Why you should care
Because motivations behind #BlackLivesMatter have a long, global history.
Buses arrived all morning, delivering people from as far away as Boston, Cleveland and Houston. It was May 27, 1972, and more than 10,000 African-Americans were preparing to march out of the predominantly Black Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Columbia Heights and make their way to the National Mall.
Male and female, young and old, neatly dressed and sporting fatigues, they came to demonstrate against systemic racial inequality. Following nationalist Queen Mother Moore, the “gigantic Black wave” — as one participant proudly described it in the African World newspaper a short time later — snaked through Embassy Row and Rock Creek Park as conga players set the pace. At first, residents hung out their windows cheering — a spectacle that later gave way to the surprised faces of white dog-walkers — as one of the largest all-Black demonstrations Washington had ever seen paraded into more affluent areas of town.
The goal was to identify common sources of global inequality, like state violence and economic exploitation, and explore strategies for combating them.
As the mile-and-a-half-long column passed through Embassy Row and Foggy Bottom, marchers paused to hear speakers rail against physical symbols of global Black oppression — like Rhodesia’s information office, South Africa’s embassy and even the U.S. State Department. The crowd eventually streamed onto the National Mall, chanting, “We are an African people” in what became known as the first African Liberation Day, a day when Black Americans stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters fighting colonialism and white-minority governance in Africa.
The list of speakers and organizers represented a who’s who of Black 1970s leadership, including Black Panther Angela Davis, radical poet Amiri Baraka and Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs. With simultaneous marches in San Francisco, Toronto and Antigua, the event represented the genesis of what Komozi Woodard called “one of the most important forces for African liberation in African-American history.”
At its heart was a reassertion of a transnational African identity that hinged not just on ethnicity but on a shared history of marginalization and a common hope for the future. Black Americans had long demonstrated an interest in African freedom, from the protests that erupted after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 to activists like W.E.B. DuBois, wife Shirley Graham Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., who journeyed to independent Ghana to engage with Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. But a focus on domestic civil rights and American identity dominated the early 1960s, pushing such internationalism to the side.
This declining attention to global affairs coincided with an apparent victory for decolonization. After 1947, dozens of African and Asian nations freed themselves from Europe’s empires, culminating in 1960’s “Year of Africa,” when 17 states established independence. But Black Africans in the southern third of the continent were fighting for independence from governments unwilling to negotiate — namely, apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia and Portuguese Angola and Mozambique. University of Texas professor Minkah Makalani says African Liberation Day continued the Black internationalist tradition, “though it reflected the most radical strains of Black Power by placing the U.S. alongside Portugal and South Africa as an imperial power.”
These ongoing African revolutions captured the imaginations of many African-Americans who felt the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement hid ongoing social and economic inequalities. Apart from fighting, parties like FRELIMO in Mozambique were also trying to construct new nations around universal education, communal commerce and free healthcare. Black Americans were inspired — not only in the armed self-defense championed by the Black Panthers, but also in more mundane calls by academics and community organizers for Black control of banks, businesses and local government.
African Liberation Day was an opportunity to support independence struggles abroad while thinking more creatively about how to solve problems at home. African World argued the event fought against the “thinking patterns of the Black community,” which saw the world “only in terms of the local and the immediate, and only in terms of pieces of the whole.” The goal was to identify common sources of global inequality, like state violence and economic exploitation, and explore strategies for combating them.
Organizers hoped to change not only official policy but also business practices that they considered complicit in reinforcing transnational racism, targeting, for example, Gulf Oil with a boycott because it paid Portugal for Angolan oil and hired few Blacks in the United States. The hope was that direct action would aid African liberation and unify Black Americans, providing a common starting point to work together on domestic problems. The massive Washington march was a way of announcing a new unity of purpose.
Though largely forgotten today, African Liberation Day produced results: Many African-Americans felt a renewed sense of pride, which helped popularize Afro-centric cultural practices. This, as well as Portuguese decolonization in 1975, led to the formation of TransAfrica, an advocacy group that arguably became the most influential critic of American support for Rhodesia and South African apartheid. And while TransAfrica could not produce a unified Black voting bloc, solidarity with African revolutions helped legitimize Black Power’s criticism of pervasive state violence and calls for communal organizing that have since become integral parts of American politics.