A Question of Freedom: African Americans and Ghanaian Independence

Article excerpt

Between the cold war years of 1957 and 1961, the specter of independence in British West Africa, specifically Ghana, caught the attention of the world. These latter years of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency also marked increased African American activism in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. During this period, the primary goal of United States foreign policy was the global containment of communism. In Africa, the United States sought to exploit friendly relations with Ghana and Ghanaian independence as a means to extend American influence throughout the continent. In contrast, African Americans viewed Ghanaian independence as a strike for freedom and equality. Accordingly, African Americans became acutely interested in Ghana in the months preceding and following March 6, 1957, independence ceremonies. Ghana became intricately entwined with the civil rights struggle, and grew from a reaffirmation of racial ties to an ancestral homeland. Many African Americans hoped that Ghanaian independence could help them to obtain freedom in America, or if necessary, allow them to gain access to a freer life in an independent black African country.(1)

Though global in intent, the American commitment to containment focused more on Europe than Asia, Africa, or Latin America. In pre-independence Africa, the United States dealt with the colonial metropoles in matters regarding the cold war. The decolonization of British West Africa forced the United States government to cultivate diplomatic ties with the sub-Saharan countries to gain independence. The Eisenhower administration viewed an independent Ghana and its prime minister, American educated Kwame Nkrumah, as vital ingredients to combat communism in Africa and to help influence other nationalist African leaders to ally with the Western powers. The importance of Nkrumah and Ghana was also apparent to African Americans who viewed the independent black African country with reverence and pride. For them, Ghana became a symbol of freedom during a time of black American civil unrest and white backlash.(2)

Since few African Americans held politically influential posts during this period, their primary outlet for political opinions was the African American press--the United Negro Press (UNP)--and the black newspapers that thrived in almost every American city. These newspapers served as the sounding posts for black opinions and provided a system of global information for African Americans, who used the black press as a means to stay abreast of worldwide developments that affected Africa and the diaspora. The black press also provided an outlet for black sentiments on global issues, and during the period, Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah shared front page coverage with racial violence in the South and Martin Luther King, Jr. The detailed coverage of independence in Africa analyzed the impact of cold war issues on Untied States foreign policy toward Ghana and the impact of Ghana on the civil rights struggle in the United States.(3)

Though official government records and correspondence did not reflect the concerns and direct opinions of African Americans on independence in West Africa, they provided an accurate assessment of the government's position on cold war policy towards African self-determination. Since Soviet influence in sub-Saharan Africa remained low, the State Department focused on preventing communist infiltration by courting various African liberation interests. This led to the paradoxical policy of espousing self-determination and decolonization while supporting the European colonial powers. In a 1955 Office of African Affairs memorandum, American officials found the decolonization issue difficult to handle. They did not want to "adopt courses of action which would directly undermine the Metropolitan powers" nor could they "afford to ignore the aspirations of Africans." In short, the officials believed that the colonial possessions were important to the economies of the Metropolitan powers, but also realized that supporting self-determination in Africa both thwarted the communist threat and provided access to Africa's raw materials. …