King’s Anti-Imperialism and the Challenge for Obama

The Martin Luther King, Jr. that most Americans know is the man who said, “I have a dream” at a massive rally 250,000 strong in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That speech is about racial justice and ultimate reconciliation in the United States, and with the changes wrought in American law and practice by the Civil Rights movement, it is a speech that Americans can still feel hopeful about, even if we have not, as Dr. King would have said, “gotten there yet.”

But there was another King, the critic of the whole history of European colonialism in the global South, who celebrated the independence movements that led to decolonization in the decades after World War II. The anti-imperial King is the exact opposite of the Neoconservatives who set US policy in the early twenty-first century. Barack Obama, who inherits King’s Civil Rights legacy and is also burdened with the neo-imperialism of the W. era, has some crucial choices to make about whether he will heed the other King, or whether he will get roped into the previous administration’s neocolonial project simply because it is the status quo from which he will begin his tenure as commander in chief.
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The US so neglects its educational system that relatively few Americans are exposed to world history in school. Few of them know that roughly from 1757 to 1971 the great European powers systematically subjugated most of the peoples of the world. tiny Britain ruled gargantuan India, along with Burma (Myanmar), what is now Malaysia, Australia, some part of China, and large swaths of Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Gambia, Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, etc., etc.) The colonial system was one of brutal exploitation of “natives” by Europeans, who derived economic, strategic and political benefits from this domination.

Dr. King frankly saw this imperial system as unadulterated evil. In his “The Birth of a New Nation,” a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama on 7 April 1957, King, just back from Africa, lays out his vision of the liberation of the oppressed from the failing empires.

He begins by celebrating the independence of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) on March 6, 1957, and praising the man who led his country to sovereignty, Kwame Nkrumah. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had traveled to Ghana to attend the independence ceremonies. He saw the victory of Ghana over the British imperialists as exemplifying a yearning in human beings in all times and places for liberty: “Men realize that freedom is something basic, and to rob a man of his freedom is to take from him the essential basis of his manhood. To take from him his freedom is to rob him of something of God’s image.”

The state of being colonized, of being under the thumb of another nation, another people, is from King’s point of view an existential disfigurement, robbing human beings of their status as theomorphic or created in the image of the divine.

King recalled the ceremonials that he had witnessed with his own eyes on African soil:

‘ The thing that impressed me more than anything else that night was the fact that when Nkrumah walked in, and his other ministers who had been in prison with him, they didn’t come in with the crowns and all of the garments of kings, but they walked in with prison caps and the coats that they had lived with for all of the months that they had been in prison . . . at twelve o’clock that night we saw a little flag coming down, and another flag went up. The old Union Jack flag came down, and the new flag of Ghana went up. This was a new nation now, a new nation being born. . . And when Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, “We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,” all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.

After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:

Free at last! Free at last!

Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!’

It was as he stood in the square at Accra after midnight on the first day of the independence of a former African colony that he remembered those lines, to which he referred again in his “I have a Dream” speech some six years later at the Lincoln Memorial. For King, Kwame Nkrumah was the Great Emancipator as much as Lincoln, and the achievement of civil rights for African Americans was a sort of decolonization, replicating the miracle of Ghana.

King recalled, in his 1957 sermon, how the new parliament was opened on a Wednesday and “here Nkrumah made his new speech. And now the prime minister of the Gold Coast with no superior, with all of the power that MacMillan of England has, with all of the power that Nehru of India has—now a free nation, now the prime minister of a sovereign nation.” That phrase, “with no superior” was central to King’s thinking, both about decolonization and about civil rights in the US. Colonized Ghanaians had had a superior in the form of the British high commissioner, who set policy for them by fiat. African-Americans under Jim Crow had a superior. But Nkrumah, as of March 6, “had no superior.”

King took away from his experience in Africa the lesson that social mobilization was necessary to gain freedom. It would not be gifted from on high, since colonial officials had no interest in abolishing their own power. But King also said he admired Nkrumah’s deployment of Gandhian techniques of nonviolent noncooperation to win independence.

He said he learned from the experience of Ghana that the quest for liberation would always be resisted, and that freedom workers should expect to go to jail, and to face fierce oppostion. He recalled of his return journey through London,

‘ remember we passed by Ten Downing Street. That’s the place where the prime minister of England lives. And I remember that a few years ago a man lived there by the name of Winston Churchill. One day he stood up before the world and said, “I did not become his Majesty’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

And I thought about the fact that a few weeks ago a man by the name of Anthony Eden [then British Prime Minister] lived there. And out of all of his knowledge of the Middle East, he decided to rise up and march his armies with the forces of Israel and France into Egypt, and there they confronted their doom, because they were revolting against world opinion. Egypt, a little country; Egypt, a country with no military power. They could have easily defeated Egypt, but they did not realize that they were fighting more than Egypt. They were attacking world opinion; they were fighting the whole Asian-African bloc, which is the bloc that now thinks and moves and determines the course of the history of the world. ‘

King was referring to the Suez War of 1956, in which Israel, the United Kingdom and France conspired against Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized the Suez Canal that July. France feared Abdel Nasser because he gave hope and aid to the Algerian revolutionaries trying to end France’s empire there. Eden caricatured Abdel Nasser as a Mussolini figure needing to be taken down a notch lest the colonized countries get uppity in imitation of him. Israel, always expansionist and land hungry, sought to take and keep the Sinai Peninsula right up to the Suez Canal.

Although King attributed the failure of the tripartite plot to the “Afro-Asian bloc,” it was actually President Dwight D. Eisenhower who intervened to push the three miscreants back out of Egypt. Ike was afraid that the Arab nationalists would go Communist if the colonial powers and Israel insisted on humiliating them or refusing to let go of Arab land under foreign occupation. Eisenhower pressured Israel to give up the Sinai, which it did sullenly.

It should be remembered that in 1956-57, Britain, France and many in the US viewed Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser as a fascist, a tyrant, a supporter of terrorism who encouraged Palestinians in Gaza to attack Israel. King was not taken in by the propaganda, which covered for neo-imperial acquisitiveness on the part of the aggressors.

We celebrate today the birth of a man who supported anticolonial trouble-makers such as Nkrumah and Abdel Nasser against the global forces of empire. I think we may deduce from this stance exactly how he would feel about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s war on the people of Gaza.

King saw attaining civil rights in the US and decolonization in Africa and Asia as parallel processes. It could be argued that Nkrumah’s victory in 1957 was among the events that gave African-Americans hope in the Deep South.

Barack Obama told an anecdote about his father that reversed this causality. At the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma, Alabama, in March, 2007, 50 years after King saw Nkrumah become the ruler of a sovereign African country, Obama told the congregation:

‘You see, my Grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village and all his life, that’s all he was — a cook and a house boy. And that’s what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a house boy. They wouldn’t call him by his last name.

Sound familiar?

He had to carry a passbook around because Africans in their own land, in their own country, at that time, because it was a British colony, could not move about freely. They could only go where they were told to go. They could only work where they were told to work.

Yet something happened back here in Selma, Alabama. Something happened in Birmingham that sent out what Bobby Kennedy called, “Ripples of hope all around the world.” Something happened when a bunch of women decided they were going to walk instead of ride the bus after a long day of doing somebody else’s laundry, looking after somebody else’s children. When men who had PhD’s decided that’s enough and we’re going to stand up for our dignity. That sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance.

What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, “You know, we’re battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we’re not observing the ideals set fort in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites. So the Kennedy’s decided we’re going to do an air lift. We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.

This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama. ‘

Obama’s speech was also about the blessed estate of having “no superior,” of not being a colonial subject, of not being called “boy” by one’s alleged social and racial “superiors.”

Obama’s speech was an anticolonial one, which reversed the causation implicit in King’s description of the independence celebration in Ghana. Barack Obama, Sr., was the recipient of a scholarship from the Kennedy administration that was offered in part under the influence of the US Civil Rights Movement.

The Neoconservatives, like Winston Churchill himself as long as he lived, never gave up the imperial dream. They approved of the 1956 attack on Egypt by Israel, France and Britain. They approved of Western dominance of the countries of the global South. And Bush and his think tanks wanted to revive empire, to pretend it was 1920, and that the common people lacked the skills to mobilize to stop their project of domination.

Obama’s plan to order the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq on day one of his administration is consistent with the anticolonialism of the King tradition and of Obama’s own autobiography.

But the dark clouds over the Obama administration are Afghanistan and Palestine. What Obama accomplishes on those two issues will powerfully shape his presidency. Only if he can avoid perpetuating colonial abuses in both can he hope to claim the mantle of anticolonialism from King and from his own father. For the Bush administration assiduously robbed other human beings of their status as images of the divine, and the US will not be whole until Afghans and Palestinians can say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Great God Almighty, I’m Free at Last.”