By Roger House
As the U.S. Democratic primaries unfold, many African-Americans have expressed displeasure with the influence of white, liberal forces on their political leaders. So, this election season may be a good time to revisit the legacy of the Pan-African project. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” a galvanizing event in the politics of Pan-Africanism.
The Declaration was adopted at a conference of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in August, 1920. UNIA was a Pan-African movement founded in Harlem by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. The event was held at Madison Square Garden and involved members from different states and countries. Of prime concern was the question of black development under Jim Crow in the U.S. and white dominance in the West Indies, South America, and Africa.
The Declaration demanded African independence and civil rights for blacks of the diaspora. It issued a political manifesto seeking control of black institutions, fair employment and wages, unlimited educational opportunities, training of doctors and medical technicians, safeguarding of women and children, and trade links between the black societies.
The Declaration also promoted a cultural agenda of instruction in black history, a holiday to commemorate African culture, establishment of the Pan-African flag with the symbolic red, black, and green “colors of the Negro race,” and the Pan-African anthem, “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers.”
UNIA was a populist movement led by the charismatic Garvey. However, Garveyism was only one episode in the broader politics of Pan-Africanism. Parallel to the UNIA program were the Pan-African Congresses organized by intellectuals. The first was sponsored in London in 1900 by the Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester-Williams. By 1920, the meetings were conducted under the scholar and civil rights leader, W.E.B. DuBois.
In totality, the various movements addressed a broad program of African unity. After the third Pan-African Congress in 1923, DuBois took measure of the fledgling efforts in “The Negro Mind Reaches Out.”
“Pan-Africanism as a living movement, a tangible accomplishment, is a little and negligible thing,” he acknowledged, adding, “And yet slowly but surely the movement grows and the day faintly dawns when the new force for international understanding and racial readjustment will and must be felt.”
The goals of the American civil rights and African liberation movements were forged in these associations: Influenced were Presidents Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and singer Miriam Makeba of South Africa, among others. Martin Luther King attended the inauguration of Nkrumah and was commemorated on a Ghanaian postage stamp. Pan-Africanist leaders grappled with the mean realities of under-development and neo-colonial control. All were indebted to the visionaries of 1920.
Today, black political leaders are enmeshed in a quagmire of unrequited liberal alliances. Witness the current experience in the Democratic presidential primaries: black concerns are marginalized in a process that entitles white regions, billionaires, and political interests.
The centennial of the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World is an opportunity for the political culture to reassess the merits of a Pan-African outlook. How can government resources advance the goals of self-reliance, community development, and global outreach? How to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and programs of uplift for our young?
In this election year, black voices in politics, media, and education should debate the value of a Pan-African strategy. Most immediately, can more be achieved from attention to politics in key southern states than to the Democratic presidential primaries? Let’s face facts, the presidential election will come and go – but opportunities for empowerment in the states require planning.
The Georgia imperative is the most pressing need: In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Democrat Stacey Abrams proved that a winning black-led political coalition is well within reach. It took practices of alleged election fraud to thwart victory. The Congressional Black Caucus must demand a public House inquiry into the allegations – it could provide information on the means of voter suppression in upcoming elections and the ways to update the Voting Rights Act.
The establishment of a winning black-led alliance in Georgia could create new opportunities for the young generation: The states are laboratories for health and education policies, training grounds for political leaders, settings for small business and overseas trade, and representation in the Senate. Other majority-minority groups have used state power to advantage – the Mormons in Utah, Hispanics in New Mexico, and Asians in Hawaii.
In closing, the centennial of the Declaration is a moment to consider anew the Pan-African project. Such actions could build on the historical awakening of the recent “Year of Return.” They could reimagine the call of the Declaration to “encourage our race all over the world and to stimulate it to a higher and grander destiny.”
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”