact that these happened at the same time, they were interconnected. They weren't just, you know, completely separate tracks.
In a sense, one can almost see the breaking, the disconnection in the '50s because it was very clear during World War II and right after World War II and with respect to anti-colonialism and race, people like Paul Robeson, people like W.E.B. Du Bois, clearly made that connection.
And one of the things that happened during McCarthyism is that there was really a crackdown on these people making this connection because it was seen as communist, as unpatriotic, to move to an emphasis on, you know, the U.S. civil rights movement is really patriotic and emphasizing the fact that clearing things up here in terms of race would improve our chances in the Cold War instead of conceiving it as it's a common struggle.
CHIDEYA: It sounds to me like there have been waves. What you're describing is waves of connection and fissure between African-Americans or people looking for racial justice in America and African liberation. So where are we now on that wave?
Mr. MINTER: Post-apartheid is in a sense similar to post-civil rights act in the United States. One has gotten rid of racism, discrimination and segregation on the books, from the legal structure. But the consequences of that those decades and generations and even centuries of oppression are not in the past, they're present.
However, it becomes extraordinarily more complicated when the differences, when the inequalities are not blatant written into law. In a sense, some of the most effective organizers for the civil rights movement where the white policemen in the south would beat up protesters, just as the white South African regime was one of the most effective organizers for the anti-apartheid movement because they were so obviously evil.
Today, whether in Africa, in the United States or around the world, it's a lot harder to figure out who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. We're almost in a building period. When the connections have to grow enough, the knowledge has to grow enough before one can even organize either on an Africa-wide bases or an Africa-U.S. bases, campaigns that can really make a difference.
So how does this happen? We don't have any answer except that it has to be through people and that works. And one of the things we emphasize in the book is that one of the most critical networks now building is the increasing number of activists from new African immigrants.
That was also true before in a different way. I mean, many of the key people who made organizing help in the United States, it wasn't just Americans, whether white or black. It was African exiles. It was African students. It's hard to see how it fits together. The issues whether they are conflict, whether they are economic underdevelopment, whether they're HIV/AIDS, whether there is the new U.S. militarism helping to back an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, we really went through several decades of educating people. I mean, not abstract education but political education before it could grew - grow enough to make a difference. And I think, you know, not that one gives up on making an immediate impact. But one may have to think, you know, in terms of a 20 to 30-year timeframe.
CHIDEYA: Well, Bill, thank you so much.
Mr. MINTER: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: William Minter is the co-editor of the new book "No Easy Victories." He is also the editor of Africa Focus Bulletin, and he spoke with us from NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
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