Tuesday, March 06, 2007

From Accra to Selma, Let Freedom Ring

Fifty years ago today, on 1957-03-06, Ghana became the first European colony in Africa to achieve independence. Eight years later, the "Bloody Sunday" attack of 1965-03-07 against civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, marked a pivotal moment in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The exact dates are coincidental, but there is a strong connection between the struggle for African independence and the struggle for African-American equality.

In the 19th century, even as the United States fought a Civil War over the issue of slavery, the major powers of Europe carved up much of the rest of the world into grand empires. Britain and France had the largest, circling the globe, but even Germany (in modern-day Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, and Tanzania) and Italy (Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and briefly Ethiopia) got into the game in Africa, as well as Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. For many years, the only parts of Africa not under European colonial rule were Liberia (founded by freed American slaves) and Ethiopia. Despite pretensions of bringing civilization to the poor "savages," almost all of the benefits of colonialism accrued to the Europeans. World War II threw the entire world into turmoil, with global focus on the necessity of destroying Hitler and his allies, but afterwards, the people in Africa sought to be free not only of the Nazi threat but of their colonial overlords. Likewise, the African-American people sought to make real the promise of freedom and equality.

However, the two movements did not grow in isolation: each encouraged the other. Fifty years ago, at the ceremonies marking Ghanaian independence, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke, and incidents like an African U.N. ambassador being denied service in a restaurant in the United States, highlighted the need for change in this country. The juxtaposition of the independence of Ghana with the routine denial of voting and other fundamental rights to dark-skinned Americans in large portions of the United States, could not stand.

Take a moment today to reflect on the history of Africa and of African-Americans, no matter your own heritage. The paternalistic colonialism of 19th-century Europeans finds a clear echo in the view of many Americans that it is our duty (you might even say our Manifest Destiny) to liberate and democratize Iraq, not least in the ulterior motive of liberating the natural resources of the subjugated lands. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a crucial milestone in African-American political participation, but only four months ago there were substantive charges that systematic efforts were undertaken to suppress the black vote. We must celebrate our successes, but not lose sight of the work that remains to be done.

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