Ghana’s imminent independence from British colonialism in 1957 was not only watched closely by other colonized Africans, but by the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States.
The campaign for equal rights for black people in the US was at its height and its leaders at the time felt a connection to this soon to be free black African country.
Kwame Nkrumah, then prime minister of the Gold Coast (as the colony was known), was intent on making a political point along with the pomp and circumstance of new statehood.
While the US government was invited (represented by vice president Richard Nixon), so were leaders of the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King. In his letter inviting King to Accra, Nkrumah wrote: “It would give me great personal pleasure if you should be able to attend.”
It was important for Nkrumah to have a figure like King attend the independence celebrations because his vision of pan-Africanism extended beyond continental Africa.
As a student in 1930s and 1940s United States, Nkrumah saw at first hand the racism black people endured and it radicalized his consciousness about Africanness and blackness. In some ways, it was a contributing force for him to return home in 1947 and eventually become the lead architect of Ghana’s independence ten years later. King travelled to Accra, Ghana along with his wife Coretta Scott on a trip sponsored by the Montgomery Improvement Association and King’s congregation the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Prominent black leaders including Ralph Bunche (the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950) and Mordecai Johnson (the first African American president of Howard University) were also in town.
From archival information, it is clear that the two men shared an admiration for one another. Just like King, Nkrumah’s activist platform was premised on nonviolent civil disobedience which he termed “Positive Action” and involved strikes, marches and boycotts of European-made goods. Positive Action caused Nkrumah and other nationalist leaders to be imprisoned by the colonial administration.
In Accra, the pair shared a private audience and King would later say he was “impressed with the competence and dedication of the prime minister.”
Even though King fell ill during his time in Accra, he attended all the major symbolic events that witnessed the end of the colony and the birth of a new nation, with a new name and great optimism.
He attended the last parliamentary session of the colony and at midnight on Mar. 6 when Ghana officially came into being, he watched as Britain’s Union Jack was lowered and replaced with Ghana’s Black Star flag. He witnessed the country’s new anthem reverberate among the jubilant crowd.
“Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment,” King said weeks later.
In a radio interview later that morning, he said he believed Ghana’s independence “will have worldwide implications and repercussions—not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America…This gives new hope to me in the struggle for freedom as I confront it.”
Indeed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed five months later and a more expansive Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 outlawing all forms of discrimination in the US. In 1960 alone, 17 black African countries declared independence in what was dubbed ‘The Year of Africa’ joining Ghana and Guinea (1958).
While King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is known worldwide, his first sermon following his return from Ghana is equally poignant.
In this impassioned sermon which he titled: “The Birth of a New Nation,” King shared his experiences in Ghana and his four takeaways from that trip.
He told his congregation, Ghana’s road to independence should teach African Americans that “the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire…Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil.”
King’s second lesson for the service was that freedom can be achieved through nonviolent means on the side of freedom campaigners. While Ghana’s nationalist leaders devised a strategy of peaceful resistance, the colonial administration responded ruthlessly with arrests, imprisonment and the killing of marchers.
King reflected on the symbolism of Nkrumah dancing with the Duchess of Kent, who was representing the Queen, at a ball to celebrate independence.
“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community…Ghana teaches us: that you can break loose from evil through nonviolence, through a lack of bitterness.”
Ghana’s story also taught King that there is a price to be paid during the quest for freedom. King recalled seeing Nkrumah and his ministers wearing their prison clothes to the last session of the colonial parliament.
“Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy. Ghana reminds us that whenever you [long for freedom]…you better get ready for stiff backs. You better get ready for some homes to be bombed. You better get ready for some churches to be bombed.”
It was a price many black Americans and their leaders including Malcolm X and King himself paid in their 1965 and 1968 assassinations respectively.
As a renowned reverend, King’s final lesson from Ghana was God’s support for the fight of the oppressed. “Ghana tells me that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice…the God of the universe eventually takes a stand,” he preached. King also used this instance to castigate the Church of English for their support for the British Empire.
King also used his sermon to encourage educated African Americans to avail themselves and help build Ghana. “…It is my hope that even people from America will go to Africa as immigrants…Right now is the time that American Negroes can lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation.”
This is a call coupled with Ghana’s policies towards the descendants of enslaved Africans that has endured over the last six decades including 2019’s successful Year of Return campaign.
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