by guest contributor James Farquharson
The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict. In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.
Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.
While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.
In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.” The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.
However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:
Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.
The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.
Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.
As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.
By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.
Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.
James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April.