When It Went International: Pan-Africanism, Black Freedom Struggle, and The African Liberation Support Committee

By Eric Eingold

Previously Presented at Against The Current Conference, Power, Order, Resistance. May 4, 2009.

Emerging out of the different currents within the black freedom movement in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the evolution of the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) in many ways symbolizes the trajectory and ultimate defeat of the radical left in the United States in the early to mid-70s. Grounded in the political experience of the intense radicalization of the mid-1960s and greatly influenced by the teachings of and assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the ALSC came to be in many ways through the initial expressions of the Black Power Movement, an expression of political and social aggravation of black youth within the Civil Rights Movement directed at the leadership of that movement. The fact that Dr. King did not until 1967 even touch upon the Vietnam War in his rhetoric, combined with the movement’s continued unquestioned embrace of integrationist thought, were catalysts which radicalized the movement. At this time in the late 1960’s, numerous radical black organizations began to emerge, with an immensely broad array of political, cultural, and economic visions, the crux of this being the embrace of an internationalist approach, also coming out of Malcolm X’s political legacy. It was in this climate that the ALSC organized around an appealing “vision of post-colonial Africa which brought together claims of state sovereignty and democratic rights situated aside a sweeping critique of the post-Bretton Woods global political economy and the excessive influence of transnational corporations within this arrangement.”1 Additionally, at this time the Black Studies Movement picked up steam, and it was in this political environment that what became the ALSC began to organize in a serious way.

Very much the main character of the ALSC was a man who went by the name Owusu Sadauki. A veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, Sadauki moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, after leaving the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to continue organizing in the Deep South. In 1969 he actively worked with striking Duke University students and was on campus supporting a student occupation of an administration building where black students were demanding “a black studies department, an end to harassment by the police, a black dormitory on campus, and for there to be black enrollment of 29 per cent by the fall of 1973.”2 Later that year, Sadauki in his work with the Student Organization for Black Unity in Greensboro, launched the Malcolm X Liberation University. It is crucial to emphasize the importance of the creation of this institution. The classes at Malcolm X Liberation University were designed to provide students with a framework through which black education could become relevant to the needs of the black community and the struggle for black liberation not only in the United States, but internationally. The classes, “Independent African Civilization,” “Slavery,” “Colonialism, “Neo-Colonialism,” and “The Independent African World” is a clear sign of the grassroots work being done within the black community that was linking the black freedom struggle in the United States to the liberation struggles on the African Continent, in Guinea Bissau and Southern Africa. Later on that year, Sadauki had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania to attend a conference on education in post-colonial Africa.

At that time in the late 60’s early 70’s, a host of progressive governments have swept across the continent and while there, Sadauki met two American filmmakers who had arranged a trip with FRELIMO cadre who were in Dar es Salaam for the conference, people like Samora Machel, and when one of their crew got sick, Sadauki was able to go in his place. The trip to Mozambique took them into some of the FRELIMO liberated zones, where the column he was traveling with was attacked by the Portuguese army, at this point being almost completely backed by the U.S. through NATO. While there, he also reflected on ways that people of African descent in the U.S. could materially contribute to the liberation struggles on the African continent. His discussions with those he was traveling with in FRELIMO ended up with his realization that the struggle for liberation on the African continent was directly linked with the black freedom struggle in the U.S.

Upon his return to the United States, Sadauki begins to organize what becomes the African Liberation Day Coordinate Committee, with the vision of having, in his words “thousands from all sectors of the black community – workers, students, welfare mothers, the elderly ministers, preachers, lawyers, doctors, the unemployed, teachers – to join together and let these people know that we support the armed African liberation.”3 Here we see a tactic emerging that very clearly and deliberately linked together the liberation struggles in Africa with the struggles for self-determination within the U.S. under one common anti-imperialist framework. This organization of people that formed the ALDCC decided to hold an African Liberation Day march on May 27th 197 — the Saturday after May 25th, a day of continent-wide demonstrations in Africa marking the founding of the Organization of African Unity. Out of this, the African Liberation Day Coordinating Committee begins to resemble a black united front of sorts that brings together a number of organizations that differed on just about everything possible, but came together to make this march happen. People like: radical playwright Amiri Baraka (CAP), Erica Huggins from the Black Panthers, Ron Karenga of the US Organization, as well as Congressmen Charles Diggs, and John Conyers, all participated in the planning of African Liberation day 1972. And it was a huge success.

In the lead up to the march, there was a flood of political activity that directly confronted corporations that were profiting from working with the remaining minority regimes on the continent. Students in Burnside, Louisiana worked with the International Longshoreman’s Association who refused to unload a shipment of Rhodesian chrome, and two-dozen black students occupied a Harvard administration building to protests the university’s decision not to divest itself from Gulf Oil due to their operations in Angola.

An estimated 30,000 people showed up in Washington, D.C. for a 5-mile march that began at Malcolm X Park, stopped at the Rhodesian Information Center and the South African Embassy and ended at Lumumba Square, making the day of action a huge success. There were other marches that day too throughout the hemisphere, in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Toronto, in Dominica, in Antigua. In total, 60,000 people showed up at these marches in explicit opposition to capitalism, racism, and imperialism, and to voice uncompromising support of the armed liberation struggles on the African continent. This is something that is massively important for those of us who question the viability of mass movement building, and this is the lesson we have to learn from organizations and people who were working in the past for a more libratory future. The organizers of African Liberation Day 1972 were able to make students, workers, doctors, lawyers – not necessarily political people – care about what was going on in Angola. And perhaps even more importantly, they were able to show those people that what happened in Angola affected what happened in Atlanta. The organizing capacity of the ALSC is remarkable to reflect upon, and that needs to be at the center for those of us who are trying to fuse our academic work with political activism.

As the ALDCC sought to become more than an ad hoc committee only coordinating demonstrations once a year, they formed an organization, which became the ALSC, they crafted an agenda which placed the material support of the liberation struggles in Africa as a top priority. The organization set a $40,000 fundraising goal that it would send to FRELIMO, the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde, UNITA in Angola, and the Zimbabwe Africa National Union. The goal of this was two-fold: to raise money actively by working with the grassroots, and to raise educational awareness about the liberation struggles both at home and abroad. Sadauki told the press that they would hold barbecues, church dinners, dances, and bake sales to raise money to send to the liberation movements. And it worked. In 1972 Amilcar Cabral was invited to speak at Lincoln University, a historically black university in rural Pennsylvania, and at the speech, he was presented with a check of more than two thousand dollars raised from the Boston chapter of the ALSC.

Yet, like many other organizations in the United States in that time, the fragile balance that allowed the ALSC to operate so broadly in such a successful way was its ability to manage the various converging ideologies within the organization. Yet this fragile alliance was in the balance, even less than one year after its tremendously successful rally. When the leadership of the organization embraced Marxism-Leninism, and other parts of the ALSC looked in different ideological directions, the final result was an end to the kind of mass-based political movement that made the ALSC such a success in its organizing capacity, and by 1975, three different African Liberation Day marches were held in Washington, organized by three different organizations. In effect, the organization was defunct after mobilizing tens of thousands of everyday people around a strategy of supporting the revolutions in Africa while also talking about revolutionary possibilities achievable in the United States and possible victories realizable through community organizing efforts.

Rather than swimming against the current, the ALSC emerged out of the many different trends within the larger black freedom movement. The unique history of this curiously understudied organization in relation to the impact it had not only on American politics, but internationally as well, is an excellent example of the ways that social movements and organizations pose a threat to established order. Unquestionably, the world is a completely different place than it was when the ALSC was active but we can learn a tremendous amount from the efforts of the ALSC, its ability to form a united front of people who were concerned with the political moment in Guinea-Bissau, the fact that the organization was actively asking the question of how people of African descent living in the United States relate to their Americanness, what citizenship meant to them. The ALSC made all these discussions of citizenship and strategy, difficult theoretical ideas, easy to understand. But the challenge is to go further than they did, to build a movement capable of succeeding where they failed, and to do so we need to learn their history, we need to be aware of the potential of organizations that previously sought to transform radically the society in which they lived if we are in any way concerned about impacting our unique political situation.

Works Cited

Johnson, Cedric. “From Popular Anti-Imperialism to Sectarianism: The African
Liberation Support Committee and Black Power Radicals.” New Political Science Vol. 25 No 4. (December 2003).

Wilkins, Fanon. “In The Belly of the Beast.” PhD diss., New York University, 2001.

“White Students Begin Boycott of Classes at Duke.” New York Times. February 14, 1969.

1 Cedric Johnson, “From Popular Anti-Imperialism to Sectarianism: The African Liberation Support Committee and Black Power Radicals,” New Political Science Vol. 25 No 4, (December 2003), 480.

2 “White Students Begin Boycott of Classes at Duke,” New York Times, February 14, 1969.

3 Fanon Wilkins, “In The Belly of the Beast,” (PhD diss., New York University, 2001), 145.

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Eric Eingold is a first year MA student in the Politics Department.  His interests include American history, transnationalism, Latin American studies, Immigration, Pan Africanism, diasporic studies, and the sociology of sport.