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Background on the international dimensions of the African-American question

Part 2: The global struggle’s link to Detroit’s 1967 rebellion

Published Aug 13, 2007 9:47 AM

On July 23, 1967, a confrontation between Detroit vice squad officers and a section of the Black community exploded into a major rebellion, the largest in U.S. history up to that time. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in National Guard and U.S. Army paratroopers to repress the population. The result was 43 dead, 467 injured and more than 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings burned down. The following is Part II of excerpts based on a talk given by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, to a Workers World forum in Detroit this July 21.

The African struggle against slavery, racial exploitation and national oppression has always been international. Africans were brought here for the sole purpose of slavery beginning in the 17th century. Some of the earliest institutions formed by Africans in North America were self-identified as efforts to reclaim their national historical and cultural identity.

Hence the First African Baptist Church of the late 18th century in the southeast region of the country and the African Methodist Episcopal Church formed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Northeast illustrated that despite the period of slavery, Blacks still identified themselves as Africans.

It has been well documented that during the slave period there were many revolts that took various forms of expression. This phenomena has been written about by historians such as C. L. R. James in “A History of Negro Revolt” (1938), Herbert Aptheker in “American Negro Slave Revolts” (1943), and W. E. B. DuBois in “John Brown” (1909), and “Black Reconstruction” (1935).

The Pan-African Conference movement was begun in Chicago in 1893 with such people in the leadership as Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. This Pan-African movement continued with conferences held in England in 1900 under the direction of Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams, with W. E. B. DuBois and other African Americans playing a prominent role.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Pan-African movement was revived with DuBois organizing a Congress in Paris in 1919 with other leaders from the African world, including Addie W. Hunton, who had gone to France during the war to work with African-American servicemen suffering under deplorable conditions.

The [Marcus] Garvey Movement—the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)—founded in Jamaica and relocated in New York, reached its zenith during the 1920s with millions of members and supporters, its Negro World newspaper and its establishment of chapters throughout the world, including the African continent.

Pan-African labor movement

The work of George Padmore through the Communist International sought to establish a Pan-African workers movement during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Padmore in his classic work “The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers” (1931) chronicled the international plight of African peoples on the continent and in the diaspora. With the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, thousands of Africans rebelled against Italian merchants in Harlem and sought to travel to East Africa in order to fight to save Africa from Mussolini’s fascist regime.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Fifth Pan-African Congress at Manchester, England, was organized by George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah and W. E. B. DuBois, setting the stage for the post-war struggles for national independence, civil rights, Black power and Pan-Africanism.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Negro Congress sought to utilize the new international body as a mechanism for raising the question of the plight of African people in the U.S. W. E. B. DuBois, who had rejoined the Association in 1944, conducted research for a publication to expose the hypocrisy of the U.S. as a purported champion of human rights around the world. As a result of these efforts to bring the plight of African Americans before the United Nations, a serious split developed with the Association by 1948. The Civil Rights Congress under attorney William Patterson and Paul Robeson did eventually present a petition entitled “We Charge Genocide,” in 1951 to the United Nations.

During this period, the so-called anti-Communist witch hunts were in full swing. Organizations like the NAACP were forced to expel anyone who did not pledge full allegiance to the U.S. Organizations such as the Civil Rights Congress, which presented the “We Charge Genocide” petition, and the Council on African Affairs were driven out of existence as a result of government repression.

The leadership of this wing of the movement was persecuted: driven underground, economically sanctioned, vilified in the press, put on trial and imprisoned. Even W. E. B. Dubois was brought before the federal courts for being a foreign agent. Although he was acquitted of these spurious charges, his passport was confiscated and he was eventually isolated by certain intellectual and political circles.

It was only the resurgence of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s that really broke the back of [Sen. Joseph] McCarthyism and anti-Communist hysteria. In addition, the advent of Malcolm X as the national spokesperson of the Nation of Islam, liberated the speech of the African-American people. When Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam in March of 1964, he openly declared that his aim was to merge the struggles of Africans in the diaspora with those taking place on the continent.

In the founding address for the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) delivered on June 28, 1964, Malcolm X stated that: “Just ten years ago on the African continent, our people were colonized. They were suffering all forms of colonization, oppression, exploitation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and every other kind of –ation. And in a short time, they have gained more independence, more recognition, more respect as human beings than you and I have. And you and I live in a country which is supposed to be the citadel of education, freedom, justice, democracy and all of those other pretty-sounding words.

“So it was our intention to try and find out what it was our African brothers were doing to get results, so that you and I could study what they had done and perhaps gain from that study or benefit from their experiences. And my traveling over there was designed to help find out how,” he said.

Ideological struggle in Detroit

In the city of Detroit, the ideological struggle within the civil rights movement was intensifying. After the huge march down Woodward Avenue on June 23, 1963, a split eventually arose within the Detroit Council for Human Rights between Rev. C. L. Franklin and the Henry brothers along with Rev. Albert Cleage. One major issue over which disagreement arose was support for the newly formed Freedom Now Party that sought to run independent African-American candidates for political office.

In November of 1963 both the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL) led by Cleage and the Henry brothers and DCHR under the direction of Franklin held separate conferences in the city. The most notable of course was the Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference that took place at King Solomon’s Baptist Church on the city’s west side. Malcolm X delivered his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech, which in a sense represented his last will and testament to the Nation of Islam.

In this speech Malcolm questioned the commitment to non-violence on the part of the Civil Rights Movement. He also said that “If you are afraid of Black nationalism, you are afraid of revolution.” This was an open challenge to the wing of the movement led by Dr. King, Rev. C. L. Franklin, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and others.

In 1964, attorney Milton Henry traveled to Egypt on behalf of the Afro-American Broadcasting Corporation, an independent media group which hosted a radio program over the Black-owned WCHB, in order to cover Malcolm X’s visit to the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) second annual summit. Malcolm’s aim was to lobby African leaders and seek their support for bringing the plight of African Americans before the U.N. This was an effort to re-kindle the work done earlier by the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In a letter from Malcolm X written from Cairo dated Aug. 29, 1964, he stated that:

“You must realize that what I am trying to do is very dangerous, because it is a direct threat to the entire international system of racist exploitation. It is a threat to discrimination in all its international forms. Therefore, if I die or am killed before making it back to the States, you can rest assured that what I’ve already set in motion will never be stopped.

“The foundation has been laid and no one can hardly undo it. Our problem has been internationalized. The results of what I am doing will materialize in the future and then all of you will be able to see why it is necessary for me to be here this long and what I was laying the foundation for while here.” (Taken from “By Any Means Necessary,” Pathfinder Press, 1970).

Next, Part 3—Soul Serenade: The role of international affairs in 1967.