The Making of a Civil Rights Leader Essay

`I have no doubt that the question of the relationship of the American Negro to Africa is one of great importance. I am convinced that we have a moral as well as a practical responsibility to keep the civil rights movement in America close to our African brothers.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King’s belief about Africans and Africa in general is an integral issue of any analysis of how his ideas went beyond the land of America to take on a global importance. Sadly, his thoughts about African Diaspora have not been thoroughly examined. This is also the case with his experiences in different regions of the African world, and of his successes and efforts in support of African emancipation. These experiences and efforts influenced King’s ideas of racial circumstances in the United States in reflective and philosophical ways, and they reveal a connection between King and the pervasive attention given to Africa and matters related to being African among blacks since the latter part of the 1960s.

The thoughts and influence of King on Africans and the issue of African Diaspora is the focus of this research paper. A great deal of emphasis is given on King’s appreciation of ties and responsibilities between individuals of African lineage far and wide, and on his influences on the fight for African emancipation and self-determination. The pro-independence components in King’s ideas were conclusively shown in those areas of his oral and written works wherein he concentrated on particular issues confronted by individuals of African lineage all over the globe. His emphasis on the situation of his fellow Africans in the U.S. has been widely studied and well documented. King articulated a profound concern for Africa’s fight against colonialism and racial discrimination. He proclaimed in 1956, “We could turn our eyes to Africa and notice there two hundred million black men and women under the pressing yoke of the British, the Dutch and the French. For years all of these people were dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated”. King proclaimed a year afterward that “you also know that for years and for centuries Africa has been one of the most exploited continents in the history of the world”— “the continent that has suffered all of the pain and affliction that could be mustered up by other nations”.

King believes that the mistreatment and coercion imposed on Africa over the years were most apparent in the slave trade, which plundered West Africa’s Gold Coast. He also emphasized that the misuse and abuse of Africa by the white civilizations persisted until the 20th century, inhibiting not just the progress and expansion of West Africa, but the Union of South Africa and other areas of eastern, southern, and northern Africa. King’s perception of the African situation in general pushed him to believe in 1959 that “It is impossible for Angola to stand in Africa and not be affected by what is happening in Nigeria and Kenya and Rhodesia.” The interest of King in Africa was widely expressed in a variety of ways. In 1957, he positively responded to a private request from Prime Minister Kwane Nkrumah of Ghana to see the liberation of the Gold Coast. King’s wife, who accompanied him in the trip, portrayed the invitation of Nkrumah as “one of the most exciting things that happened to us,” and stressed that the prime minister “knew America well and had invited a number of outstanding American Negroes to share Ghana’s great day.”

King also talked about the significance of the invitation of Nkrumah, arguing that it was an encouraging assertion of the Montgomery struggle and of the bonds that were forged between the Gold Coast and African Americans. The visit to Ghana, which is described in numerous documents as the “King’s first sojourn on the continent of his fathers” deeply influenced King’s view of the African situation across the globe. In Ghana, the civil rights leader and his fellow sojourners were astounded by the beautiful scenery and the splendid state-owned Hotel Ambassador. King’s wife said, “We realized that we ourselves had been the victims of the propaganda that all Africa was primitive and dirty.” However, there was one aspect of Ghanaian culture that echoed the disastrous outcome of White colonialism, an aspect that greatly troubled King:

Almost everyone we saw in Accra had servants. We were told that they were paid only twenty-eight cents a day, the result of colonialism. Seeing how that system had demoralized them bothered us and marred our trip… They had been trained to bow, almost to cringe; their stature was decreased. It was heartbreaking.

After the celebration of independent in Ghana, King visited Nigeria. King’s wife remembered that the dismally impoverished Nigerian people provoked King to fiercely denounce and vilify the abuse of Africa by Europe. When he went back to Montgomery in 1957, he delivered a moving homily at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In this address he talked about the Exodus narrative to stress the struggle and resistance of Africa against colonialism, to illustrate how the tremendous efforts of Moses and his devotees to escape Egypt strongly resembled Africa’s resistance against the domination of White civilizations. King placed greater emphasis on Ghana and its campaign against imperialist and colonialist motives. He afterward talked about the Ghanaian experience as an example of the strength of diplomacy, and foretold that Ghana, under a competent leader, would sooner or later become one of the most powerful civilizations in of the world. King’s experience in Ghana stimulated a longing to gain more knowledge about Africa. He studied the life and works of Nkrumah and numerous news reports of the celebration of Ghanaian independence.

The liaison between King and Premier Ben Bella of the New Algerian Republic was also one of the major inspirations of the civil rights leader. In 1962, King and Bella talked about matters ranging from the effectiveness of diplomacy to the Cuban predicament. Nevertheless, it was on the issue of racism that most of their discussion was focused on. The conversation between King and Bella endowed them with a sense of unity and singularity in the campaign for African emancipation. King recalled, “All through our talks he [Ben Bella] repeated or inferred, ‘We are brothers.’” Based on this feeling of unity King recognized that “the battle of the Algerians against colonialism and the battle of the Negro against segregation is a common struggle.” King viewed the appearance of African rulers and freedom fighters like Ben Bella and Nkrumah as a strong encouragement and influence for African intellectuals engaged in the civil rights movement.

King was similarly heedful of the influence of Caribbean leaders on the civil rights movement and on the African resistance across the globe. For King, the Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey had embodied the ties and mutual relationship that existed between African Americans, West Indian blacks, Africans, and other groups in the African Diaspora. African artists like Sidney Poitier, Stokely Carmichael, and Harry Belafonte, who invested a great deal of their resources, time, and effort to the civil rights movement, signified for King the bonds between the liberation movements of Africans and West Indians in the U.S. African leaders like Haiti’s Dr. Francois Duvalier and Jamaica’s Prime Minister Norman W. Manley were highly regarded by King, primarily because they also fight for African liberation and autonomy. Duvalier and Manley greatly admired King as well, regarding him as an inspiration and expression of exploited Africans the world over. This is the reason Duvalier called King as a leader of “Negro-African peoples,” and declared that King “shall remain for us Negroes the Mahatma of the Western Hemisphere.”

The efforts and struggles of King in support of Africans, and for African liberation across the globe, gained him the esteem and deference of black people everywhere; an extent of esteem and deference given to only a small number of African American leaders in history. Over the centuries Africans, by their persistent demand for integrity and equality, have influenced greatly the encouraging global image of America’s capacity to realize true democracy. They have stayed at the forefront of movements for marginalized groups, women, and ethnic minorities. It is no mistake that Martin Luther King, chosen as a Nobel Peace Laureate, is an African American.


Martin Luther King, Jr. is an internationally prominent political figure because of his audacious participation in the civil rights movement in America. His speeches and writings moved the entire world and immortalized his intellect and soul. But what the world does not know is that King’s prowess was shaped by the African Diaspora itself. His journey to the African continent opened his eyes to the injustices and predicaments caused by a long tradition of colonialism. His strength and inspiration as a leader was shaped by his interaction with other African leaders like Ben Bella and Nkrumah. His courage was forged and strengthened by his actual experience with prejudice and wrongness in his sojourns all over Africa.

Africans in the U.S. are aware of their ties with global African struggle; they have a historical and well-built custom of relationship not merely with Africans, but also with the marginalized, impoverished, and other minority groups. African Americans have stayed at the forefront of the fight for human rights. The 21st century might witness the coming together of this legacy, the promises of the Diaspora, and Africa’s economic and political progress and hence the unquestionable involvement of Africa in global affairs.

Works Cited

Albert, Peter & Ronald Hoffman. We shall overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black freedom struggle. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.

Baldwin, Lewis. To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King., Jr. New York: Fortress Press, 1992. Print.

Golden, James & Richard Rieke. The Rhetoric of Black Americans. New York: C.E. Merrill Pub. Co., 1971. Print.

Jackson, Troy. Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

Meriwether, James. Proudly We Can be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

Sunnemark, Fredrik. Ring Out Freedom!: The Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. Print.