Dawn of A New Era
THE YEAR 1960 was one of the most important in the history of Africa. It was the year when
the largest number of African countries won independence.
A total of 17 countries won independence that year, mostly from France. It was a feat that
was not duplicated in any of the following years and 1960 was declared Africa's Year by the United Nations because of the
unprecedented number of countries which won independence in that year.
The countries which won independence in 1960 were:
Dahomey (renamed Benin), 1 August 1960; Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), 5 August 1960; Cameroon,
1 January 1960; Central African Republic, 13 August 1960; Chad, 11 August 1960; Congo-Brazzaville, 15 August 1960; Congo-Leopoldville
(renamed Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo), 30 June 1960.
Gabon, 17 August 1960; Ivory Coast (renamed Cote D'Ivoire), 7 August 1960; Madagascar, 26 June
1960; Mali, 20 June 1960; Mauritania, 28 November 1960; Niger, 3 August 1960; Nigeria, 1 October 1960; Senegal, 20 August
1960; Somalia, 1 July 1960; and Togo 27 April 1960.
They were all former French colonies except Nigeria and Somalia. Nigeria won independence from
Britain. Somalia was an amalgamation of British Somaliland in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south. The two colonies
agreed to unite and emerged from colonial rule as one country, Somalia.
But while 1960 was hailed as Africa's Year, and Africans across the continent celebrated the
dawn of a new era heralded by the achievement of independence by a large number of countries, marking the beginning of the
end of colonial rule on the continent, the year was also marred by some of the bloodiest events in the history of the continent.
The initial euphoria of independence was dampened when the former Belgian Congo descended into
chaos just a few days after the country won independence, turning this giant African nation into the bleeding heart of Africa.
"It was the best of times and the worst of times," to quote Charles Dickens. And Africa has never fully recovered from the
convulsions caused by the Congo crisis in the turbulent sixties.
In a very tragic way, the Congo crisis demonstrated how vulnerable Africa was to foreign intrigue,
with foreign powers turning the continent's potentially richest country into a playground and combat theatre in their contest
for control of the continent.
Africans couldn't do anything about it.
While ethnic and regional rivalries fueled and may even have helped to ignite the conflict
in the Congo, there is no question that the crisis was largely engineered by Western financial, economic and political interests
led by the former colonial power, Belgium, and the United States, the leader of the Western world.
And while Lumumba was a staunch nationalist and Pan-Africanist and wanted the Congo to be genuinely
independent without being dominated by either the East or West, he was not anti-Western as he was portrayed in the western
media. He even sought assistance from the West to help contain the situation and restore stability to the Congo but was rebuffed
by the United States and other western powers; and for good reason, of course, since they were the ones who had engineered
the whole thing.
Lumumba's predicament reminds one of what happened to Sekou Toure when he also sought assistance
from the West. After the French cut off economic aid to Guinea, Sekou Toure asked for assistance from the United States but
was rebuffed. President Dwight Eisenhower dismissed him as a dangerous leftist and a Soviet ally who did not deserve help
from any Western country. But unlike Lumumba, he survived assassination and coup attempts through the years.
When Lumumba was assassinated, Africa entered a new era. It was a turning point in the history
of the continent.
The assassination of Lumumba, and subsequent chaos that ensued following his assassination
and Western intervention in the Congo, was one of the biggest tragedies in the history of Africa since the advent of colonial
rule. And it still haunts the continent today almost 50 years after the Congo won independence from Belgium in June 1960.
Once Africa's great hope as its richest country, richer than South Africa in terms of minerals
and agricultural potential right in the heart of the continent, the Congo became the bleeding heart of Africa because of foreign
intervention. And it is still bleeding today.
At the centre of this maelstrom was the United States and Belgium, the most active and most
prominent players on the Congo scene in the sixties and thereafter. In fact, for decades until the fall of Mobutu in May 1997,
the largest CIA station in Africa was in Congo's capital, Kinshasa. The country was then known as Zaire, renamed by Mobutu
Lumumba's fate and that of the Congo would not have turned out the way it did had Western countries
not intervened in the Congo, wreaking havoc on an unprecedented scale since Congo's independence in 1960 well into the 1990s
and beyond at a cost of more than 4 million lives.
The civil wars which broke out in the nineties, tearing the country apart, were largely a result
of that, with the West having propped up a rotten regime under Mobutu for more than 30 years, triggering an uprising against
his kleptocratic, despotic and blood-soaked reign during which he and his Western masters bled the country to death, leaving
it an empty shell. One of Africa's richest countries became of of the poorest. And it all started because Western countries,
led by the United States, did not want Lumumba to remain in power and lead the Congo.
Lumumba was a strong nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader who was determined to lead the Congo
as a truly independent country. And that was anathema to the West led by the United States. Western countries were equally
determined to secure, maintain, and perpetuate their hegemonic control over the Congo and the rest of the continent in order
to preserve, protect and promote their own interests to the detriment of Africans, and largely succeeded in doing so.
In many fundamental respects, the Congo became a test case of what the West intended to do
to African countries after they won independence. And that was to neutralize them and render their independence meaningless
by turning them into client states of the West or by simply destroying them if they resisted Western intervention. Lumumba
and his country the Congo became the first casualties.
The downward spiral started with the secession of Katanga Province led by Moise Tshombe. He
used the chaos that ensued soon after the country won independence as an excuse to seek assistance from Belgium to restore
law and order in his province. Belgian paratroopers flew into Katanga but with a larger mission in mind to support the secession
of the mineral-rich province.
As the chaos spread across the country, Lumumba sought UN assistance and the
United Nations created a peacekeeping force for the country. But just before the arrival of UN peacekeeping forces which had
the mandate to make arrangements for the withdrawal of Belgian troops as requested by Lumumba, Tshombe declared independence
for his province. The UN forces arrived on July 15th.
Katanga seceded from the rest of the Congo on 11 July 1960, only a few days
after the country won independence on June 30th under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba as the first democratically elected leader of this
vast country of more than 200 ethnic groups.
Just a few days after Katanga seceded, Tshombe ordered mobilization of his forces
on July 20th to resist UN intervention and went on to
recruit mercenaries to bolster his defence, making the situation worse for Lumumba as the legitimate leader of the Congolese
government which wanted to keep the country united.
Lumumba assumed power as prime minister after winning a plurality of votes and
was endorsed by the national parliament composed of representatives of different political parties all of which were regionally
entrenched except Lumumba's Congolese National Movement - Mouvement National Congolaise (MNC) - which transcended ethno-regional loyalties and had support in all parts of the country.
The MNC was founded on 5 October 1958 and Lumumba was one of its founding members and later its president.
His political base was in Stanleyville, in his home region of eastern Congo, but as a leader
of a supra-tribal party, he did not see that as his only strength. He had loyal followers across the country.
Formed less than two years before the Belgians formally relinquished power, the MNC was the
driving force behind the independence movement. In mid-1959, the party split into two groups.
One was more militant and was led by Lumumba, a situation similar to what happened in Ghana
during the independence struggle when Kwame Nkrumah left the conservative United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), of which he
had served as secretary-general, and went on to form the more radical Convention People's Party (CPP) in 1949 which led the
country to independence by campaigning on the slogan, "Independence Now."
Lumumba pursued the same goal, invoking virtually the same slogan. And his party won support
across the country in a relatively short time.
The other faction of the Congolese National Movement was led by Joseph Ileo, Cyrille Adoula
and Albert Kalonji. It was a moderate group and all three leaders went on to play important roles in the country soon after
independence and after Lumumba was assassinated.
Ileo and Adoula each served as prime minister at different times; and Albert Kalonji - a conservative
who once served as Lumumba's minister of agriculture - is remembered probably more than anything else as the leader who led
another secessionist province, South Kasai, thus threatening the territorial integrity of the Congo. Among all these leaders,
Lumumba emerged as the only true nationalist leader transcending tribal and regional loyalties.
And the fact that he came from a small tribe or ethnic group, the Batatele, native to Province
Orientale in eastern Congo - which includes Stanleyville, now called Kisangani - and to North Kasai where he was born, was
a factor that made him more acceptable to many smaller ethnic groups across the country who feared domination by larger groups.
The large ethnic groups included the Bakongo whose most prominent son was President Joseph
Kasavubu; the Lunda, of whom Moise Tshombe was its most well-known leader who was also related to the royal family of this
large ethnic group. The son of a successful business man in Katanga, Tshombe was the son-in-law of the emperor of the Lunda
And then there was the Luba, another large ethnic group dominant in Kasai Province whose most
prominent member was Albert Kalonji. And there were other fairly large groups, bigger than Lumumba's ethnic group, the Batatele.
President Kasavubu was the leader of the Alliance of the Bakongo (ABAKO), a party with an ethnic
base solidly anchored among his people who constituted the largest ethnic group in the country and after whom the country
itself and River Congo were named.
But Lumumba's status as a member of a small ethnic group was also a liability since it did
not provide him with a strong ethnic base from which he could derive and mobilize support the way Kasavubu did from the Bakongo;
and even the way, for example, Etienne Tshisekedi did years later from the Luba, his people, when he sought the presidency
in the 1990s and beyond long after Lumumba was killed.
Although Lumumba did not come from a large ethnic group, the MNC faction he led emerged victorious
in the first legislative elections of May 1960 and won the largest number of votes among all the parties in the country.
His minority status as a member of the small Batatele tribe was also a powerful incentive among
many members of parliament who backed him up for his prime ministerial position after his party won the largest number of
votes in the May 1960 elections.
But it was his appeal to nationalist sentiments transcending ethnic and regional interests
- more than anything else - which made him the most popular leader in the Congo whom many people saw as a unifying factor
and the leader of all the Congolese and not just those of his small tribe or ethnic groups in the eastern part of the country.
He was the exact opposite of Moise Tshombe, his arch-enemy and the leader of the secessionist
The events leading to Katanga's secession occurred in rapid succession soon after the country
The army mutinied against its Belgian officers; the Belgian government deployed
troops ostensibly to protect and rescue its citizens and other Europeans who were supposedly under siege and in danger of
being killed by Africans; Katanga declared independence, and the country dissolved in anarchy, prompting Lumumba to seek assistance
from other African countries and the United Nations to restore law and order and save the country from breaking up along ethno-regional
lines. As Brian Urquhart who was in the Congo during that time described years later what happened, in his article "The Tragedy
of Lumumba" in The New York Review of
"Belgium's exploitation of the Congo was the darkest episode in all the murky history of European
To feed King Leopold II's manic appetite for ivory and rubber, mutilations,
mass executions, and the use of the chicotte - a hippopotamus hide whip that cut through
skin and muscle - administered by the indigenous Force
commanded by Belgian officers had halved the population within a few years and left a legacy of oppression and cruelty that
poisoned forever the relations of Congolese and Belgians.
At Congo's independence on June 30, 1960, the young King Baudoin, in a paternalistic speech,
praised his ghastly ancestor's achievements. Lumumba's fiery response brought into the open the latent rage and resentment
of his people (before he spoke, Lumumba was seen scribbling notes when the king was giving his speech).
Perhaps for the first time, Belgian officials realized that after independence, with Patrice
Lumumba as prime minister, things would not, as they had hoped, go on much as before.
The Congo, unlike most African colonies, had no longstanding liberation movement either at
home or abroad, or any internationally recognized independence leaders like Mandela, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Nkomo, Nujoma, and
others. Such liberationist activity as there was had been sanctioned only in 1957 and was led by Joseph Kasavubu, who was
to become the Congo's first president.
Lumumba, a former postal clerk and beer salesman, became the leader of the nationalist,
supratribal party, the Mouvement National
Nationalist Movement), in Stanleyville, his political base. He was arrested for the first time in November 1959 and then released
to take part in the Brussels Roundtable that set the scene for the Congo's suddenly accelerated independence, precipitated
in part by Charles De Gaulle's abrupt granting of independence to France's African colonies. Congolese independence was in
every way a last-minute arrangement.
Whether because they believed that independence would be little more than a formality or because
of the superiority and contempt they felt for their unfortunate African subjects, the Belgians, unlike other colonial powers,
made no practical arrangements for an independent Congo.
No Congolese had ever taken part in the business of government or public administration
at any important level. Only 17 (other reports say only 16) out of a population of 13.5 million had university degrees. There
was not one Congolese officer in the Force
which was to become the Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC). No colony had ever faced independence so ill-prepared.
Events in the first days of independence went at a dizzying pace. The army mutinied and threw
out its Belgian officers. Europeans were roughed up, and there were reports of white women being raped. The Belgian population
panicked and left. Belgian paratroopers were deployed to protect the remaining Europeans.
These troops, believed by the Congolese to have been sent to reverse independence, clashed
with the soldiers of the ANC - which had no officers - in the major cities. With the connivance of Belgium, the richest province,
Katanga, whose president was Moise Tshombe, seceded from the new republic. Public administration, law, and order evaporated
and were replaced by chaos and anarchy."
Brian Urquhart was in a unique position to make those observations not only because he was
in the Congo during that time but also because he worked with Dr. Ralph Bunche, a black American senior diplomat who was also
the UN undersecretary-general. Dr. Bunche was also in the Congo during that time. As Urquhart explained:
"I should explain here my own connection with the Congo. I was Ralph Bunche's chief assistant
and in that capacity was in the Congo throughout the summer and early fall of 1960.
We were in touch with Lumumba more or less on a daily basis during this time, until he broke
off relations with Bunche.
In the fall of 1961, after Hammarskjold's death on a mission to the Congo, I became the UN
representative in Katanga, was kidnapped and severely beaten up by Moise Tshombe's troops, and was in charge of the UN side
during two weeks of fierce fighting after which Tshombe agreed to end secession and reunite Katanga with the Congo.
Bunche, who had drafted the chapters of the UN Charter on decolonization and trusteeship and
was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, had
a unique record as a promoter and expediter of decolonization and was the friend and mentor of many of the African independence
Lumumba once asked me angrily why Hammarskjold had sent 'ce negre Americain' to the Congo. I replied with some heat that Hammarskjold had
only sent the best man in the world to deal with such a situation. Lumumba did not revert to this subject."
The anarchic situation in the Congo had been precipitated by a series of events soon after
independence. But the most dramatic of these events before Lumumba's assassination was, of course, the secession of Katanga
Katanga's secession was followed by secessionist threats from other provinces and in fact one
such threat was carried out when Albert Kalonji from Kasai Province of the Luba people in south-central Congo declared himself
king of South Kasai. Kasai's secession only made the situation worse.
Bordered by Katanga on the southeast, southern Kasai declared independence on 14 June 1960,
16 days before Congo's independence, and declared itself the Federal State of South Kasai. The northern part of Kasai province
did not secede.
On 8 August 1960, the state of South Kasai officially became a "sovereign"entity, with Bakwanga,
now Mbuj- Mayi, as its capital. Albert Kalonji bcame president of South Kasai and Joseph Ngalula was appointed head of government
or prime minister.
On 12 April 1961, an assembly of South Kasai leaders and elders declared Alber Kalonji's father
an emperor, invested with the title Mulopwe which means emperor or king in the Luba language.
But the new emperor immediately abdicated in favour of his son Albert Kalonji, the president
of South Kasai. From then on, Albert Kalonji ruled South Kasai as Mulopwe - Emperor/King - Albert I Kalonji.
The head of the Congolese government during this chaotic period was still Patrice Lumumba.
To end South Kasai's secession, he sent troops from his national army into South Kasai led by Joseph Mobutu and after four
months of fighting reconquered the region. On 31 December 1961, Albert Kalonji was arrested, ending the secession.
On 7 September 1962, Kalonji escaped from prison and attempted to set up a new government but
it was dissolved less than one month later.
The secession of South Kasai was one of the major problems the country faced in the early sixties.
But it was Katanga's secession which posed the greatest threat to the territorial integrity of the Congo. And its leader,
Moise Tshombe, was resolutely opposed to any reconciliation and the establishment of a central government as the supreme authority
over the whole country.
Even before Congo won independence, he made it clear that he preferred a loose federation in
which the provinces would be able to exercise considerable power over their affairs, the kind of autonomy which amounted to
virtual independence with a very weak central government.
Before he declared Katanga a republic after seceding from the rest of the country, he already
had formidable influence in his home province because of his family ties to the royal family of the Lunda, the largest ethnic
group in Katanga; and also because of his dominant position as president of the Confederation of Associations of Katanga (CONAKAT),
the biggest and strongest political party in Katanga Province which was also supported by the Belgian colonial authorities
and their government in Brussels.
In January - February 1960, Tshombe attended the Brussels Roundtable, a conference on Congo's
independence. The meeting was also attended by other Congolese leaders including Lumumba and Kasavubu under the auspices of
the Belgian government.
At that meeting, Tshombe demanded that once the country won independence on
June 30th it should form a loose federation of independent
states based on the existing regional structure whose provinces were defined by their ethnic identities more than anything
He did not prevail but left no doubt in any one's mind that a unitary state for the Congo was
the farthest thing from his mind. He wanted no part of it; nor did his sponsors, the Belgians, who wanted to control the mineral
wealth of Katanga once Katanga seceded.
In the general elections of 1960, CONAKAT won and secured control of the provincial legislature
in Elisabethville, capital of Katanga Province, giving Tshombe considerable power not only in his home province but in the
country as a whole as the leader of the richest province and of one of the most powerful and best organized political parties
in the Congo, even though it was regionally entrenched like the rest except Lumumba's.
Emboldened by this victory and support from the Belgian authorities, and his pre-eminent position
on the country's political scene as the leader of the richest province, he pulled Katanga out of the Congo and declared the
province a republic only 11 days after the country won independence. It was a bold and dangerous move, and it had dire consequences
for the entire country for decades to come. And the country has not yet recovered from what ensued in those turbulent years
in the sixties.
After Katanga's secession, Tshombe worked closely with Belgian advisers and business leaders
as he had in the past and even appointed a Belgian officer as the commander of his army, in spite of the fact that the Belgians
saw him as a racist who worked with whites only to secure his own interests; they denounced Lumumba the same way, of course,
although those who knew Lumumba, including his political opponents, say he was not a racist but an uncompromising nationalist
But there is no question that Tshombe was a tribal chauvinist and champion of the Lunda people
and other Katangese but especially the Lunda, his fellow tribesmen. And he refused to cooperate with the UN and the central
government under Lumumba to restore the integrity of the Congo, maintaining that Katanga was an independent state and had
the right to be one.
In August 1960, he was elected president of Katanga and maintained a large army of mercenaries,
many of whom came from apartheid South Africa and other countries including France and Belgium. When the United Nations asked
Tshombe to end Katanga's secession, he refused and went to war against UN troops which had been sent to Congo to restore law
and order. UN forces were later given the mandate to end Katanga's secession by force, and fighting began.
As the chaos continued, Congolese leaders tried to restore stability in the country and in
February 1961, they formed a provisional government with Joseph Ileo as prime minister. Conferences to negotiate reunification
of the Congo were held in the first half of 1961 and were attended by representatives from all the country's six provinces.
In July 1961, the secession of South Kasai under Albert Kalonji formally ended, and in August,
Cyrille Adoula was named Congo's prime minister. Adoula emerged on the national scene as a moderate trade union leader before
independence. Antoine Gizenga was named deputy prime minister. Earlier, Gizenga had served in the same position under Lumumba.
Lumumba served as prime minister from 24 June – 5 September 1960; Joseph Ileo from 12
September 1960 – 27 July 1961; and Adoula from 2 August 1961 – 20 June 1964.
Antoine Gizenga served as prime minister of a rival nationalist government of Lumumba's followers
based in Stanleyville from 13 December 1960 – 5 August 1961.
Formation of the government of national unity in July 1961 took place after politicians from
all parts of the country, including Katanga, were invited to Leopoldville in July to discuss new arrangements for the country
under a federal constitution. And they all agreed to keep Kasavubu as president.
But to appease Lumumba's followers, Lumumba's deputy prime minister Antoine Gizenga was brought
into the government. Before then, he was head of a rival government in Stanleyville, one of the three centres of power in
the country during that period. The other two were Leopoldville, the nation's capital, and Elisabethville, the capital of
the secessionist Katanga Province.
Among all three, the government in Stanleyville, Lumumba's political stronghold, claimed to
be and was seen by its supporters as the only nationalist government in Congo in the tradition of Lumumba.
Tshombe and other politicians in Katanga were also invited to the conference but they refused
to attend. It was a conference of rival groups and politicians, with different ideologies, but succeeded in reaching compromises
in order to form a national government and keep the country united under a federal constitution.
But while all these compromises were being made, the situation in Katanga Province not only
remained highly volatile but deteriorated. Tshombe refused to negotiate with the United Nations to end Katanga's secession
and his refusal to do so was the last straw.
UN forces began rounding up mercenaries in Katanga Province on 28 August 1960. It was the beginning
of a long struggle against the secessionist province and its mercenary fighters which went on until January 1963 when Katanga's
secession was finally brought to an end.
About 100,000 Congolese are estimated to have died during the Congo crisis, the bloodiest on
the continent in the first years of African independence.
While Katanga's secession formally ended on 15 January 1963, and the central government took
over Katanga Province with UN military aid, another rebellion broke out in Kwilu Province in the west in January 1964 under
the leadership of Pierre Mulele.
The rebellion spread to other parts of the country, followed by an uprising led by Gaston Soumialot
in Kivu Province in the east. It lasted until December 1964.
In June the same year, Tshombe was recalled from exile by President Kasavubu and was appointed
prime minister, replacing Cyrille Adoula, in an attempt to achieve national reconciliation. But the honeymoon between Tshombe
and Kasavubu did not last long.
Disagreements between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Tshombe led to a government paralysis
and in October 1965, Kasavubu dismissed Tshombe and appointed Evariste Kimba as prime minister. In November the same year,
Mobutu overthrew the government and proclaimed himself president. Evariste Kimba and other opponents of Mobutu's regime were
hanged. Kimba served as prime minister for less than one month from 18 October to 14 November 1965.
All this downward spiral took place within only five years since the country won independence
in 1960 and when Lumumba became prime minister, only to be neutralized after three months in office. His biggest challenge
right away was the secession of Katanga Province.
The central government under Lumumba was powerless and couldn't do anything to end the secession
of Katanga Province on its own and even with the help of troops from other African countries. As Ahmed Ben-Bella, former president
of Algeria who was overthrown in June 1965, said about the African countries which tried to help Lumumba and his followers
and about the situation in the Congo in the sixties when he was interviewed in Swtizerland in the 1990s: "We arrived in the
Congo too late."
Ben-Bella was interviewed by Jorge Castaneda, the author of Companero: The
Life and Death of Che Guevara in which he quotes Ben Bella.
A number of African countries - Ghana, Tanzania, Guinea, Mali, Algeria and Egypt - tried to
help the nationalist forces in the Congo. But, by then, Lumumba was gone, having been assassinated in January 1961.
When Ben-Bella was interviewed on 4 November 1995, in Geneva, he was referring to the attempts
made by those six African countries which intervened later in the Congo to help the nationalist forces when they were fighting
the puppet government in Leopoldville and whose leaders played a major in the elimination of Lumumba.
But Lumumba's supporters did not give up the fight. His closest advisers and many of his followers
including Laurent Kabila (who was in his twenties then) quickly left the capital Leopoldville soon after his assassination
and went to the rural areas of eastern Congo, mainly Kivu, and Tanzania to continue fighting.
Therefore, although Lumumba was gone, his nationalist followers who had regrouped and settled
in the northeast continued to fight for his cause well into 1967.
He also had supporters in other parts of the country including Katanga, and in Kwilu Province
in the west where resistance led by Lumumba's minister of education and heir apparent, Pierre Mulele, continued until Mulele's
assassination by Mobutu on 9 October 1968, although the guerilla campaign by Mulele and his followers virtually ended in 1966.
Mulele, who was living in exile in Brazzaville, was tricked by Mobutu into returning to Leopoldville
after Mobutu said he had given amnesty to those who had waged war against the central government and that they could return
home to join their fellow countrymen in building the nation. He didn't mean it and sent his foreign minister Justin Bomboko
to Brazzaville to lure Mulele back to Leopoldville. Bomboko had earlier also served as foregin minister under Lumumba and
knew Mulele well as a colleague in the first independence cabinet.
Six African leaders, more than any others on the African continent, made the most determined
attempt to help the Congolese nationalist forces in their war against the puppet government in Leopoldville and its Western
sponsors during the turbulent the sixties.
They were Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt,
Ben-Bella of Algeria, Sekou Toure of Guinea, and Modibo Keita of Mali.
They even had a group of their own within the Organization of African Unity
(OAU) known as "the Group of Six," and secretly worked together as Ben-Bella said in the same interview with Jorge Castaneda,
author of Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, who was then a professor at New York University and who later
became Mexico's minister of foreign affairs under President Vincente Fox. The interview with Ben-Bella, published in the same
book, is one of the most sad reminders of what unfolded in the Congo in the turbulent sixties.
Tragically, Lumumba's fate was sealed from the beginning when he emerged on the political scene
as the country's most influential leader. Western governments, led by the United States, saw him as a threat to their geopolitical
interests in the Congo and in Africa as a whole because of his strong nationalist views and beliefs as a Pan-Africanist. On
18 August 1960, a CIA dispatch from the Congo to Washington described Lumumba as "a commie playing the commie game." The American
ambassador during that time was Clare Hayes Timerlake.
Americans and other Westerners saw Patrice Lumumba as another Castro and a friend of the Russians
who would give the Soviets the upper hand in the Congo at the expense of the West, in spite of the fact that he was not a
communist or an ideological ally of the Soviets in the rivalry between the East and the West.
The Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower and his successor John F. Kennedy and
their advisors as well as congressional leaders, saw the Congo as the most prized possession in Africa in pursuit of their
geopolitical interests and competition with the Soviet Union because of the country's vast mineral wealth and strategic location
including its proximity to the white-ruled countries in southern Africa which were ideological allies of the West against
Eastern-bloc countries during the Cold War.
Therefore they did everything they could to gain control of the Congo and prevent the Soviets
from getting it, even if it meant going to war, especially by using surrogate forces to secure Western interests. And to them,
Lumumba symbolized the worst they could think of. All attempts to portray Lumumba in his true colours and and try to explain
to the rest of the world what type of leader he really was, were ignored or dismissed as lies by Western leaders, especially
One young American reporter who was on the scene when the tragic events were unfolding in the
Congo provided a detailed account of Western machinations against Lumumba masterminded by the United States. And she produced
what were probably some of the most balanced reports coming out of the Congo during those tragic years.
Her name was D"Lynn Waldron. She was 23 years old in 1960 when she was in the
Congo. She worked for The Cleveland
Press and News
in Cleveland, Ohio, and her dispatches from Congo before independence were published in that newspaper, although she complained
that her editors in the United States censored and slanted her reports to portray Lumumba and the Congolese people in a negative
light and added to the published reports some things she never wrote or said.
These are some of the things she said about what happened and what was going on when she was
in the Congo with Lumumba:
"In the spring of 1960, I was the only foreign correspondent covering Patrice Lumumba in Stanleyville
just before Independence, and as such and an American, I became Lumumba's confidant and the one he entrusted to mediate between
himself and the Belgian administration and to get the word to Eisenhower and the American people that he was absolutely not
It was well known in the Congo before Independence that Belgium and the banking and mining
interests were arranging for the coming Independence to disintegrate into chaos so they could take back Katanga with its gold,
uranium and copper, and Kasai with its industrial diamonds, while dumping the unprofitable remainder of the Congo.
The "White Congolese" of Belgian descent were even more aware of this and more angered by the
betrayal of a trust, than almost any "Black African", except Patrice Lumumba.
It was these disaffected White Congolese, and especially the colonial governor of Kasai, who
told me exactly what the plans of the banking and mining interests were. I even have their hand-drawn maps showing the parts
of the country that would be reclaimed from the chaos. The governor of Kasai was so disgusted with the Belgian government
that he took down from his wall his prized historical maps of the Congo and handed them to me (I still have them).
Before I went up the Congo River to Stanleyville, which was Lumumba's political headquarters,
I had read newspaper stories and been told by some people in the Belgian Colonial Administration that Lumumba was a madman
and a Communist puppet of Russia.
What I found was a thoughtful, dignified, dedicated man who naively believed that if... Eisenhower
were told the truth, Eisenhower would no longer listen to the Belgian lie that he, Lumumba, was a Communist.
My cabled newspaper stories had things added and removed by Scripps-Howard, and all references
to Lumumba's admiration for America and his requests to President Eisenhower for training for his people were cut out.
Lumumba rightly believed that the Russians didn't like him any more than the Belgians did,
because he was not a Communist and because he would never do the bidding of any foreign power. Lumumba only wanted what was
best for the Congo and that was his death warrant. The Russians would have killed Lumumba, if the Western powers hadn't done
I was with Lumumba in his living room in Stanleyville when Lumumba got the telegram which said
that instead of Gizenga's staying in Accra for training with Nkrumah’s people, Gizenga had been taken straight from
the airport in an Aeroflot plane to Moscow. Lumumba was terrified by this and said to me, “The Russians will use Gizenga
as my Judas.”
However, Gizenga's subsequent life indicates that the Russians would have found him as dedicated
to the Congo and as difficult to dictate to as Lumumba. (See the e-mail about their family's travails written to me by Dorothee
Gizenga in July 30, 2003.)
The Russians had thought they would be able to wrap Gizenga in Lumumba's mantel and take control
of the Congo. Gizenga did establish himself as Lumumba's heir in the Eastern Congo, but, like the rest of the Congo, the area
descended into tribal war, plus Maoist inspired massacres aimed at the 'elite', which included anyone who could read, or even
Before Independence, I know from personal knowledge, that Lumumba asked Eisenhower to provide
training in government administration for Congolese, who the Belgians had deliberately kept from learning the most basic skills
necessary to run a country. Eisenhower replied that would be interfering in Belgium's internal affairs, a position which was
later repeated to me by the State Department.
After Independence, when the Congo needed international assistance to restore order, Prime
Minister Lumumba asked Eisenhower to send American troops. However, Eisenhower continued to falsely label Lumumba a Communist
and handed Lumumba's unwanted request over to Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold, along with Conor Cruise-O'Brien, was part of
the cabal that used the UN to destroy the Congo's Independence, in order to take back Katanga on behalf of Western mining
To try to force Eisenhower to send American troops to restore order in the Congo,
Lumumba threatened to bring in Russians troops. This was highly publicized by the American government, and no mention was
made of the fact that this was only a threat and Lumumba was appealing to Eisenhower to send American troops. (see the book
Congo Cables with the actual cables to an from Washington
regarding the Congo and Lumumba, as assembled by Madeline Kalb).
Right up to his being turned over to Katanga to be assassinated, Lumumba pinned his hopes on
America and his travelling companion and confidant was Frank Carlucci, who it has since been revealed in Congressional investigations
was an American intelligence officer and presumably part of Operation Zaire Rifle, the American plot of assassinate Lumumba.
I left the Congo overland just before Independence through Ruanda and Urundi and the Mountains
of the Moon to bring Lumumba's requests for help addressed to President Eisenhower to the American Consulate in Uganda, because
mail and cables were being stopped by the Belgian postal authorities. The American consulate refused to accept anything from
Lumumba. They said he would have to use the Belgian Post and Telegraph in the Congo for any messages he wanted to send to
One this site, and indexed below, are newspaper stories I wrote from the Congo which were highly
edited back in the States, and documents including Lumumba's own written responses to my questions on his future plans for
the Congo, and in Lumumba's own handwriting with my notes using the same pen, the statement I carried to the Belgians in charge
of Stanleyville at the height of the crisis."
The preceding comments are on her web site which features scanned copies of
some of the original pages from the The
Cleveland Press and News containing some of her dispatches from Congo. Her web site, entitled "Patrice Lumumba, Stanleyville, Belgian
Congo D'Lynn Waldron," is:
She witnessed some of the most tragic events which unfolded in the Congo in the sixties. And
although she provided first-hand accounts of what was going on, and dealt with Lumumba on personal basis, she was ignored
by Western leaders including her editors at her newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, because what she wrote and said did not conform
to the ideological dictates and interests of Western nations which wrongly, and deliberately, portrayed Lumumba as a communist,
hence their enemy.
Patrice Lumumba was prime minister of the Congo for only three months. Yet his influence went
far beyond his brief term in office, and beyond the Congo, and was the dominant figure on the country's political scene even
after he was removed from office, and even after he was arrested and put in jail towards the end of 1960.
Although the year 1960 was dominated by the Congo crisis, there were other events which took
place in different parts of Africa and which deserve attention for a comprehensive picture of what happened on the continent
during that period.
But probably the most significant event was the secession of Katanga Province from the Congo
on 11 July 1960, eleven days after the country won independence. It was in the news everyday.
I remember when I was growing up in Rungwe District in the Southern Highlands in southwestern
Tanzania in a region bordering what was then Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (renamed Zambia), the conflict in
the Congo was the dominant story broadcast by the Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) based in the capital Dar es Salaam,
about 300 miles away on the east coast.
We also listened almost everyday to broadcasts from Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga
Province which is also about 300 miles from my home region in southwestern Tanzania, almost the same distance to Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania's capital on the coast of the Indian Ocean. We also listened to broadcasts from Leopoldville, the capital of the
former Belgian Congo.
The broadcasts we listened to were in Kiswahili - a language also spoken in Congo - on shortwave
radio. And they are still vivid in my memory today more than 40 years later because of the tragic events and countless lives
lost in that country in 1960 and in the following years.
Although the people of Congo celebrated independence in 1960, they also became the victims
of one of the worst tragedies that befell Africa during the post-colonial era. And what happened in the Congo in 1960 is indelibly
etched in the minds of many people not only in that country but in other parts of Africa as well. And that was only the beginning
of the tragedies that the continent suffered in the sixties.
Another tragic event was the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa on 21 March 1960, when 69
unarmed, peaceful black protesters were killed. Among those killed were 8 women and 10 children.
Most of them were shot in the back as they fled from the police. At least 180 black Africans
were injured and there are reports that as many as 300 suffered injuries at the hands of the police.
The protests were organized by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a party led by Robert Mangaliso
Sobukwe who was a professor of African studies at Witwatersrand University, South Africa's leading academic institution especially
for English speakers.
The demonstrators lived in the black township of Sharpeville on the outskirts of the white
town of Vereeniging in the Transvaal, about 30 miles south of Johannesburg. The township was created in compliance with the
country's apartheid laws to keep the races apart and the people were protesting against the notorious pass laws which dehumanized
them and forced them to carry pass books all time, and restricted them to certain areas while whites enjoyed unlimited access
to all parts of the country and enjoyed a lifestyle and privileges blacks could only dream of. As David Sibeko stated in explaining
why the Pan-Africanist Congress directed its wrath against and focused its campaign on the pass laws in his article, "The
Sharpeville Massacre: Its Historic Significance in the Struggle Against Apartheid":
"The pass system was deliberately chosen because: (i) it is the lynchpin of apartheid; and
(ii) of all the apartheid laws none is so pervasive, and few are as perverted, as the pass laws.
They show no respect for the sanctity of marriage - men are forcibly separated from their wives
or vice versa because one of them cannot obtain the permit to reside in the same area. They tear away children from their
parents: a child above the age of 16 needs a special permit to live with its parents outside the bantustan reservation, otherwise
it must find accommodation in one of the location barracks they call hostels in South Africa.
They deny men and women the universal right to sell their labour to whom they choose; every
African man or woman seeking employment has to obtain a special permit to look for work - within a limited period, usually
14 days; otherwise they face deportation to the `homeland' bantustan reservation they most likely have never known.
The indignities are legion and falling foul with any of the pass law regulations leaves an
African open to arrest and imprisonment. Sentences are most frequently served out on prison farms, under the most primitive
The best known African campaign before Sharpeville was the potato boycott. It came as a result
of exposures in newspapers like the Post about conditions for African prisoners in the potato prison farms of Bethal, in the
Investigative reporters found that prisoners are dressed in nothing but sacks, they sleep on
damp cement floors and are out working the potato fields with bare hands from the crack of dawn until dusk. They are continuously
whipped by jailers on horse back, and the one meal a day they eat is always half-cooked dried maize without any protein. Many
die from disease and torture before they complete the relatively short terms of imprisonment, between two and six months.
The pass laws, therefore, affect every living black person."
Sibeko went on to explain how the campaign in Sharpeville against pass laws was organized and
conducted and what the leaders, including Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, expected and wanted to be done:
"In this non-violent campaign there is none that could have been more concerned
to avoid the shedding of even an ounce of blood than the leadership of the PAC. Mr. Stanley Motjuwadi, a long-time journalist
with Drum and its current editor, recalls in the
issue of his magazine of November 22, 1972:
'A day after the Sharpeville shootings I had an interview in Johannesburg`s Fort prison with
Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe ... He was awaiting trial on a charge of incitement and seemed to have aged overnight. He was depressed
and almost at the point of tears - the Sharpeville tragedy had really hit him hard.'
Any who have followed Sobukwe`s role at the head of PAC know full well the man`s courage: he
went through nine years of imprisonment without flinching and all those who have seen him, during his imprisonment and now
under house arrest, including Members of Parliament from the ruling National Party and the white opposition parties, testify
that his convictions remain as strong and his determination as unwavering.
Mindful of the panic a threat to their power creates in despots, Mr. Sobukwe wrote to the Commissioner
of Police of South Africa, on the eve of the campaign, emphasising that the PAC campaign against passes would be non-violent
and imploring the Commissioner to instruct his men to refrain from the use of violence in an attempt to put down demonstrations.
As a further precaution Mr. Sobukwe sternly told PAC leaders and cadres all over the country:
'My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in
this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.'”
The authorities did exactly the opposite. Their racist attitude towards blacks, and their total
disregard for the lives of black people whom they did not even consider to be equal human beings, largely explains why they
opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators. As Lieutenant-Colonel D.H. Pienaar bluntly put it, the mere gathering of blacks
was seen as provocation by the white authorities and, by implication, justified the shooting. And typical of the stereotypes
about blacks among many white racists, he bluntly stated:
"The Native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them
to gather means violence."
That alone was enough justification for the white police to shoot the demonstrators. In justifying
the shooting, Pienaar was also quoted by the BBC saying: "It started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station.
If they do these things, they must learn their lessons the hard way."
In fact, the authorities stated that the police opened fire because they panicked and feared
for their lives; a ridiculous assertion as if heavily armed security forces were indeed under siege and were threatened by
unarmed, peaceful demonstrators many of whom were women and children. And as David Sibeko explains what happened on that fateful
day, Monday, 21 March 1960:
"It is appropriate to focus on Sharpeville itself at this stage. Under the chairmanship of
Nyakale Tsolo, the PAC branch at Sharpeville approached almost every house and the men`s hostel in the township, mobilising
support for the strike against passes planned for Monday, March 21, 1960.
The full story of Sharpeville is still to be told, hopefully by those who helped to make this
history. I was fortunate as head of the regional executive committee of the Vaal from 1963 to work in the underground amongst
many of the organisers and participants in the historic event. Like most veterans of war the people of Sharpeville hate to
relive their wartime experience but I was able to learn from direct participants a great deal of what took place.
Not a single bus moved out of Sharpeville to take passengers to work on that Monday. PAC task
force members started out before the break of dawn lining up marchers in street after street. By daybreak the marchers, under
the leadership of the task force, were moving to a preappointed open ground, where they merged with other demonstrators.
In line with the instruction of the Party leadership, when all the groups had been assembled,
the 10,000 and more men, women and children proceeded to the local police station - chanting freedom songs and calling out
campaign slogans 'Izwe lethu' (Our land); 'I Africa'; 'Awaphele ampasti' (Down with passes); 'Sobukwe Sikhokhle' (Lead us
Sobukwe); 'Forward to Independence, Tomorrow the United States of Africa'; and so on and so forth.
When the marchers reached Sharpeville`s police station a heavy contingent of police was lined
up outside, many on top of British-made Saracen armoured cars. Mr. Tsolo and other members of the Branch Executive moved forward
- in conformity with the novel PAC motto of 'Leaders in Front' - and asked the white policeman in command to let them through
so that they could surrender themselves for refusing to carry passes. Initially the police commander refused but much later,
towards 11 a.m, they were let through.
The chanting of freedom songs was picking up and the slogans were being repeated with greater
volume. Journalists who rushed there from other areas, after receiving word that the campaign was a runaway success in this
mostly ignored African township, more than 30 miles south of Johannesburg, confirm that for all their singing and shouting
the crowd`s mood was more festive than belligerent.
But shortly after the PAC branch leaders had been let through into the police station, without
warning, the police facing the crowd opened fire and in two minutes hundreds of bodies lay sprawling on the ground like debris.
The joyful singing had given way to murderous gunfire, and the gunfire was followed by an authentic deadly silence, and then
screams, wild screams and cries of the wounded.
Littering the ground in front of that police station in nearby dusty streets were 69 dead and
nearly 200 injured men, women and children; a revolting sight which appalled decent human beings the world over as pictures
of the massacre got around.
The same pattern of events had taken place in nearby Vanderbijl Park, where two Africans were
gunned down by white police a few minutes later, and at Langa and Nyanga, a thousand miles away in Cape Town, where five people
were shot dead by white police.
With that savagery the apartheid regime sealed the path of non-violence and PAC resolved to
continue the struggle through arms in future."
Other reports including witness accounts tell basically the same story that the shooting was
unprovoked, the protesters were unarmed and did not in way threaten the police.
What is clear is that the police response and shooting was a reflex action triggered by the
"natural" bias and hostility prevalent among many whites who saw black people as worthless human beings, if not just some
creatures who were less than human beings; a sentiment forcefully expressed by one leader of the ruling National Party which
instituted apartheid. As Sibeko wrote about the reaction among many whites, including leaders, after the shooting:
"It was a revealing comment, the one made by Carel de Wet, the Member of Parliament for Vanderbijl
Park, a former cabinet minister in Mr. Vorster`s Government, who is currently serving a second term as ambassador to the Court
of St. James. He complained: 'Why did the police kill only two kaffirs in my constituency?' Clearly the mass killings were
by design and they were intended to 'teach the kaffirs a lesson.'"
And the lesson assumed another dimension because of the highly symbolic value and significance
of the place where it was taught and, not only for blacks in Sharpeville, but for black people all over the country.
The town of Vereeniging, of which Sharpeville was an integral part as a segregated township
for blacks, occupies a special place in the history of South Africa, especially in the history of white nationalism in that
country. It was in that town on 13 March 1902, that the treaty which ended the Anglo-Boer War was signed and the whites of
South Africa - the British and the Afrikaners - patched up their differences in pursuit of a common objective to consolidate
their position as the dominant racial group in the country at the expense of blacks and other non-whites.
Almost 60 years later, the same place became the scene of bloodshed and one of the worst racial
incidents in South African history when powerless blacks protested against the inhuman treatment they endured everyday at
the hands of their white oppressors. And the words "Sharpeville massacre" were indelibly etched on the consciences of many
people around the world as a constant reminder of the brutal treatment black Africans suffered under the apartheid regime.
The government viewed the protest against the pass laws as a challenge to its authority and
the legitimacy of the abominable institution of apartheid whose walls finally came tumbling down more than 40 years later
in 1994 when the country held its first multu-racial democratic elections and Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National
Congress (ANC), was elected president of a country that had been dominated by whites for more than 300 years.
The consistency of the reports from different sources and by different people
of different backgrounds and political persuasions including news reporters lends credibility to the conclusion that the shooting
of the protesters was unprovoked and the Sharpeville massacre could have been easily avoided had the police reacted with restraint
and concern for the well-being of the demonstrators. But because the protesters were black, it was a different story, and
their fate was sealed simply because of who and what they were. As the assistant editor of Drum magazine, Humphrey Tyler, who was at the scene described what happened:
"Protestors were chanting 'Izwe Lethu' which means 'Our land' or gave the thumbs up 'freedom'
salute, and shouted 'Afrika.,' nobody were afraid, in actual fact they were in a cheerful mood. There were plenty of police
and more ammunition than uniforms.
A Pan Africanist leader approached us and said his organization and the marches were against
violence and were demonstrating peacefully. Suddenly I heard chilling cries of 'Izwe Lethu' it sounded mainly like the voices
of women. Hands went up in the famous black power salute. That is when the shooting started.
We heard the clatter of machine guns one after the other. The protestors thought they were
firing blanks or warning shots. One woman was hit about 10 yards away from our car, as she fell to the ground her companion
went back to assist, he thought she had stumbled.
Then he tried to pick her up, as he turned her around he saw her chest had been blown away
from the hail of bullets. He looked at the blood on his hand and screamed 'God she had been shot.'
Hundreds of kids were running like wild rabbits, some of them were gunned down. Shooting only
stooped when no living protestor was in sight.”
The protesters were told by the leaders of the Pan-Africanist Congress to leave their passes
at home and to offer no bail, seek no defence, and pay no fine, if arrested. About 5,000 people - some reports say 7,000 or
more - are said to have participated in the protest that morning, marching through Sharpeville to the municipal offices at
the entrance of the township.
Before the protests Sobukwe wrote the police commissioner on 16 March 1960,
stating that the Pan-Africanist Congress would hold a five-day, disciplined, peaceful protest against the pass laws starting
on March 21st. And he further stated at a press conference
on March 18th
he was sure the protesters would conduct themselves in a peaceful manner. As he put it:
“I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in
a spirit of absolute non-violence, and I am quite certain they will heed my call. If the other side so desires, we will provide
them with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be.”
And they did.
Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison for leading the demonstrations against the paw
law. He was released on 3 May 1963, but was immediately rearrested and sent to Robben Island where he spent six years in detention
and solitary confinement without trial. The provision of the law which empowered the government to continue detaining anyone
found guilty of "incitement" came to be known as the "Sobukwe clause."
He was released from Robben Island on 8 May 1969 but was not really free. He was placed under
house arrest in Kimberley until his death on 27 February 1978. He was 54.
Born to poor Xhosa parents on 5 December 1924, he was an excellent student and a gifted orator.
He also earned more degrees, in econmics and law, from the University of London after he was released from Robben Island and
will always be remembered for the Shapervelle massacre and as the most prominent black leader in South Africa besides Mandela.
He was also a man of peace. Had the apartheid regime agreed to talk to him, and with Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders,
there would have been no Shaperville and other bloody incidents including the Soweto uprising.
The Sharpeville massacre was one of the most significant events in the struggle against apartheid
and was not even eclipsed years later by the events in Soweto when hundreds of school children were massacred by the South
African police and security forces in June 1976, an event that is widely acknowledged as having signalled the beginning of
the end of apartheid. As Ambrose Reeves, a minister in South Africa, stated in "The Sharpeville Massace: A Watershed in South
“History records that on May 13, 1902, the treaty which ended the Anglo-Boer war was
signed at Vereeniging, then a small town some thirty miles from Johannesburg. Nobody could then have realised that some fifty-eight
years later the whole world would learn of another event occurring in that part of the Transvaal; this time in the African
township of Sharpeville.
As with most towns on the Reef, as the white population of Vereeniging grew so did the township
for Africans on the outskirts of the town....
The events at Sharpeville on March 21, 1960,... shocked the world and...are still remembered
with shame by civilised men everywhere.
Early that morning a crowd of Africans estimated at between 5,000 and 7,000 marched through
Sharpeville to the municipal offices at the entrance to the township.
It appears that much earlier that day members of the Pan Africanist Congress had gone around
Sharpeville waking up people and urging them to take part in this demonstration. Other members of the PAC prevented the bus
drivers going on duty with the result that there were no buses to take the people to work in Vereeniging. Many of them set
out on bicycles or on foot to their places of work, but some were met by Pan Africanists who threatened to burn their passes
or "lay hands on them" if they did not turn back. However, many Africans joined the procession to the municipal offices quite
Eventually this demonstration was dispersed by the police, using tear gas bombs and then a
baton charge, some sixty police following them into the side streets. Stones were flung and one policeman was slightly injured.
It was alleged that several shots were fired by Africans and that only then some policemen opened fire without an order from
their officer to do so. Fortunately nobody was hurt.
I was not at Sharpeville when the shooting occurred but it was familiar territory to me. Time
and again I officiated at the large African Anglican church there and knew intimately many of the congregation, some of whom
were to be involved in the events of that tragic day. I could so well visualise the scene.
Near my home in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg was a large zoo situated in acres of parkland.
By a curious anomaly the lake near the zoo was the meeting place for Africans working in the northern suburbs on a Sunday
Work finished for the day they would leisurely make their way there in small groups - a gay,
colourful, jostling crowd - families and individuals - some political, some not, chatting, laughing, singing, gesticulating
and occasionally fighting. The thud of home-made drums could be heard shattering the Sunday calm, and over all the plaintive
notes of the penny whistle - shrill and penetrating. It could so easily have been like that on that crisp autumn morning in
Sharpeville. Like that, but so very different.
During the morning news spread through the township that a statement concerning passes would
be made by an important person at the police station later that day. The result was that many who had been concerned in the
earlier demonstration drifted to the police station where they waited patiently for the expected announcement. And all the
time the crowd grew.
Reading from the police report on what subsequently happened the Prime Minister told the House
of Assembly that evening that the police estimated that 20,000 people were in that crowd. This seems to have been a serious
exaggeration. From photographs taken at the time it is doubtful if there were ever more than 5,000 present at any particular
moment, though it may well be that more than this number were involved at one time or another as people were coming and going
throughout the morning.
They were drawn to the crowd by a variety of reasons. Some wanted to protest against the pass
laws; some were present because they had been coerced; some were there out of idle curiosity; some had heard that a statement
would be made about passes.
But whatever may have brought them to the police station, I was unable to discover that any
policeman ever tried either to find out why they were there or make any request for them to disperse. And this in spite of
the fact that the presence of this crowd seems to have caused a good deal of alarm to the police. So much so that at ten o`clock
that morning a squadron of aircraft dived low over the crowd, presumably to intimidate them and encourage them to disperse.
This was surely a most expensive way of trying to disperse a crowd.
The police claimed that the people in the crowd were shouting and brandishing weapons and the
Prime Minister told the Assembly that the crowd was in a riotous and aggressive mood and stoned the police. There is no evidence
to support this.
On the contrary, while the crowd was noisy and excitable, singing and occasionally shouting
slogans it was not a hostile crowd. Their purpose was not to fight the police but to show by their presence their hostility
to the pass system, expecting that someone would make a statement about passes.
Photographs taken that morning show clearly that this was no crowd spoiling for a fight with
the police. Not only was the crowd unarmed, but a large proportion of those present were women and children. All through the
morning no attack on the police was attempted.
Even as late as one p.m. the Superintendent in charge of the township was able to walk through
the crowd, being greeted by them in a friendly manner and chatting with some of them. Similarly, the drivers of two of the
Saracen tanks stated subsequently that they had no difficulty in driving their vehicles into the grounds surrounding the police
station. And their testimony was borne out by photographs taken of their progress.
As the hours passed the increasing number of people in the crowd was matched by police reinforcements.
Earlier there had only been twelve policemen in the police station: six white and six non-white. But during the morning a
series of reinforcements arrived until by lunch time there was a force of nearly 300 armed and uniformed men in addition to
Yet in spite of the increased force that was then available, no one asked the crowd to disperse
and no action was taken to arrange for the defence of the police station. The police just strolled around the compound with
rifles slung over their shoulders, smoking and chatting with one another.
Scene was set for explosive situation
So the scene was set. Anyone who has lived in the Republic of South Africa knows how explosive
that situation had already become. On the one side the ever-growing crowd of noisy Africans - the despised Natives - the Kaffirs
who, at all costs, must be kept down lest they step outside the place allotted to them. On the other side the South African
Every African fears them, whether they be traffic police, ordinary constables or members of
the dreaded Special Branch. Most policemen expect unquestioning deference from Africans. If this is not forthcoming they immediately
interpret it as riot and rebellion. In part this is due to the widespread prejudice of white people the world over to those
who happen to have a different coloured skin than their own. But in South Africa it is underpinned by the hatred, fear and
contempt that so many white police have for all non-white people.
The only action taken during that morning appears to have come not from the police but from
two Pan Africanist leaders who urged the crowd to stay away from the fence around the perimeter of the compound so that they
did not damage it. Then Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar arrived in the compound. He appears to have accepted that he had come into
a dangerous situation and therefore made no attempt either to use methods of persuasion on the crowd or to attempt to discover
what the crowd was waiting for.
Instead, about a quarter of an hour after his arrival he gave the order for his men to fall
in. A little later he said, "Load five rounds". But he said no more to any of his officers, or to the men. Later, Colonel
Pienaar stated that he thought his order would frighten the crowd and that his men would understand that if they had to fire
they would not fire more than five rounds. Unfortunately, this was not understood by the policemen under his command.
During this time Colonel Spengler, then head of the Special Branch, was arresting two of the
leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress. Afterwards he arrested a third man. Colonel Spengler said subsequently that he was
able to carry out his arrests because while the crowd was noisy it was not in a violent mood.
It is extremely difficult to know what happened next. Some of the crowd near the gate of the
police station compound said later that they heard a shot. Some said that they heard a policeman say, "Fire". Others suddenly
became aware that the police were firing in their midst. But all agreed that practically all of them turned and ran away once
they realised what was happening.
A few, it is true, stood their ground for some seconds, unable to understand that the police
were not firing blanks. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar was quite clear that he did not give the order to fire. Moreover, he declared
that he would not have fired in that situation. It was stated later that two white policemen opened fire and that about fifty
others followed suit, using service revolvers, rifles and sten guns.
Police action caused devastating consequences
But whatever doubts there may be of the sequence of events in those fateful minutes, there
can be no argument over the devastating consequences of the action of the police on March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville. Sixty-nine
people were killed, including eight women and ten children, and of the 180 people who were wounded, thirty-one were women
and nineteen were children.
According to the evidence of medical practitioners it is clear that the police continued firing
after the people began to flee: for, while thirty shots had entered the wounded or killed from the front of their bodies no
less than 155 bullets had entered the bodies of the injured and killed from their backs. All this happened in forty seconds,
during which time 705 rounds were fired from revolvers and sten guns.
But whatever weapons were used the massacre was horrible. Visiting the wounded the next day
in Baragwanath Hospital near Johannesburg, I discovered youngsters, women and elderly men among the injured. These could not
be described as agitators by any stretch of the imagination. For the most part they were ordinary citizens who had merely
gone to the Sharpeville police station to see what was going on. Talking with the wounded I found that everyone was stunned
and mystified by what had taken place. They had certainly not expected that anything like this would happen.
All agreed that there was no provocation for such savage action by the police. Indeed, they
insisted that the political organisers who had called for the demonstration had constantly insisted that there should be no
violence or fighting.
Arrests follow massacre
To make matters worse, some of the wounded with whom I spoke in hospital stated that they were
taunted by the police as they lay on the ground, being told to get up and be off. Others who tried to help were told to mind
their own business.
At first there was only one African minister of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa who
tried to help the wounded and the dying. It is true that later the police assisted in tending the wounded and summoned ambulances
which conveyed the injured to Vereeniging and Baragwanath Hospitals. Later still, 77 Africans were arrested in connection
with the Sharpeville demonstration, in some cases while they were still in hospital.
In fact, it was clear on my visits to the wards of Baragwanath Hospital that many of the injured
feared what would happen to them when they left hospital. This wasn`t surprising, for Baragwanath Hospital was an extraordinary
sight. Outside each of the wards to which the wounded were taken were a number of African police, some white policemen, and
members of the Special Branch in civilian clothes. The attitude of the South African Government to the event at Sharpeville
can be seen from its reaction to the civil claims lodged the following September by 224 persons for damages amounting to around
400,000 arising from the Sharpeville killings.
The following month the Minister of Justice announced that during the next parliamentary session
the Government would introduce legislation to indemnify itself and its officials retrospectively against claims resulting
from action taken during the disturbances earlier that year. This was done in the Indemnity Act, No. 61 of 1961. Not that
money could ever compensate adequately for the loss of a breadwinner to a family or make up for lost limbs or permanent incapacity.
But it would have been some assistance.
It is true that in February 1961 the Government set up a committee to examine the claims for
compensation and to recommend ex gratia payments in deserving cases. But this is not the same thing, and in fact by October
1962 no payments had been made.
Failure of police to communicate with the people
Few commentators since Sharpeville have attempted to justify the action of the police that
day. In fact, many of them have drawn special attention to the complete failure of the police to attempt to communicate with
the crowd at the police station. If it had been a white crowd the police would have tried to find out why they were there
and what they wanted.
Surely their failure to do so was due to the fact that it never occurred to them, as the custodians
of public order, either to negotiate with the African leaders or to try to persuade the crowd to disperse. Their attitude
was summed up by the statement of Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar that "the Native mentality does not allow them to gather for
a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence."
The same point was demonstrated even more graphically by one of his answers at the Court of
Enquiry under Mr. Justice Vessels. When he was asked if he had learnt any useful lesson from the events in Sharpeville, he
replied, 'Well, we may get better equipment.'
Not that all members of the South African Police Force are cruel or callous. No doubt many
of them were shocked by what happened. At the same time what happened at Sharpeville emphasises how far the police in South
Africa are cut off from sympathy with or even understanding of Africans. And this is underlined by the fact that at no time
did the police express regret for this tragic happening.
Yet it would be folly to attempt to fasten the whole blame for the events at Sharpeville on
the police. By the mass of repressive legislation which has been enacted every year since 1948, the South African Government
has given the police a task which ever becomes more difficult to fulfill.
The pass laws
It was this legislation which was indirectly responsible for the tragedy of Sharpeville, and
in particular the "pass laws". Indeed, the immediate cause of many in the crowd assembling at the police station was the growing
resentment of Africans to the system of passes.
This system originated in 1760 in the Cape Colony to regulate the movement of slaves between
the urban and the rural areas. The slaves had to carry passes from their masters. Subsequently, the system was extended in
various forms to the whole country and was eventually collated in the Native (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945.
This Act made provision for a variety of passes including registered service contracts and
for passes permitting men to seek work in particular areas. But through the years an increasing number of Africans had been
given exemption from these laws.
This was the situation which obtained until 1952 when a new act ironically called 'The Abolition
of Passes Act' made it compulsory for every African male, whether he had previously had to carry passes or no, to carry a
reference book. If the holder had previously been exempted from the pass laws he was now privileged to carry a reference book
with a green instead of a brown cover! But the contents were identical.
The advent of the reference books meant that technically there were no longer any such things
as passes. But, as will be understood, to the Africans reference books are passes for they contain all the details which were
previously entered on the various pass documents. They contain the holder`s name, his tax receipt, his permit to be in an
urban area and to seek work there, permits from the Labour Bureau, the signature each month of his employer to show that he
is still in the employment he was given permission to take, as well as other particulars.
Even more objectionable than having to possess a reference book is the fact that this book
must be produced on demand to any policeman or any of the fifteen different classes of officials who may require to see it.
Failure to produce it on demand constitutes an offence for which an African may be detained up to thirty days while inquiries
are being made about him.
What this means in practice can be seen from the fact that in the twelve months ending June
30, 1966 no less than 479,114 Africans were prosecuted for offences against the "pass laws". At the time of Sharpeville there
were 1,000 prosecutions a day for these offences. By 1966, this had risen to over l,300 a day. These figures speak for themselves.
In 1960 a new development occurred when the Government of South Africa decided for the first
time in South African history to extend the pass laws to African women. In their case another fear was added that they might
be subjected to manhandling by the police with a further loss of human dignity. In fact, by the time of Sharpeville it was
estimated that three-quarters of African women were in possession of reference books.
But many of the women who had not obtained reference books were strenuously opposed both to
the pass system and to its extension to themselves. To them reference books stood for racial identification, and therefore
for racial discrimination.
Intolerable economic situation
But this was by no means the only reason for unrest in Sharpeville. Anyone who knew the township
at that time was aware that there had been increasing tension among the inhabitants because in that area wages were too low
and rents were too high. Prior to March of that year rent had been increased in Sharpeville and this had added to the burdens
of Africans living there.
The previous year (1959) a study of the economic position of Africans in Johannesburg had shown
that 80 per cent of Africans were living at or below the poverty datum line. The probability is that the lot of Africans in
Sharpeville was worse than in Johannesburg.
A survey carried out by the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department in 1962 in Soweto
showed that 68 per cent of families there had an income below the estimated living costs. A subsequent study in 1966 showed
that this figure remained the same. So in spite of the increased prosperity of South Africa the economic position of a high
percentage of Africans does not seem to have improved much since Sharpeville.
African wages in Sharpeville in 1960 were low, partly because African trade unions were not
(and still are not) recognised for the purpose of bargaining with employers. But also, the continuing colour bar in commerce
and industry meant, and still means, high minimum wages for white workers and low maximum wages for the black workers who
make up the great majority of the labour force. All this means two wage structures in South Africa which have no relation
to one another: in the fixing of the black wage structure the workers frequently have no say at all.
Several months before the tragic events at Sharpeville it was becoming obvious that those living
in the township were facing an intolerable economic situation. It is too easy to dismiss the Sharpeville demonstration at
the police station as the work of agitators and the result of intimidation. A11 that those who led the demonstration did was
to use a situation which, for political and economic reasons, was already highly explosive.
Not that Sharpeville was an isolated incident. The ten years before Sharpeville had seen feverish
activity by the opponents of apartheid. By means of boycotts, mass demonstrations, strikes and protests, the non-white majority
had attempted by non-violent means to compel those in power to modify their racist policies. For example, on June 26, 1952,
the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws had been launched.
The same day three years later (June 26, 1955) 3,000 delegates had adopted the Freedom Charter
which had been drafted by the Congress Alliance. This took place at a massive gathering at Kliptown, Johannesburg.
The following year the Federation of South African Women held a series of spectacular demonstrations
against the extension of the pass system to African women. These culminated in a mass demonstration at the Union Buildings,
Pretoria, on August 9, 1956. Some 10,000 women gathered there in an orderly fashion to present 7,000 individually signed protest
Again, from January 7, 1957, many thousand African men and women for months walked eighteen
to twenty miles a day to and from work in Johannesburg in a boycott of the buses. Although in this particular case they gained
their objective, a11 the various endeavours by Africans to secure change by peaceful means brought little tangible result.
The surprising thing was that in a11 this activity there was very little violence on the part
of boycotters, demonstrators and strikers. In spite of great and frequent provocation by the police, Africans remained orderly
and disciplined. They were in truth non-violent. As could be expected there were, however, occasions when the resentment and
frustration of Africans spilled over into violence.
One such occasion was at Cato Manor near Durban on June 17, 1959. On that day a demonstration
of African women at the beer hall destroyed beer and drinking utensils and was dispersed by the police. Several days later
the Director of the Bantu Administration Department met 2,000 women at the beer hall. Once they had stated their grievances
they were ordered to disperse. When they failed to do so the police made a baton charge. General disorder and rioting followed,
with the result that damage estimated at 100,000 (Rands) was done to vehicles and buildings. Later that day Africans attacked
a police picket and were driven off with sten guns.
After this, things remained comparatively quiet in Cato Manor until a Sunday afternoon in February,
1960, when the smouldering resentment of Africans there again burst into flame. An ugly situation developed in which nine
policemen lost their lives. This was a deplorable business. Whatever may be said of the actions of the South African police
these men died while carrying out their duties. The blame for their deaths must in the first instance lie on those who murdered
The fact that these deaths occurred in Cato Manor only a few weeks before the demonstration
at Sharpeville must have been well known to the police gathered at the police station in Sharpeville that morning. Certainly
more than one spokesman of the South African Government linked these two affairs together. There is not the slightest evidence,
however, that there was in this sense any connection between the tragedies of Cato Manor and Sharpeville.
But in another sense they were both intimately connected because more indirectly they both
arose out of the action of those in power during the previous decade, who had taken every possible step to ensure that the
whole life of the millions of Africans was encased within the strait-jacket of compulsory segregation.
Civilisation without mercy
Yet there the similarity ended. The crowd at Sharpeville was not attacking anything or anyone.
Further, there is abundant evidence to show that they were unarmed. While nothing can justify the killing of police at Cato
Manor, that incident cannot in any way exonerate the vicious action of the police at Sharpeville. As the late Sir Winston
Churchill pointed out in a debate in the British House of Commons on July 8, 1920:
"There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean the prohibition against
what is called `frightfulness'. What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular
crowd of people with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country."
(This is precisely what the police did at Sharpeville).
On that occasion Sir Winston concluded his speech with some words of Macaulay - "... and then
was seen what we believe to be the most frightful of spectacles, the strength of civilisation without mercy." These are words
which aptly summarise a11 that happened at Sharpeville that March morning.
Many people inside South Africa, though shocked for a time by the events at Sharpeville, ended
by dismissing them as just one incident in the long and growing succession of disturbances that down the years have marked
the implementation of apartheid. Certainly the Government of South Africa, though badly shaken in the days immediately following
Sharpeville, soon regained control of the situation.
On March 24, the Government banned all public meetings in twenty-four magisterial districts.
On April 8, the Governor-General signed a proclamation banning the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress
as unlawful organisations, the result being that they were both driven underground. But neither of them became dormant.
At the same time the Government mobilised the entire Citizen Force, the Permanent Force Reserve,
the Citizen Force Reserve and the Reserve of Officers, and the whole of the Commando Force was placed on stand-by. Already
on March 30, in Proclamation No. 90, the Governor-General had declared a state of emergency which lasted until August 31,
1960. During that time a large number of prominent opponents of government policy of a11 races were arrested and detained
without being brought to trial. In addition some 20,000 Africans were rounded up, many of whom were released after screening.
So after some months eventually, at least superficially, life in South Africa became at least
relatively normal. But underneath the external calm dangerous fires continue to smoulder: fires that can never be extinguished
by repressive measures coupled with a constant and growing show of force.
Outside South Africa there were widespread reactions to Sharpeville in many countries which
in many cases led to positive action against South Africa: action which still continues. But here, too, most people, even
if they have heard of Sharpeville, have relegated what happened there to the archives of history, just one of the too many
dark pages in the human story.
Sharpeville marked a watershed in South Africa
Yet it is my personal belief that history will recognise that Sharpeville marked a watershed
in South African affairs. Until Sharpeville, violence for the most part had been used in South Africa by those who were committed
to the maintenance of the economic and political domination of the white minority in the Republic. Down the years they had
always been ready to use force to maintain the status quo whenever they judged it necessary to do so. When the occasion arose
they did not hesitate to use it. Over and over again, non-white civilians were injured by police action or by assaults on
them when in prison.
Until Sharpeville the movements opposed to apartheid were pledged to a policy of non-violence.
But on March 21, 1960, when an unarmed African crowd was confronted by 300 heavily armed police supported by five Saracen
armoured vehicles, an agonising reappraisal of the situation was inevitable. Small wonder is it that, having tried every peaceful
method open to them to secure change without avail, the African leadership decided that violence was the only alternative
left to them.
Never again would they expose their people to another Sharpeville. As Nelson Mandela said in
court at his trial in October l962:
"Government violence can do only one thing and that is to breed counter-violence. We have warned
repeatedly that the Government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence among the
people till ultimately if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the Government, the dispute between the Government
and my people will finish up by being settled in violence and by force."
Outwardly things may go on in South Africa much as before. Visitors may find a booming economy,
the white minority may seem secure in their privileged position for any foreseeable future, some urban Africans may have higher
living standard than formerly. But all this ought not to deceive anybody.
The fact is that for the first time both sides in the racial struggle in South Africa are now
committed to violence; the white minority to preserve the status quo; the non-white majority to change: change from society
dominated by apartheid to one that is non-racial in character. Already there are clear indications that the opponents of apartheid
are turning deliberately to violence.
The fact that at the moment this is being expressed through small bands of guerillas who may
be neither very well trained nor well-equipped does not mean that they ought therefore to be dismissed as having little significance.
After a11, we have the examples of Algeria, Cuba and Viet Nam before us as powerful reminders of what may result from very
small and weak beginnings.
In spite of the present calm in South Africa and a prosperity unparallelled in its history,
within the Republic the seeds of violence have already been sown. Unless there is a radical change in the present political
and economic structures of South Africa, that which has already been sown will be harvested in a terrible and brutal civil
war which might easily involve the whole African continent in conflict before it ends.
Indeed it may be that in the present situation in the Republic of South Africa are hidden forces
which will involve humanity in a global racial conflict unless the present racist policies there are changed radically. The
choice before the international community has been a clear one ever since Sharpeville. Either it takes every possible step
to secure the abandonment of the present policies in South Africa or the coming years will bring increasing sorrow and strife
both for South Africa and for the world.
Sharpeville was a tragedy showing most plainly that the ideology of apartheid is a way of death
and not of life. Can the nations recognise this before it is too late?”
The apartheid regime obviously did not recognize that and was reinforced in its belief that
it would survive because some of the most powerful countries in the world, especially the industrialized nations in the West,
continued to support it.
It did not take the massacre seriously. It believed that the white power structure was invincible,
virtually an impregnable fortress that could withstand the most sustained assault even by its fiercest opponents. And it invoked
the inspired canon of scripture to justify its diabolical policies as if they had been sanctioned by God and white people
had divine mandate to rule members of "the lesser breed": black people and other non-whites.
Shortly after the massacre, the apartheid regime declared a state emergency which lasted from
March 30 to August 31, 1960. The emergency declaration was prompted by widespread demonstrations, protests ans strikes across
the country in condemnation of the massacre and what the apartheid regime perceived to be a threat to the nation's security
and white domination of the country.
More than 18,000 people including most of the country's leading anti-apartheid politicians
of all races were arrested when the emergency was declared. And on April 8, both the African National Congress (ANC) and the
Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were declared illegal, forcing them to go underground and resort to other means to try and bring
The establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the
African National Congress; and of Poqo, PAC's armed wing, was largely inspired by the massacre and by the government's refusal
to negotiate with the opponents of apartheid and find ways to achieve racial equality in the country without resorting to
Although both the ANC and the PAC were banned in South Africa, they remained active in the
country and from their operational bases in other countries such as Tanzania and Zambia. It was not until 40 years later,
in 1990, that they were unbanned.
Thus, instead of bringing about fundamental change, the government became even more repressive
following the Sharpeville massacre. And in October 1960, the white electorate voted for a republican form of government under
the leadership of the National Party dominated by Afrikaners and which instituted apartheid in 1948. South Africa withdrew
from the Commonwealth in March 1961 and on May 31 the same year, it became republic.
The withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth was a result of a concerted effort by
African leaders to keep the apartheid regime out of this community of nations, once former British colonies. The campaign
was led by Julius Nyerere who made it clear that if South Africa remained a member, his country Tanganyika would not join
the Commonwealth once it became independent. As he stated: "To vote South Africa in, is to vote us out."
There is no question that the Shaperville massacre galvanized the anti-apartheid movement worldwide.
It drew worldwide condemnation and played a critical role in changing the attitude of many African leaders who had earlier
embraced non-violence as a means to achieving racial justice in the land of apartheid. After the massacre, armed struggle
was seen a viable alternative that could be used to compel the apartheid regime to accept fundamental change and was effectively
used through the years as a complementary strategy, along with diplomacy, to achieve this goal.
In the United States, the year 1960 was also a turning point in the struggle for racial equality
for blacks as much as it was for their brethren thousands of miles across the Atlantic in Africa.
The civil rights movement gained momentum, galvanized by a series of historic
events in the fifties. These included the May 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court outlawing
segregation in public schools; the August 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old black boy Emmett Till in Mississippi and subsequent
acquittal of his white killers by an all-white jury. Later after the trial, his killers boasted about committing the murder
in an interview with Look magazine, and the case became one of the
most important battle cries in the struggle against racial injustice.
Other events which provided impetus to the civil rights movement were the December 1955 bus
boycott by blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, to end segregation on the city buses - the boycott lasted for more than a year -
an even which thrust Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King into prominence in the struggle for racial equality; and the 1957
integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in compliance with the 1954 Brown vs. Board Education US Supreme
Court ruling which outlawed segregation in public schools not only in Topeka, Kansas, where Brown's case took place, but in
the country as a whole.
The Supreme Court ruled against the separate-but-equal doctrine and declared segregation unconstitutional.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren said: "...the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."
Desegregation of the schools was met with stiff opposition, but its supporters remained resolute,
further galvanizing the civil rights movement. The impact of the Supreme Court ruling was not limited to public schools. It
paved the way for large-scale desegregation in the American society. Supporters of integration cited it as a precedent in
other cases to fight segregation.
While racial equality and integration were some of the main goals of the civil rights movement
which embraced people of all races but which was mainly led by blacks especially Dr. Martin Luther King, racial separation
was another goal that was being pursued by some blacks because of the failure of racial integration and the unwillingness
probably by most whites to accept blacks as equals.
The doctrine of racial separation was being forcefully articulated by a black
separatist group called the Nation of Islam, also known as Black Muslims, led by Elijah Muhammad. Founded in Detroit, Michigan,
in 1930 by W. Fard, the group observed its 30th anniversary in 1960, a year that was also the turning point in the history of the members
and supporters of this organization. Elijah Muhammad led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975.
In a speech in New York in 1960, Elijah Muhammad demanded a separate independent state for
blacks, arguing that integration was not going to work. The Nation of Islam identified five southern states which would constitute
an independent homeland for blacks where they would be able to establish a black nation in their own country and enjoy freedom
they had always been denied by whites.
The Black Muslims chose the southern states because that is where the largest number of blacks
lived; and that is also where African slaves were taken in largest numbers to work on the plantations and helped lay the foundation
of what became the richest and most powerful country in history. The southern states the Nation of Islam wanted were Alabama,
Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana.
The group had always believed in racial separation as the best solution to the race problem
in America. But it was not until 1960 that its leader, Elijah Muhammad, made a formal announcement demanding a separate, independent
state for blacks.
It was very secretive of its membership but by 1960, it was estimated that the Nation of Islam
had between 65,000 and 100,000 members. If you included sympathizers, the number of blacks who supported at least some of
the goals of the Nation of Islam was probably higher than whatever estimate was given back in 1960 or at any other time through
the years before and since then.
Just the year before, the Nation of Islam came to the attention of millions of Americans when
its national spokesman, Malcolm X, was interviewed by a black journalist Louis Lomax and by Mike Wallace, a white, on CBS,
an American national television network.
The interview took place in New York as part of a documentary called "The Hate That Hate Produced."
It also featured the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad, and was broadcast in five segments from July 13 to 17, 1959. Several
ministers of the Nation of Islam, besides Malcolm X, were also interviewed for the documentary.
This was the first time millions of Americans, especially whites, came to know not only about
the Nation of Islam but its eloquent spokesman Malcolm X and his unsurpassed oratorical skills and sharp wit and intelligence.
It was when he was the national spokesman of the National Islam that the group had the largest increase in its membership
in its entire history.
But the documentary was heavily edited to produce shock effect on the American audience, especially
whites who came to view Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam with apprehension as if the group's intention was to undermine America.
As stated on the web site of the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University:
“Despite its lurid presentation of NOI (Nation of Islam) culture, the documentary included
excerpts from strident speeches by Elijah Muhammad and various ministers, and ultimately served as a valuable recruiting tool
for the NOI, swelling the ranks with new converts.
However, the documentary’s title nevertheless linked the Nation of Islam with 'hate'
in the public mind, playing on white fear and contrasting the “Black racists” of the NOI with more moderate, “sober-minded
Negroes”-a binary that was subsequently reinforced in countless media portrayals.”
And as the Nation of Islam was articulating demands for a separate black nation which would
no longer be a part of the United States once independence was achieved, however utopian the ideal, the mainstream black civil
rights movement was also pressing its demands for racial equality within the confines of the United States and with more vigour.
It was a struggle which had its counterpart in Africa in the southern part of the continent. And 1960 was a critical year
for both in many fundamental respects.
And however impractical the demands were, by the Nation of Islam for a separate homeland, a
desire also expressed by the Republic of New Afrika, another black separatist group founded in Detroit in 1968 in the same
city where the Nation if Islam was founded almost 40 years earlier, they did dramatize and highlight the plight of black people
in the United States, and not just those of the Black Muslims, as victims of racial injustice whose demands for racial equality
were either being ignored or not being taken seriously by the government and the majority of whites in a predominantly white
The plight of black people in the United States, especially in the southern states where the
struggle for racial equality was most intense, was very much similar to the suffering of blacks in South Africa who were also
being oppressed by whites simply because of what they were: black, hence inferior to whites.
While black people were groaning under apartheid in South Africa, blacks in the southern states
of the United States were also suffering oppression under segregation laws which had been passed to separate them from whites
and ensure a privileged lifestyle for whites. And just as blacks in South Africa had their plight highlighted by the Sharpeville
massacre in 1960, blacks in the United States also had the racial inequalities and brutalities they suffered in the southern
states highlighted by an incident which involved black students in the state of North Carolina in the same year, 1960, and
which had a multiplier effect throughout the south and other parts of the country in the following months and years.
The incident involved four black students from the segregated North Carolina A&T (Agricultural
and Technical) College in Greensboro in the state of North Carolina. And it took place in the same city of Greensboro on 1
February 1960. It was the beginning of what came to be known as the Greensboro sit-ins, igniting a protest that last for six
months throughout the south and other parts of the country.
The four students went into town and entered Woolworth's store in downtown Greensbsoro where
they sat on the stools at a lunch counter in defiance of the segregation laws which barred blacks from using facilities used
It was the beginning of what came to be known as the sit-in campaigns of 1960
which contributed to the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - popularly known and pronounced
as sneek), an influential organization of students
that later came to be led by Stokely Carmichael from 1966 - 1967, and also by H. Rap Brown, some of the most prominent leaders
of the Black Power movement in the United States in the sixties. The first president of SNCC in 1960 was Marion Barry who
years later was elected mayor of Washington, D.C.
Other prominent members of SNCC included John Lewis who once served as president of the organization
and who in that capacity gave a speech during the March on Washington in August 1963 when Dr. Marting Luther King gave his
famous "I Have A Dream" speech. He later became a US congressman representing a district in Atlanta, Georgia. Another prominent
SNCC member was Julian Bond who more than 30 years later became president of the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP).
The four black students who sat down at the Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro
were Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, and David Richmond. They bought several items in the store before sitting
down at the counter reserved for whites customers.
A waitress asked them to leave but they politely refused to do so. And surprisingly, they were
not arrested. They stayed there for an hour until the store closed.
It was not until six months later, after the victory had been won following other sit-ins and
protests throughout the south and elsewhere, that the four original protesters were served lunch at the same Woolworth's counter.
Earlier in January the same year in which they started the protest, Blair was denied service
at a Union Bus terminal station restaurant because he was black, an incident that helped start the sit-ins the following month.
The protests in Greensboro started a chain reaction that spread throughout the country. The
following morning, on February 2, 25 black male students and 4 female students went to the same store and sat at the lunch
counter to continue the protests. On February 3, students occupied 63 of the 65 seats available at the Woolworth's lunch counter.
On February 4, the black students were joined by white female students from the North Carolina Women's College in the sit-in.
On February 5, more than 300 students took part in the protests, and on February 6, hundreds
of students including the A&T North Carolina College football team descended on the downtown area of Greensboro in protest.
The day came to be known as "Black Saturday," and the sit-ins had become a major weapon in the struggle for racial equality.
Black students in other parts of North Carolina followed suit as did thousands of others throughout the south in the following
It is significant that when the protests first started at Woolworth, there was no confrontation
with the store management or with the police. But the second sit-in drew the attention of the local media and the word was
When the third sit-in took place, the students had formed what they called the Student Executive
Committee for Justice to coordinate the campaign. The campaign culminated in a march of several thousand students. The mayor
of Greensboro asked the protesters to stop the campaign while the city sought "a just and honourable solution" but black students
in other parts of North Carolina and elsewhere across the country organized their sit-in protests at lunch counters reserved
By the end of February 1960, the protests had taken place at more than 30 locations in seven
states in the southern part of the United States where segregation was entrenched, upheld by law and sanctioned by custom.
They also spread in some parts of the northern states where picketing took place against Woolworth's and other chain stores
in a number of cities.
The protests in the south targeted not only "whites only" lunch counters but other segregated
public institutions which excluded blacks from their facilities including recreation such as swimming and other activities.
Quite often, the students encountered mobs of angry whites who physically assaulted
them and hostile owners or managers who refused to serve them coffee or even a glass of water. But the students did not react
violently and they maintained their position until they forced the stores and other businesses to close doors earlier than
they normally would. As Franklin McCain, one of the four teenagers who took part in the first sit-in protest in Greensboro,
said when he was interviewed by Howard Raines for Raine's book My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered:
“The planning process was on a Sunday night, I remember it quite well. I think it was
Joseph McNeil who said, 'It's time that we take some action now. We've been getting together, and we've been, up to this point,
still like most people we've talked about for the past few weeks or so - that is, people who talk a lot but, in fact, make
very little action.'
After selecting the technique, then we said, 'Let's go down and just ask for service.'
It certainly wasn't titled a 'sit-in' or 'sit-down' at that time. 'Let's just go down to Woolworth's
tomorrow and ask for service, and the tactic is going to be simply this: we'll just stay there.'
We never anticipated being served, certainly, the first day anyway. 'We'll stay until we get
served.' And I think Ezell Blair said, 'Well, you know that might be weeks, that might be months, that might be never.' And
I think it was the consensus of the group, we said, 'Well, that's just the chance we'll have to take.'
Once getting there we did make purchases of school supplies and took the patience and time
to get receipts for our purchases, and Joseph McNeil and myself went over to the counter and asked to be served coffee and
doughnuts. As anticipated, the reply was, 'I'm sorry, we don't serve you here.' And of course we said, 'We just beg to disagree
with you. We've in fact already been served.'
The attendant or waitress was a little bit dumbfounded, just didn't know what to say under
circumstances like that. And we said, 'We wonder why you'd invite us in to serve us at one counter and deny service at another.
If this is a private club or private concern, then we believe you ought to sell membership cards.'
That didn't go over too well, simply because I don't really think she understood what we were
talking about, and for the second reason, she had no logical response to a statement like that.
At that point there was a policeman who had walked in off the street, who was pacing the aisle
behind us, where we were seated, with his club in his hand, just sort of knocking it in his hand, and just looking mean and
red and a little bit upset and a little bit disgusted. And you had the feeling that he didn't know what the hell to do.
You had the feeling that this is the first time that this big bad man with the gun and the
club has been pushed in a corner, and he's got absolutely no defense, and the thing that's killing him more than anything
else - he doesn't know what he can or what he cannot do. He's defenseless.
Usually his defense is offense, and we've provoked him, yes, but we haven't provoked him outwardly
enough for him to resort to violence. And I think this is just killing him; you can see it all over him.”
Franklin McCain was also interviewed by another writer, Gary Younge and is quoted
in Younge's book, No Place Like Home, stating:
“On the day that I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and
I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. I felt like one of those wise men who sits
cross-legged and cross-armed and has reached a natural high. Nothing else has ever come close. Not the birth of my first son
nor my marriage.
People go through their whole lives and they don't get that to happen to them. And here it
was being visited on me as a 17-year-old. It was wonderful but it was sad also, because I know that I will never have that
again. I'm just sorry it was when I was 17.
I was brought up with a major myth. I was told that if I worked hard, believed in the constitution,
the 10 commandments and the bill of rights, and got a good education, I would be successful.
For a long time, I held it against my parents and my grandparents as well. I felt they had
lied to me and I felt suicidal. I felt that if that is what this life was all about then it wasn't worth it. There seemed
no prospect for dignity or respect as a young black man.
So we decided to do something. When we sat down, and the waitress refused to take our orders,
there was a policeman behind us slapping his night-stick on his hand. I thought, I guess this is it. But then it occurred
to me the policeman really didn't know what he was doing, and I must say I was relieved.
Some way through, an old white lady, who must have been 75 or 85, came over and put her hands
on my shoulders and said: "Boys I am so proud of you. You should have done this 10 years ago." That is exactly the sort of
person you didn't expect to hear anything from.
It was only 15 or 20 years later that I learnt to forgive them and understand them. I was threatening
their livelihood. And it was around that time I realised that my parents weren't naive in the cruel lie that they had told
me. They lied to me be cause they loved me.”
Stokely Carmichael also recalled the Greensboro sit-in protests when he was
interviewed by Gordon Parks for Life
and had this to say:
“When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South, I thought
they were just a bunch of publicity hounds.
But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools
after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair - well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was
Although the protesters were mostly black, integrated groups of students with a significant
number of whites also took part in the protests.
By the end of 1960, about 70,000 black students had participated in the sit-ins in segregated
facilities or marched in support of the protesters. And their effort led to the integration of seventeen school districts
and countless public arenas in the south.
Within six months, restaurants and lunch counters were desegregated in 26 cities in the south.
The sit-in protests also succeeded in desegregating public parks, swimming pools, theatres, churches, libraries, museums,
beaches and other facilities.
The student sit-ins and protest movement played a major role in galvanizing and transforming
the entire civil rights movement into a more potent force.
They attracted more people, especially the young, to the struggle for civil rights which in
many cases involved direct action more than the strategy of older civil rights organizers did. Older civil rights activists
preferred litigation to achieve their goals but many now also supported direct action by the students.
The rationale for the protests was legal and moral. And as a moral imperative, it was a searing
indictment against the nation supposedly founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. But it also an economic dimension.
Many blacks in the southern states could not participate in the protests or in any other civil
rights activities because they feared that they would lose their jobs.
By contrast, students had fewer financial responsibilities and could take such risks without
fear of being sanctioned or penalized by whites. And they were, of course, interested in bringing about immediate change instead
of waiting for legal reform to take its course as advocated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Even Dr. Martin Luther King supported immediate change. That is why he led protest
marches in the south and other parts of the country and made his position clear in many of his speeches including one of his
books appropriately entitled, Why We
Can't Wait published
in 1963. But even he was not radical enough for the students, although his tactics and strategy were closer to theirs than
those of the NAACP.
In fact, the non-violent tactics of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed
by Dr. King and which spearheaded the civil rights movement, were initially adopted by the Student Non-Volent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) before this predominantly black student organization adopted a more militant posture after young black leaders
such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown - and many other black students - found out that the authorities had no respect
for non-violence and continued to brutalize blacks.
Dr. King himself supported the sit-ins and on October 1960, he and about 280 college students
staged a sit-in at a lunch counter at Rich's Department Store in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia.
He did not start this demonstration but was asked by the students to join them. And they were
all arrested and taken to jail, including Dr. King himself.
The students made a commitment: they would not post bail and would serve time in jail. Dr.
King supported them, saying it would be wrong to post bail and made it clear that he would not change his mind even it meant
remaining in a jail for a year or for ten years.
There was a lot of unrest in the community in Atlanta because of the arrests
and on October 25th Rich's Department Store dropped the charges and the demonstrators were released without posting bail.
But Dr. King was still in trouble. Even though the sit-in charges against him
were dropped, he was still held for violating probation from a previous traffic offence and was transferred from Fulton County
Jail to Reidsville State Prison on October 26th.
The next day, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who was then
US Senator from Massachusetts, called Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, and offered to help her and her husband. John F.
Kennedy's younger brother Robert Kennedy contacted the governor of Georgia and other state authorities to try to convince
them to release Dr. King. He was successful and on October 27th Dr. King was released fom prison.
After he was released, Dr. King thanked Senator Kennedy for his support during the ordeal.
Kennedy's support for Dr. King and his family boosted his popularity among blacks. And King's
gratitude to Kennedy which he expressed publicly also helped Kennedy win support among blacks during the 1960 presidential
The black vote may have been one of the deciding factors in the outcome of the
1960 presidential election on November 8th which Kennedy won by a razor-thin margin over his Republican rival Richard Nixon.
He won 34,226,731 votes, and Nixon won 34,108,157 votes. More than 70 percent of the black
vote went to Kennedy, an overwhelming support which helped Kennedy to win several key states. And his victory changed the
course of American history.
Kennedy won much of the south and the east because of his charisma, wit and direct support
of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement; a movement black students helped to galvanize as never before, especially
with their sit-in protests, and in the same year one of the most important presidential elections in American history was
The year 1960 was the first time black students in the United States entered the political
arena in large numbers. And they transformed the political landscape in a way that had not been anticipated even the year
In the same year, the protests began to show results. Walls of segregation began to crack and
crumble in the upper south. Lunch counters were integrated in Tennessee and North Carolina. They were also integrated in Texas
in the southwest. The reasons for the integration were both moral and economic. Many whites supported the protests for moral
reasons. And many white owners did not want to lose customers including whites who supported the protesters.
But while there was remarkable success in the upper south - a region which covers Tennessee,
North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky - it was a different story in the deep south.
The protesters met stiff resistance in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina
where white supremacy - including the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council - was more entrenched than in the upper
south. Cities such as Montgomery in Alabama and several others elsewhere including some in Mississippi outlawed the demonstrations.
And white business owners flatly refused to serve black customers, contending that they could make their own rules because
the businesses were their own private property.
The protesters were met with intimidation, arrest, and outright violence throughout
the south and the authorities - including the FBI - did nothing to stop it because they themselves were a part of it. They
worked hand in hand with white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to attack blacks. There have been a number of reports
documenting that. According to COINTELPRO:
The Untold American Story:
“During the 1960's, the FBI's role was not to protect civil rights workers, but rather,
through the use of informants, the Bureau actively assisted the Ku Klux Klan in their campaign of racist murder and terror.
[US Senator Frank] Church Committee hearings [in 1975] and internal FBI documents revealed
that more than one quarter of all active Klan members during the period were FBI agents or informants. However, Bureau intelligence
assets were neither neutral observers nor objective investigators, but active participants in beatings, bombings and murders
that claimed the lives of some 50 civil rights activists by 1964.
Bureau spies were elected to top leadership posts in at least half of all Klan units. 45 Needless
to say, the informants gained positions of organizational trust on the basis of promoting the Klan's fascist agenda. Incitement
to violence and participation in terrorist acts would only confirm the infiltrator's loyalty and commitment.
Unlike slick Hollywood popularizations of the period, such as Alan Parker's
film, 'Mississippi Burning,' the FBI was instrumental in building the Ku Klux Klan in the South, '...setting up dozens of
Klaverns, sometimes being leaders and public spokespersons. Gary Rowe, an FBI informant, was involved in the Klan killing
of Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker. He claimed that he had to fire shots at her rather than 'blow his cover.' One FBI
agent, speaking at a rally organized by the Klavern he led, proclaimed to his followers, 'We will restore white rights if
we have to kill every negro to do it.'' (quoted by Michael Novick, White Lies, White Power. The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence, pp.. 35-57)....
As anti-racist researcher Michael Novick warns: 'The KKK and its successor and fraternal organizations
are deeply rooted in the actual white supremacist power relations of US society. They exist as a supplement to the armed power
of the state, available to be used when the rulers and the state find it necessary.'
The Klan's 'supplemental' role, particularly as a private armed force sporadically deployed
to arrest the development of movements for Black freedom, is best considered by comparison to other Bureau operations. Unlike
other COINTELPROs, the 'Klan - White Hate Groups' program was of a different order entirely. Senior FBI management and a majority
of agents in the field endorsed the Klan's values, if not the vigilante character of their tactics; from militaristic anti-communism
to extreme racial hatred; from ultra-nationalism to misogynist puritanism.
This was evident during the civil rights struggles of the sixties, when Freedom Riders and
local community activists directly confronted hostile police forces - many of whom were openly allied with the Klan. Despite
clear jurisdictional authority to enforce federal law, the FBI consistently refused to protect civil rights workers under
attack across the South. More than once, the Bureau refused to warn those under imminent threat of violence.
FBI inaction in the area of civil rights enforcement wasn't simply a matter of what the Pike
Committee of the House of Representatives dubbed 'FBI racism.' Rather, FBI bureaucratic lethargy, when it came to protecting
Black lives, underscored its mission against subversion for constituents whose privileges and power were threatened by a militant
movement for Black rights.”
A number of white FBI agents police officers perpetrated some of the worst forms of violence
against blacks and their white supporters during this period and when the civil rights movement was in full swing through
the sixties. By the end of 1960, 36,000 students had been arrested and thousands were expelled from college in the south.
It was during this time that the students formed a permanent organization called
the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - sneek).
It was formed between April 15 - 17, 1960, on the campus of Shaw University, a black school in Raleigh, North Carolina.
SNCC supported sit-ins and taught its members and supporters non-violent tactics to pursue
and achieve their goals. And the sit-in strategy, occupying places where blacks were not welcome as a protest against racial
injustice, became one of the enduring and most prominent features of the civil rights movement itself led by Dr. Martin Luther
Probably more than anything else, the sixties was a decade of protests and demonstrations characterized
by the civil rights movement and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.
It was also the decade of the counterculture by many young people who turned against the establishment
and the society in which they were brought up. They felt alienated; they were rebellious; they rejected the values of mainstream
America; they sought self-exploration and emphasized individual self-expression. And they had little respect for the very
society that had nurtured them, not only because they rejected its values but also because they saw it as indifferent to racial
injustice and to the plight of the poor.
The sixties was also a decade of assassinations.
President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers,
were all assassinated in the sixties, gunned down in public at different times by assassins who may have been a part of larger
conspiracies in each of those cases or simply opposed to the beliefs espoused and the causes championed by the people they
killed who also happened to be some of the most influential and most charismatic leaders in America in the twentieth century.
Even Malcolm X, a leader who was hated by the establishment and feared by the majority of whites
mostly for the wrong reasons, was, although long after his death, acknowledged as a major civil rights leader by some of the
very same people who feared and hated him, mostly the white establishment.
In the late 1990s, he was honoured when his picture was used on the most widely
used postage stamp for standard mail in acknowledgement of his status as a major leader in the struggle for racial equality.
As reported by The Washington Post in a story headlined, "Malcolm X Stamp
Greeted Warmly," November 20, 1998:
“There was time a when the idea of a postage stamp for Malcolm X, one of the most controversial
African-American leaders of the 1960s, would have never made it out of the U.S. Postal Service's conservative bureaucracy.
But Thursday, when plans for the stamp were announced, there was much praise for it.
Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith International, which had been highly
critical of Malcolm X when he preached racial separatism, welcomed the decision. His former critics noted, however, that Malcolm
X had made an abrupt change late in his life and began advocating what the Postal Service described as "a more integrationist
solution to racial problems" before he was murdered in 1965.
Richard D. Heideman, president of B'nai B'rith International, said the stamp should "remind
all Americans of the possibility of change and reconciliation between people previously divided by racial hatred."
Malcolm X is the 22nd person to be honored on the Postal Service's Black Heritage Series. The
new 33-cent stamp, which features a news photograph of Malcolm X, will be issued early next year.”
The stamp was issued on January 20, 1999, and was sold throughout the year.
A lot of times, the white media distorted or misrepresented what Malcolm X said because they
didn't like his militancy; they didn't like his philosophy, and they didn't like what he said and what he stood for and accused
him of stoking and fanning the flames of racial hatred.
He was one of the most misunderstood men during his time and after he died.
As he himself once said, if he says Mary was the mother of Jesus, the media says Malcolm X is lampooning the mother of Jesus.
And as Manning Marable, an African American professor at Columbia University, stated in his article, "Rediscovering Malcolm's
Life: A Historian's Adventures in Living History," in the journal, Souls, Winter 2005:
“To the majority of older white Americans, the noted African-American leaders Malcolm
X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seem as different from each other as night vs. day.
Mainstream culture and many history textbooks still suggest that the moderate Dr. King preached
nonviolence and interracial harmony, whereas the militant Malcolm X advocated racial hatred and armed confrontation. Even
Malcolm’s infamous slogan, “By Any Means Necessary!,” still evokes among whites disturbing images of Molotov
cocktails, armed shoot-outs, and violent urban insurrection.
But to the great majority of Black Americans and to millions of whites under thirty, these
two Black figures are now largely perceived as being fully complimentary with each other.
Both leaders had favored the building of strong Black institutions and healthy communities;
both had strongly denounced Black-on-Black violence and drugs within the urban ghetto; both had vigorously opposed America’s
war in Vietnam and had embraced the global cause of human rights.
In a 1989 'dialogue' between the eldest daughters of these two assassinated Black heroes, Yolanda
King and Attallah Shabazz, both women emphasized the fundamental common ground and great admiration the two men shared for
Shabazz complained that 'playwrights always make Martin so passive and Malcolm so aggressive
that those men wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the same room.' King concurred, noting that in one play 'my father was
this wimp who carried a Bible everywhere he went, including to someone’s house for dinner.' King argued, 'That’s
not the kind of minister Daddy was! All these ridiculous clichés. . . .'
Both agreed that the two giants were united in the pursuit of Black freedom and equality....
Malcolm X was the Black Power generation’s greatest prophet, who spoke the uncomfortable
truths that no one else had the courage or integrity to broach. Especially for young Black males, he personified for us everything
we wanted to become: the embodiment of Black masculinist authority and power, uncompromising bravery in the face of
racial oppression, the ebony standard for what the African-American liberation movement should
His birthday, May 19, was widely celebrated as a national Black holiday. Any criticisms, no
matter how minor or mild, of Malcolm’s stated beliefs or evolving political career, were generally perceived as being
not merely heretical, but almost treasonous to the entire Black race.
Working class Black people widely loved Brother Malcolm for what they perceived as his clear
and uncomplicated style of language, and his peerless ability in making every complex issue “plain.”
Indeed, one of Malcolm’s favorite expressions from the podium was his admonition to other
speakers to “Make it Plain,” a phrase embodying his unshakable conviction that the Black masses themselves, “from
the grassroots,” would ultimately become the makers of their own revolutionary Black history.
Here again, inside impoverished Black urban neighborhoods and especially in the bowels of America’s
prisons and jails, Malcolm’s powerful message had an evocative appeal to young Black males. In actor Ossie Davis’s
memorable words, “Malcolm was our manhood! . . . And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. And we will know
him then for what he was and is - a Prince-our own Black shining Prince! - who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved
Autobiography of Malcolm X, released into print in November 1965, sold millions of copies within several years. By the late sixties, the
Autobiography had been adopted in hundreds of college
courses across the country. Malcolm X’s life story, as outlined by the Autobiography, became our quintessential story about the ordeal of being Black in America....
He rapidly built the Black Muslims from an inconsequential sect to over one hundred thousand
But then Malcolm X grew intellectually and politically well beyond the Muslim. He decided to
launch his own Black nationalist group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He started preaching about human rights and
"the ballot or the bullet"....
Malcolm made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, converted to orthodox Islam, and became
“El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.” He was then acclaimed by Islamic, African, and Arab leaders as a leading voice for
racial justice. Then, at the pinnacle of his worldwide influence and power, Malcolm was brutally struck down by assassins’
bullets at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom....
A number of Malcolm X’s associates and others who had known him personally published
articles and books in the late sixties, which firmly established the late leader as the true fountainhead of Black Power....
Some (people) insisted that Malcolm X had never supported any coalitions with whites, despite
his numerous 1964-1965 public statements to the contrary....
On January 20, 1999, about 1,500 officials, celebrities, and guests crowded into Harlem’s
Apollo Theatre to mark the issuance by the U.S. Postal Service of the Malcolm X postage stamp.
Prominently in attendance were actors Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Harry Belafonte. Also on hand
was Harlem millionaire entrepreneur, media-mogul (and Malcolm’s former attorney) Percy Sutton.
The Malcolm X stamp was the Postal Service’s latest release in its "Black Heritage Stamp
Few in the audience could ignore the rich irony of this event. One of America’s sharpest
and most unrelenting critics was now being praised and honored by the same government that had once carried out illegal harassment
and surveillance against him.
Ossie Davis, who understood the significance of this bittersweet moment better than anyone
else, jokingly quipped: “We in this community look upon this commemorative stamp finally as America’s stamp of
approval . . .”
The Malcolm X postage stamp was a final and fitting triumph of his legacy. The full “Americanization
of Malcolm X” appeared to be complete....
Substantial evidence had been compiled both by Peter Goldman and attorney William Kunstler
that indicated that two of the men convicted in 1966 for gunning down Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom, Thomas 15X Johnson
and Norman 3X Butler, were completely innocent. In 1977, the only assassin who had been wounded
and captured at the crime scene, Talmadge Hayer, had confessed to his prison clergyman that
both Johnson and Butler had played absolutely no roles in the murder, confirming that in fact, they had not even been present
at the Audubon that afternoon.
There had always been whispers for years that Louis Farrakhan had been responsible for the
assassination; he had been Malcolm X’s closest protege, and then following his vitriolic renunciation of Malcolm, inherited
the leadership of Harlem’s Mosque Number Seven following the murder.
Then I had to explain the inexplicable behavior of the New York Police Department (NYPD) on
the day of the assassination. Usually one to two dozen cops blanketed any event where Malcolm X was speaking. Normally at
the Audubon rallies, a police captain or lieutenant was stationed in a command center above the Audubon’s main entrance,
on the second floor.
Fifteen to twenty uniformed officers, at least, would be milling at the periphery of the crowd,
a few always located at a small park directly across the street from the building.
On February 21, 1965, however, the cops almost disappeared. There were no uniformed officers
in the ballroom, at the main en- trance, or even in the park, at the time of the shooting. Only two NYPD patrolmen were inside
the Audubon, but at the opposite end of the building. When the NYPD investigation team arrived, forensic evidence wasn’t
properly collected, and significant eyewitnesses still at the scene weren’t interviewed for days, and in several instances
The crime scene itself was preserved for only a couple of hours. By 6 p.m. only three hours
after Malcolm X’s killing, a housekeeper with detergent and a bucket of water mopped up the floor, eliminating the bloody
A dance was held in the same ballroom at 7 p.m. that night, as originally scheduled.
Perhaps I could never answer completely the greatest question about Malcolm X: if he had lived,
or somehow had survived the assassination attempt, what could he have become? How would have another three or four decades
of life altered how we imagine him, and the ways we interpret his legacy?....
Was the powerful impact of his short, thirty-nine years of existence actually grounded in what
he had really accomplished, or based on the unfulfilled promise of what he might have become?....”
Malcolm X did not live long but he had a profound impact on the struggle for racial equality
which reached its peak in the sixties.
He was acknowledged and is still remembered by many people as the inspiration and ideological
father of the black power movement. And after leaving the Nation of Islam, he also had the potential to unite black nationalists
and black integrationists to form a powerful movement in the quest for racial justice. He was still a black nationalist, yet
one who supported a black-white coalition after he was no longer a member of the separatist Nation of Islam.
The year 1960 was a turning point in his rise to national prominence because of the views he
articulated, how he expressed those views, and the national exposure he and the Nation of Islam got the previous year when
a documentary featuring them, "The Hate That Hate Produced" was seen by millions of Americans on national television.
The year 1960 also witnessed the election of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States.
And his election gave hope to millions of black Americans in their quest for racial equality.
When Kennedy took office in January 1961, black Americans had high expectations for the new
administration, hoping that it would do more than any previous administrations had done, if at all, to advance the cause of
But, because of his limited mandate - he narrowly won the election - and small working margin
in Congress and the fear that he would loose southern support for his proposed legislation (such as fair housing which would
help minorities and the poor) Kennedy decided not to aggressively pursue a civil rights agenda through legislation.
Instead, he invoked presidential powers allowed under the constitution to issue executive orders
in order to achieve civil rights goals, however limited.
He appointed large numbers of blacks to high-level positions in the administration more than
any president had done before him and strengthened the Civil Rights Commission.
He also spoke out in favour of school desegregation and praised a number of cities for integrating
their schools and put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
And his younger brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, turned his attention to voting rights,
initiating five times the number of law suits brought during the previous administration.
The Kennedy administration had a significant influence on the course of the civil rights movement,
although he did not live long enough to see the impact his policies had on the struggle for racial equality which was one
of the most significant events in the history of the United States since the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
One of the most popular presidents in American history, he won the White House in the closest
election since 1884. His election also ushered in the dawn of a new era and one of the most significant periods in the history
of the United States: the sixties.
Coincidentally, the year 1960 was a year of hope and optimism for both Africa and the United
States. While Americans celebrated the election one of the youngest, and one of the brightest, presidents in the history of
their country who exuded confidence, was full of energy and vitality, and promised the nation a better and bright future,
millions of Africans across the African continent were also celebrating the dawn of a new era marking the end of colonial
Many events had taken place across the continent through the years but independence was different.
It was a phenomenal event and probably the most significant since the advent of colonial rule.
As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in his speech to the South African parliament in Cape Town on 3 Feruary 1960,
"the wind of change is blowing through this continent," as more and more Africans in the colonies demanded the right to rule
themselves. And "whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."
The rulers of apartheid South Africa did not like what he said. But, as the saying goes, the
rest is history....
PROBABLY the most significant event that occurred in Africa in 1961 was the assassination of
Patrice Lumumba. And it had a profound impact on the Congo and beyond for years to come.
The chaos that the Congo endured for decades was partly attributable to the elimination of
Lumumba from the country's political scene and as the most important leader and unifying force in Congo's post-colonial history.
He was assassinated on January 17, 1961, and his brutal murder and the ensuing chaos in the
Congo dominated the news in Africa for the rest of the year and became one of the dominant subjects of discussion in the following
years not only in Africa but in other parts of the world as well.
Right from the beginning, Lumumba's enemies within the Congo especially Moise Tshombe and Joseph
Mobutu were blamed for his assassination. And there is no question that they played a major role.
It was Mobutu who, as head of the army and most powerful Congolese leader, seized power on
September 14, 1960; also it was he who backed up Joseph Kasavubu as the country's president after Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba
as prime minister on September 5 and replaced him with Joseph Ileo; and it was he who arrested Lumumba and later transferred
him to his arch-enemy, Moise Tshombe, to be eliminated.
Quite often, Lumumba's assassination is largely blamed on internal actors, the Congolese themselves,
as a conspiracy between Mobutu, Kasavubu, Tshombe, Joseph Ileo, Albert Kalonji and Lumumba's other enemies in the country.
The impression some people might get is that all these people were independent actors and made their own decisions on what
to do with Lumumba without external involvement. And they did play a big role in his elimination.
But Lumumba's assassination involved even much bigger people and actors than Lumumba's Congoles
enemies. It was a conspiracy which went far beyond the circle of his enemies within the Congo itself. Although his fellow
Congolese played an important role in his elimination, they were no more than puppets manipulated at will by outside powers,
although there is no question that even they themselves would have killed Lumumba on their own if they had the opportunity
to do so and even if there was no foreign intervention.
The biggest player on the scene and in Lumumba's assassination was Belgium, the former colonial
power, which sent troops to the Congo after independence ostensibly to rescue its nationals and other whites after the country
descended into chaos precipitated by the secession of Katanga Province under the leadership of Moise Tshombe on July 11, 1960.
Katanga's secession was instigated and encouraged by Belgium and other western financial and
political interests. And the real motive for Belgium's intervention was to provide military, eocnomic and political support
to Tshombe to ensure that the secession of Katanga was successful.
The Belgians had powerful financial interests in this mineral-rich province and they did not
want it to remain an integral part of the Congo under the control of the country's central authority, especially under the
leadership of Lumumba whom they saw as a threat to their economic and political interests in the country because of his strong
nationalist credentials as a leader who wanted to keep the country independent and united and free from external interference.
But although the Belgians were the most decisive force in Lumumba's assassination, they earned
this status and unenviable distinction mainly because they were highly visible on the political scene in the Congo as the
former colonial rulers. Far more sinister was the involvement of the United States in Lumumba's arrest and subsequent assassination.
As the most powerful country in the West where the plot for Lumumba's elimination was conceived
and hatched, it would not be an overstatement to say that it was the United States which was the dominant force in the Congo;
and it was the United States which could have prevented this tragic event from happening had the leaders in Washington chosen
to do so. They orchestrated the whole thing, despite denials through the years and attempts to blame only the Belgians as
the main architects of the conspiratorial and assassination plot against Lumumba.
As late as the 1990s, reports continued to circulate, as they had through the years since the
sixties, that the Belgians were the main players on Congo's political scene and in the assassination of Lumumba. Even in the
mid-seventies, a committee of the United States Senate which, under the chairmanship of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, investigated
the role of the CIA in the assassination of foreign leaders concluded that there was no evidence to show that the United States
was involved or played a role in Lumumba's assassination.
Yet, it was President Dwight Eisenhower who ordered Lumumba's assasssination and authorized
the CIA to carry out the plot. And Belgium could not have done anything without the approval of the United States as the leader
of the western world.
But it is also true that CIA agents were involved right from the beginning in the plot to assassinate
Lumumba, despite denials of the involvement of some of them such as Laurence Devlin who was the CIA station chief in the Congo
during that time. In an interview from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1996, Devlin denied any personal involvement
and claimed he was against Lumumba's assassination and that of other foreign leaders as a political weapon to secure and promote
Some people have tried to minimize the role played by the United States in the assassination
of Lumumba. There are even those, including former UN undersecretary-general Brian Urquhart as we learnt earlier, who have
tried to exonerate the United States from this crime. Yet there is plenty of evidence to refute that. The United States played
a major role in the commission of this crime.
Also, America's direct role in the assassination of Lumumba did little to help the United States
win friends in Africa - besides Tshombe and Mobutu - and keep other countries out of the Congo imbroglio; it accomplished
exactly the opposite.
The CIA plot to assassinate Lumumba started with the Eisenhower Administration and remains,
to this day, one of the saddest chapters in the history of relations between the United States and Africa. That the United
States was largely responsible for his assassination is an open secret, as much as it has been for more than a generation.
It is as much a sad story about the weakness of African countries as it is one
of total disregard for the interests and rights of Africans - for racist reasons as well - by the world's most powerful country
whose white majority, according to national surveys, still refuse to accept African Americans as full human beings; hence
the belief among millions of whites - if not the vast majority - that black people are genetically inferior to whites and
members of others races, a racist doctrine given pseudoscientific validity by The Bell Curve and other works.
Therefore by killing Lumumba, American leaders were just getting rid of "another nigger," although
the main reasons were geopolitical, ideological, and economic: control of the Congo, the heart of Africa, by the United States
and her Western allies.
And evidence against the United States is overwhelming, although some people,
while conceding American complicity in Lumumba's assassination, tend to minimize her role. One of them is Jon Lee Anderson
who has written an excellent biography of Che, entitled Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, which also deals with the Congo crisis.
Yet he downplays America's role in the assassination of Lumumba. He also fails or deliberately
refuses to see the United States - not necessarily as a global tyrant although it is hard to refute this after America's invasion
of Iraq and threats to invade other countries - as an imperial power capable of manipulating and controlling world events
to the detriment of weak countries.
The United States controls their economies; intimidates, manipulates, and even overthrows their
governments, and has even ordered and sponsored the assassination of leaders the American government doesn't like.
Yet some people fail to see or are unwilling to accept that, sometimes out of
blind patriotism in the case of Americans, although Anderson is not cast in that mold as a blind patriot. His book is massive
and rich in detail. But that does not compensate for lack of objective analysis. As Jane Franklin stated in The Nation, May 19, 1997, (p.28):
“Anderson seems not to share Guevara's view of US imperialism, and downplays the US role
in global events.
Speaking at a 1961 rally to mobilize Cubans for the imminent US invasion, Guevara cited the
recent murder of Patrice Lumumba as "an example of what the empire is capable of"....In the many pages devoted to events in
the Congo, Anderson contests this claim.
Though he reports a plan by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA's 'medical division' to poison Lumumba,
he states that 'before the CIA could get close to Lumumba, however, his own Congolese rivals did.'
But the CIA and the US Embassy had already connived with these Congolese rivals - Moise Tshombe
and Joseph Mobutu - to murder Lumumba. Mobutu, who turned Lumumba over to Tshombe to kill, was actually on the CIA payroll.
Four years later, when Guevara left Cuba to fight against Tshombe and Mobutu on the side of
Lumumba's followers, the CIA had already dispatched a band of Cuban exiles, trained for the Bay of Pigs, to fly bombing raids
for Tshombe. This CIA operation, ignored by Anderson, suggests that Washington shared Guevara's view of the dimensions of
Some supporters of President Dwight Eisenhower refused - and even today probably still refuse
- to accept the fact that the president could have authorized such a plot to assassinate Lumumba.
Yet he is the same leader who didn't care how many people were killed in order to "fight communism"
in Latin America, or have any qualms about overthrowing the populist government of Guzman Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 or the
government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran a year earlier in 1953 because it nationalized the oil industry which belonged
to the Iranians - and not to the British or to the Americans.
Then there was the plot to assassinate Castro, also conceived and hatched by the Eisenhower
Administration; and next, the one against Lumumba.
Just as in the case of Castro when Eisenhower felt that the CIA was not doing
enough, and fast enough, to eliminate him, the president also felt that the intelligence agency was not working fast enough
to get rid of Lumumba. As Christopher Andrew states in his book, For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington
to Bush (pp.
293 - 301):
“Just as Eisenhower had regarded the 5412 Committee's February (1960) proposals for dealing
with Castro as too feeble, so he was equally critical of its initial plans for covert actions against Patrice Lumumba.
When the committee met to discuss action against Lumumba on August 25, Gordon Gray reported
that the president 'had expressed extremely strong feelings on the necessity for very straightforward action in this situation,
and he wondered whether the plans as outlined were sufficient to accomplish this.'
Thus admonished, the committee 'finally agreed that planning for the Congo would not necessarily
rule out consideration" of any particular kind of activity that might contribute to getting rid of Lumumba.”
As part of the plot to eliminate Lumumba, the CIA also launched a smear campaign against the
Congolese prime minister and prepared different kinds of poisons to accomplish the mission.
All this and much more was revealed in 1975 during US Senate investigations, conducted by a
special committee - the Select Committee on Intelligence Activities - chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho,
into assassinations of foreign leaders by the CIA.
The hearings also covered CIA plots - some of them successful - to overthrow foreign governments
including a number of them in Africa: for example, Nkrumah's government in Ghana which the CIA succeeded in overthrowing in
February 1966; Nyerere's in Tanzania which the CIA tried more than once in the mid-sixties to overthrow; and Lumumba's, of
course, with Lumumba himself being targeted for assassination not just for removal from office. And the smear campaign against
him by the CIA knew no bounds. As Christopher Andrew further states in his book (p. 253 ):
“Allen Dulles (the CIA director, also known as DCI - Director of Intelligence) told Eisenhower
that Lumumba was insane; later reports alleged that he was also 'a dope fiend.'
On September 21 the DCI reported to an NSC (National Security Council) meeting, chaired by
the president, that 'Lumumba was not yet disposed of.' Still fascinated by the use of poisons in covert action, Richard Bissell
(head of CIA's covert operations) instructed a CIA scientist to prepare biological toxins designated to assassinate or incapaciate
an unnamed 'African leader' (Patrice Lumumba).”
More than a decade later, the CIA was still denying its involvement in the assassination of
Lumumba in spite of overwhelming evidence implicating the American intelligence agency in the diabolical plot.
In a television interview on February 27, 1975, by Daniel Schorr of CBS News, CIA Director
William Colby was asked about the agency's role in assassinations: "Has the CIA ever killed anyone in this country?" Schorr
asked. "Not in this country," replied Colby. The CIA chief was then asked about assassinations abroad, but he refused to give
Schorr suggested Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary-general killed in a mysterious plane crash
in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1961. "No, of course not!" said Colby. But when Schorr mentioned Patrice Lumumba,
also killed in 1961, Colby refused to comment. As the Church Committee later revealed, there had indeed been a CIA plot to
The plot included infecting Lumumba's tooth paste with deadly bacteria. The CIA doctor who
was responsible for these poisons, Sidney Gottlieb, flew to Congo with his poison kit. But things didn't work out well for
him and the other CIA agents trying to kill Lumumba. They couldn't get the poisoned tooth paste to Lumumba.
As for Sidney Gottlieb, that was not even his real name. It was the name he used when he worked
for the CIA. Born in 1918, his real name was Joseph Scheider and he joined the CIA after getting a Ph.D. in chemistry fro
the California Institute of Technology. He joined the CIA soon after he got his Ph.D. and worked as a member of the Technical
Services Staff (TSS). He eventually became head of the Chemical Division at the CIA. His failure to kill Lumumba was one of
his biggest disappointments. He died on March 10, 1999.
Finally, the CIA concluded that getting rid of Lumumba right away was the best solution. And
that is exactly what it did, in collusion with Tshombe and Mobutu.
American involvement in Lumumba's elimination has been amply documented and
there is little doubt that Washington played a crtical role in his removal from power and subsequent assassination. As Dr.
Stephen Weissman who was staff director of the US House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa from 1986 to 1991 stated
in his article, "Opening the Secret Files on Lumumba's Murder," in The Washington Post, July 21, 2002:
“In his latest film, 'Minority Report,' director Steven Spielberg portrays a policy of
"preemptive action" gone wild in the year 2054. But we don't have to peer into the future to see what harm faulty intelligence
and the loss of our moral compass can do. U.S. policies during the Cold War furnish many tragic examples. One was U.S. complicity
in the overthrow and murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.
Forty-one years ago, Lumumba, the only leader ever democratically elected in Congo, was delivered
to his enemies, tortured and summarily executed. Since then, his country has been looted by the U.S.-supported regime of Mobutu
Sese Seko and wracked by regional and civil war.
The conventional explanation of Lumumba's death has been that he was murdered by Congolese
rivals after earlier U.S. attempts to kill him, including a plot to inject toxins into his food or toothpaste, failed. In
1975, the U.S. Senate's 'Church Committee' probed CIA assassination plots and concluded there was 'no evidence of CIA involvement
in bringing about the death of Lumumba.'
Not so. I have obtained classified U.S. government documents, including a chronology of covert
actions approved by a National Security Council (NSC) subgroup, that reveal U.S. involvement in -- and significant responsibility
for -- the death of Lumumba, who was mistakenly seen by the Eisenhower administration as an African Fidel Castro.
The documents show that the key Congolese leaders who brought about Lumumba's downfall were
players in 'Project Wizard,' a CIA covert action program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and military equipment were channeled
to these officials, who informed their CIA paymasters three days in advance of their plan to send Lumumba into the clutches
of his worst enemies.
Other new details: The U.S. authorized payments to then-President Joseph Kasavubu four days
before he ousted Lumumba, furnished Army strongman Mobutu with money and arms to fight pro-Lumumba forces, helped select and
finance an anti-Lumumba government, and barely three weeks after his death authorized new funds for the people who arranged
Moreover, these documents show that the plans and payments were approved by the highest levels
of the Eisenhower administration, either the NSC or its "Special Group," consisting of the national security adviser, CIA
director, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and deputy defense secretary.
These facts are four decades old, but are worth unearthing for two reasons. First, Congo (known
for years as Zaire) is still struggling to establish democracy and stability. By facing up to its past role in undermining
Congo's fledgling democracy, the United States might yet contribute to Congo's future. Second, the U.S. performance in Congo
is relevant to our struggle against terrorism. It shows what can happen when, in the quest for national security, we abandon
the democratic principles and rule of law we are fighting to defend.
In February (2002), Belgium, the former colonial power in Congo, issued a thousand-page report
that acknowledged "an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba." Unlike Belgium,
the United States has admitted no such moral responsibility.
Over the years, scholars (including myself) and journalists have written that American policy
played a major role in the ouster and assassination of Lumumba. But the full story remained hidden in U.S. documents, which,
like those I have examined, are still classified despite the end of the Cold War, the end of the Mobutu regime and Belgium's
Here's what they tell us that, until now, we didn't know, or didn't know for certain:
* In August 1960, the CIA established Project Wizard. Congo had been independent only a month,
and Lumumba, a passionate nationalist, had become prime minister, with a plurality of seats in the parliament. But U.S. presidential
candidate John F. Kennedy was vowing to meet "the communist challenge" and Eisenhower's NSC was worried that Lumumba would
tilt toward the Soviets.
The U.S. documents show that over the next few months, the CIA worked with and made payments
to eight top Congolese -- including President Kasavubu, Mobutu (then army chief of staff), Foreign Minister Justin Bomboko,
top finance aide Albert Ndele, Senate President Joseph Ileo and labor leader Cyrille Adoula -- who all played roles in Lumumba's
The CIA joined Belgium in a plan, detailed in the Belgian report, for Ileo and Adoula to engineer
a no-confidence vote in Lumumba's government, which would be followed by union-led demonstrations, the resignations of cabinet
ministers (organized by Ndele) and Kasavubu's dismissal of Lumumba.
* On Sept. 1, the NSC's Special Group authorized CIA payments to Kasavubu, the U.S. documents
say. On Sept. 5, Kasavubu fired Lumumba in a decree of dubious legality. However, Kasavubu and his new prime minister, Ileo,
proved lethargic over the following week as Lumumba rallied supporters. So Mobutu seized power on Sept. 14. He kept Kasavubu
as president and established a temporary "College of Commissioners" to replace the disbanded government.
* The CIA financed the College and influenced the selection of commissioners. The College was
dominated by two Project Wizard participants: Bomboko, its president, and Ndele, its vice-president. Another CIA ally, Lumumba
party dissident Victor Nendaka, was appointed chief of the security police.
* On Oct. 27, the NSC Special Group approved $250,000 for the CIA to win parliamentary support
for a Mobutu government. However, when legislators balked at approving any prime minister other than Lumumba, the parliament
remained closed. The CIA money went to Mobutu personally and the commissioners.
* On Nov. 20, the Special Group authorized the CIA to provide arms, ammunition, sabotage materials
and training to Mobutu's military in the event it had to resist pro-Lumumba forces.
The full extent of what one U.S. document calls the "intimate" relationship between the CIA
and Congolese leaders was absent from the Church Committee report. The only covert action (apart from the assassination plots)
the committee discussed was the August 1960 effort to promote labor opposition and a no-confidence vote in the Senate.
How did Lumumba die?
After being ousted Sept. 5, Lumumba rallied support in parliament and the international community.
When Mobutu took over, U.N. troops protected Lumumba, but soon confined him to his residence. Lumumba escaped on Nov. 27.
Days later he was captured by Mobutu's troops, beaten and arrested.
What happened next is clearer thanks to the Belgian report and the classified U.S. documents.
As early as Christmas Eve 1960, College of Commissioners' president Bomboko offered to hand Lumumba over to two secessionist
leaders who had vowed to kill him.
One declined and nothing happened until mid-January 1961, when the central government's political
and military position deteriorated and troops guarding Lumumba (then jailed on a military base near the capital) mutinied.
CIA and other Western officials feared a Lumumba comeback.
On Jan. 14, the commissioners asked Kasavubu to move Lumumba to a 'surer place.' There was
"no doubt," the Belgian inquiry concluded, that Mobutu agreed. Kasavubu told security chief Nendaka to transfer Lumumba to
one of the secessionist strongholds. On Jan. 17, Nendaka sent Lumumba to the Katanga region. That night, Lumumba and two colleagues
were tortured and executed in the presence of members of the Katangan government. No official announcement was made for four
What did the U.S. government tell its Congolese clients during the last three days of Lumumba's
life? The Church Committee reported that a Congolese "government leader" advised the CIA's Congo station chief, Larry Devlin,
on Jan. 14 that Lumumba was to be sent to "the home territory" of his 'sworn enemy.' Yet, according to the Church Committee
and declassified documents, neither the CIA nor the U.S. embassy tried to save the former prime minister.
The CIA may not have exercised robotic control over its covert political action agents, but
the failure of Devlin or the U.S. embassy to question the plans for Lumumba could only be seen by the Congolese as consent.
After all, secret CIA programs had enabled this group to achieve political power, and the CIA had worked from August through
November 1960 to assassinate or abduct Lumumba.
Here, the classified U.S. chronology provides an important postscript. On Feb. 11, 1961, with
U.S. reports from Congo strongly indicating Lumumba was dead, the Special Group authorized $500,000 for political action,
troop payments and military equipment, largely to the people who had arranged Lumumba's murder.
Devlin has sought to distance himself from Lumumba's death. While the CIA was in close contact
with the Congolese officials involved, Devlin told the Church Committee that those officials 'were not acting under CIA instructions
if and when they did this.'
In a recent phone conversation with Devlin, I posed the issue of U.S. responsibility for Lumumba's
death. He acknowledged that, 'It was important to [these] cooperating leaders what the U.S. government thought.' But he said
he did 'not recall' receiving advance word of Lumumba's transfer. Devlin added that even if he had objected, 'That would not
have stopped them from doing it.'
By evading its share of moral responsibility for Lumumba's fate, the United States blurs African
and American history and sidesteps the need to make reparation for yesterday's misdeeds through today's policy.
In 1997, after the Mobutu regime fell, the Congolese democratic opposition pleaded in vain
for American and international support. Since then, as many as 3 million lives have been lost as a result of civil and regional
war. The United States has not supported a strong U.N. peacekeeping force or fostered a democratic transition. The collapse
in late April 2002 of negotiations between Congolese factions threatens to reignite the smoldering conflict or ratify the
partition of the country.
Our government's actions four decades ago in Congo also have special meaning after the tragedy
of Sept. 11. They warn that even as we justly defend our land and our people against terrorists, we must avoid the excessive
fear and zeal that lead to destructive intervention betraying our most fundamental principles.”
Such intervention by the United Stated led to one of the worst crises in the history of post-colonial
Africa. And the Congo crisis continued to be a dominant news item throughout the sixties.
The year 1961 was one of the worst right from the beginning. Lumumba had just been assassinated
early that year, and Katanga's secession continued to threaten the territorial integrity of one of Africa's biggest countries
right in the heart of the continent.
But it was Lumumba's assassination that dominated the news. Almost everything that unfolded
in the Congo during those tragic years was directly or indirectly related to his ouster from power and subsequent assassination.
Probably the only way Lumumba could have been saved would have been to prevent him from leaving
his official residence in Leopoldville. Instead, he left the nation's capital,. determined to go to Stanleyville, his political
stronghold in eastern Congo.
The situation in the Congo was out of control because of a combination of factors: Katanga's
secession, internal disputes including secessionist threats from other provinces; power rivalry between Lumumba and Kasavubu
instigated and fueled by the United States and Belgium whose officials and intelligence agents backed Kasavubu and did everything
they could to sow seeds of confusion and discord with Lumumba's camp.
When in July 1960 Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help to send troops to end Katanga's
secession and restore law and order, and ask Belgin troops to withdraw from the Congo, NATO allies, especially the United
States, Belgium and France expressed strong reservations on such involvement by the UN.
However, the UN Security Council finally authorized the provision of military assistance to
the beleaguered nation until Congo's own security forces were ready to take over. In spite of such an offer for assistance,
UN forces couldn't do much. They were sent to the Congo but only with limited mandate. They were not authorized to intervene
in internal conflicts and could use force only in self-defence.
The first UN troops to go to Congo were from African countries: Ghana, Guinea, Ethiopia, Liberia,
Morocco and Tunisia, and they arrived two days after the UN Security Council authorized the mission. And by the end of July
1960, more than troops, initially all from African countries, were deployed throughout the country except in the secessionist
province of Katanga whose army included mercenaries from South Africa, Belgium, France and other countries.
By the end of July, the total UN military contingent was 8,396, of whom 2,340 were Ghanaians,
2,087 Tunisians, 1,220 Moroccans, 1,160 Ethiopians, 741 Guineans, 225 Liberians and 623 Swedes. A little later, an Irish battalion
was added. Eventually 28 countries contributed troops, making a total of 19,828 UN soldiers spread through the Congo.
The UN force in the Congo - known as UNOC, a French acronym for "UN Congo" - remained predominantly
African and the white troops, Swedes and Irish, came from countries which were considered to be neutral.
But it was clear that, because of their limited mandate, and given the size of the country
roughly equal to the size of western Europe, they were not enough for the task. Compounding the problem was the fact that
Belgian troops did not want to leave the Congo for obvious reasons and because of the kind of support they had including encouragement
from the United States whose leaders did not like Lumumba anymore than Belgians and the leaders of the other western countries
did. They wanted him out of power.
Finally, the Belgian troops left the Congo, and Lumumba's primary concern was to find ways
to edn Katanga's secession. But because of their limited mandate, UN troops could not intervene and use force to try to end
the secession of Katanga even though most of them came from African countries and may have wanted to reunite the Congo.
African leaders were sympathetic towards Lumumba and wanted to end Katanga's secession. They
included Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah whose troops were the first to arrive in the Congo. But he was also fully aware
of the inability of the independent African countries alone to end the secession of Katanga even if Lumumba had invited them
to do so without external help.
The problem was compounded by the unwillingness of Western powers to authorize
the UN to send a much larger force to the Congo and end Katanga's secession. Their refusal to do so amounted to de facto recognition of Katanga as a legal sovereign entity, to the consternation of
Lumumba and other African leaders.
In August 1960, the first UN troops arrived in Katanga in a gradual attempt to replace Belgian
troops which, in spite of denials by the Belgian authorities, provided the backbone of the secessionist province together
with the mercenaries who also helped sustain Moise Tshombe in power. But they did not go into Katanga on a combat mission.
And Katanga continued to defy the central authority under Lumumba, insisting that it was an independent state and no longer
an integral part of the former Belgian Congo.
In response to such defiance, and because of the inability of UN troops to end
the secession by force, Lumumba sent troops from his national army - Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC) - to the secessionist province in August 1960 to try to end the rebellion.
He also sent troops to Kasai Province where secessionists in the southern part of this province
under the leadership of Albert Kalonji also declared independence.
Unfortunately, the soldiers from the national army were not well-trained and therefore not
prepared to engage the secessionist forces in both provinces. With the UN equivocating, Lumumba was compelled under very difficult
circumstances t seek assistance from the Soviet Union to try to defeat the secessionists. The Soviets responded by sending
military advisers, trucks and ten transport planes.
But even they were not enough. The situation in the secessionist provinces was too dangerous
and the Soviet advisers and their planes were forced to withdraw. Although troops from the national army was no match for
the secessionist forces in Katanga, they were able to engage the secessionists in Kasai Province whose dominant ethnic group
was and still is the Luba, but with tragic consequences.
More than 1,000 Lubas - or Baluba - were killed in August 1960 in the unsuccessful operation,
and 250,000 ended up as refugees, further alienating and infuriating many people in this province who were already against
Lumumba's enemies used this tragedy in Kasai Province as an excuse to undermine
his authority and President Joseph Kasavubu, with the encouragement of American and Belgian officials including CIA agents,
dismissed Lumumba from the government on September 5th accusing him of using arbitrary powers as prime minister and plunging the country
into civil war.
About 30 minutes later, Lumumba retaliated and announced on the radio that he had dismissed
President Kasavubu from office and appealed to the Congolese people to rally around him. Lumumba's enemies were aware of what
they were facing: With his popularity and oratorical skills, Lumumba had the ability to rally the kind of support across the
Congo no other Congolese could match.
He was such a powerful orator that his enemies thought he had something else working in his
favour. As Keith Kyle, a BBC reporter who was in the Congo during the crisis and the ensuing civil war ignited by Katanga's
secession, stated in his 1995 paper "The UN in Congo: Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity":
“Lumumba was a charismatic speaker whose power over other people was so compelling that
many of his enemies felt that there was witchcraft in it. It was probably one of the reasons he had to die that, like the
Roman consul Marius, when under arrest he could bewitch his jailers.”
His enemies had already decided what they were going to do. And Western countries sided with
Kasavubu, whom they had supported all along in his rivalry with Lumumba.
And in spite of his dismissal by Kasavubu, Lumumba still commanded support. He maintained that
he was the legitimate head of the Congolese government and his claim was confirmed by the vote of confidence he got in parliament.
But nine days later on the evening of September 14th after Lumumba and Kasavubu dismissed each
other from office, Joseph Mobutu - ostensibly to fill the vacuum left by the two leaders who had dismissed each other - seized
power, urged by American and Belgian officials to do so. He said Kasavubu, Lumumba and the parliament were suspended until
the end of the year.
He went on to explain that this was only a temporary measure, for three months, during which
the country would be governed by a "College of Commissioners" comprising technocrats - Congolese university graduates and
others; a sad proposition in a country which had only 16 graduates when it won independence a few months earlier. He said
the "College of Commissioners" would be headed by one of the Congolese university graduates.
It was an act of betrayal.
Mobutu once served as Lumumba's personal secretary and at the time of the coup was the head
of the national army, appointed by Lumumba. And all that time, he was on the CIA payroll, without Lumumba's knowledge. Lumumba
was also betrayed by another close political associate, Victor Nendaka, who was secretly working with the American and Belgian
officials against him in Leopoldville.
But Mobutu was Lumumba's most conspicuous former ally who betrayed him. It is true that he
broke with Lumumba. But it later became obvious that he had been against him all the time when he was working under him.
And when he executed the CIA-inspired coup with just as much Belgian support, he established
his own power base but also in alliance with the Kasavubu camp.
He announced on the radio that he had temporarily seized power to neutralize two rival governments,
Lumumba's and Kasavubu's, and the national parliament until the end of the year. Other western countries, besides Belgium
and the United States, also supported Mobutu. But Kasavubu remained head of state. And under pressure from the United States,
the UN General Assembly recognized the Kasavubu/Mobutu regime as the country's legitimate authority.
As the country further degenerated into chaos, Lumumba was being guarded by UN troops in his
official residence in Leopoldville. His enemies wanted him arrested but the UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, refused
to authorize UN troops to do so. Throughout the crisis, the American ambassador in Leopoldville asked Kasavubu and Mobutu
to arrest Lumumba. But they did not and could not do so for a number of reasons including opposition by the UN to such a move
whose repercussions no one could fully anticipate and which could have gone beyond anyone's imagination.
The recognition of the Kasavubu/Mobutu alliance by the UN General Assembly as the new legitimate
authority in the Congo further weakened Lumumba who was already isolated in his official residence in Leopoldville, guarded
by UN troops. The UN troops surrounded his house to prevent his enemies from entering the premises to capture or kill him.
Forming the outer ring, surrounding UN troops, were Mobutu's soldiers waiting for any opportunity to grab Lumumba should he
venture out and beyond the premises of his official residence.
All this was too much for Lumumba. The last straw for him was when, in a move orchestrated
by the United States, the UN General Assembly recognized the government of Kasavubu allied with Mobutu, thus virtually withdrawing
formal recognition from Lumumba as the legitimate leader of the Congo.
In an attempt to mobilize support, Lumumba decided to leave Leopoldville and go to Stanleyville,
his home and political base. He hid in the back of a car and left his official residence in an attempt to get to Stanleyville
on the same day Kasavubu was celebrating his victory at the United Nations where his government had won formal recognition
from the General Assembly as the legitimate authority in the Congo place of Lumumba.
Lumumba's departure from Leopoldville was undoubtedly motivated by good intentions and nationalist
sentiments. But it was a tragic mistake. He had been under protection for two months.
He had been repeatedly warned by UN officials that if he left his residence, it would no longer
be their responsibility to protect him, and he would be doing so at his own risk. Yet, as the Congo's elected leader, he was
a virtually a prisoner under the UN's protective custody.
The head of the UN mission in the Congo gave orders to UN troops across the country not to
take sides between Lumumba and his enemies.
This was in compliance with UN's policy of neutrality and non-interference in the internal
affairs of the Congo. UN soldiers were given orders not to stop Lumumba from going to Stanleyville or anywhere in the country.
They were also ordered not to stop Lumumba's enemies from pursuing him or hunting him down.
And they finally caught up with him at Mweka in Kasai Province. Born in the small village of
Onalua in Katako Kombe district northern Kasai Province on July 2, 1925, it was ironic and tragic that the beginning of his
end took place in the same province in which he was born.
After his arrest at Mweka, he was flown back to Leopoldville. All these events - Lumumba's
secret departure from his official residence and subsequent arrest - took place in December 1960.
This was the last chance the UN troops had to protect Lumumba. They could have saved him. Had
the UN intervened before he was captured at Mweka, his enemies would not have had the chance to lay their hands on him. After
all, the UN had protected him at his residence for two months and could have extended the same protection to him outside his
residence and anywhere else in the country, since he was entitled to such protection as Congo's elected national leader.
After his capture, a photograph was taken showing him disheveled and with his hands tied behind
his back. He was then imprisoned together with his compatriots, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo at Thysville, a military camp
outside the capital.
The photograph also shows Mobutu with his hands across his chest and his soldiers laughing
at Lumumba and his colleagues who were also brutally manhandled. And even almost 50 years later, it remains one of the most
tragic images of the Congo, and Africa, from those turbulent years in the sixties.
Yet, even in custody under strict guard by his enemies, Lumumba still inspired awe and fear
among them. To avoid any mistakes and his escape with the help of his loyal supporters, they first decided to transfer him
secretly to Kasai Province where one of his arch-enemies Albert Kalonji swore to get rid of him and use his skull as a flower
But before they flew him to Kasai, they found out at the last minute that there were UN troops
stationed at Bakwanga airfield in Kasai Province. So Kasavubu and Mobutu together with Belgian and American officials and
Lumumba's other enemies in leadership positions in the Congo decided to send him to another place, Katanga, where another
big enemy of Lumumba, Moise Tshombe, was in charge.
He was flown from Leopoldville to Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga, on January 17, 1961,
and was brutally beaten by Luba guards throughout his six-hour flight to the province. When the plane landed in Elisabethville,
Lumumba was pushed out and shoved down the steps together with Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito.
Lumumba and his colleagues were so brutally beaten by the Baluba on the plane that when they
arrived in Elisabethville, Katengese officials and soldiers said the three captives were almost dead on arrival. And the Luba
soldiers on plane felt justified in what they did to Lumumba and his compatriots because of what they said Lumumba did to
their people in Kasai Province when he sent troops to fight the secessionists; a mission which ended in the tragic death of
many innocent people massacred by undisciplined Congolese soldiers from the national army (ANC).
And as John Reader wrote in his book Africa: A
Biography of the Continent (pp. 659, 660, and 662 ) about the last days of Lumumba and his compatriots:
“Lumumba’s supporters regrouped in Stanleyville. At the end of November Lumumba
decided to join them - a fatal move. He was arrested en route and handed over to Mobutu’s army.
Lumumba was consigned to a military prison, but his supporters continued to have an unsettling
effect on the country at large....Kasavubu and his (American and Belgian) advisers decided that he should be sent to Elisabethville,
the Katangan capital, where the errant Tshombe was in charge.
On 17 January 1961, Lumumba and two colleagues (Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito) were flown
to Katanga, where a Swedish warrant officer with the United Nations forces witnessed their arrival:
‘The first to leave the aeroplane was a smartly dressed African. He was followed by three
other Africans, blind-folded and with their hands tied behind their backs. The first of the prisoners to alight had a small
As they came down the stairs, some of the gendarmes ran to them, pushed them, kicked them and brutally struck them with rifle butts;
one of the prisoners fell to the ground. After about one minute the three prisoners were placed in a jeep which drove off....’
Neither Lumumba nor his colleagues were ever seen again. It is believed they were taken to
a farmhouse on the outskirts of Elisabethville, where they died at the hands of Katangese officials and Belgian mercenaries.”
A UN investigation years later concluded that Lumumba was shot by a Belgian officer in the
presence of Moise Tshombe and other Katangese officials including the highly notorious Godefroid Munongo, a cabinet member
in Tshombe's government who was interior minister and in charge of security in Katanga. He was also a founding member of the
Confederation of Associations of Katanga (CONAKAT), the largest political party in Katanga Province and one of the largest
in the country.
He was of Tanzanian origin, a descendant of King Msiri. Born in 1830 near Tabora in western
Tanganyika, Msiri was a trader - in slaves, copper, ivory and guns - and a member of the Nyamwezi ethnic group in western
Tanzania (then Tanganyika) who settled in Congo and established a kingdom in Katanga in the 19th century.
He and some of his fellow Nyamwezi tribesmen from Tanzania settled in southern Katanga around
1856. By 1868, he had taken control of much of Katanga and was crowned king of Garaganja, what came to be known as Katanga
Province, after he succeeded in taking over most of this mineral-rich region from its previous rulers of the dominant lunda
Godefroid Munongo, Tshombe's hatchet man, was not only Msiri's direct descendant but the most
prominent "immigrant" in the government of the secessionist region. So when he served in the Katangese government dominated
by Tshombe's dominant ethnic group, the Lunda, he was not a member of a large ethnic group.
Ironically, in spite of his minority status as a member of the small Bayeke ethnic group, he
was notorious for having been responsible for the persecution of the members of the Luba ethnic group living in Katanga Province.
While the Lunda dominated Katanga, the Luba were the dominant ethnic group in neighbouring Kasai Province, although their
historic - hence ancestral - home is northern Katanga where many of them have always lived as still they do now.
Yet, in carrying out this persecution, Munongo felt that he was more of an authentic Katangan
than the Luba from Kasai were, despite his Tanzanian origin as a Nyamwezi.
So, he had a reputation as a tribalist like his boss, Moise Tshombe. And both were delighted
to see that Lumumba had been arrested and sent to Katanga for them to preside over his fate.
Also present during Lumumba's execution were American CIA agents and Belgian
officials and intelligence agents. And as Professor Adam Hochschild of the University of California-Berkeley, writing about
Lumumba, stated in his book King Leopold’s
Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (pp. 301 - 302):
“An inspired orator whose voice was rapidly carrying beyond his country’s borders,
Lumumba was a mercurial and charismatic figure. His message, Western governments feared, was contagious. Moreover, he could
not be bought. Anathema to American and European capital, he became a leader whose days were numbered.
Less than two months after being named the Congo’s first democratically chosen prime
minister, a U.S. National Security Council subcommittee on covert operations, which included CIA chief Allen Dulles, authorized
his assassination. Richard Bissell, CIA operations chief at the time, later said, ‘The President [Dwight D. Eisenhower]...regarded
Lumumba as I did and a lot of other people did: a mad dog...and he wanted the problem dealt with.’
Alternatives for dealing with ‘the problem’ were considered, among them poison
- a supply of which was sent to the CIA station chief (Laurence Devlin) in Leopoldville - a high-powered rifle, free-lance
hit men. But it proved hard to get close enough to Lumumba to use these, so, instead, the CIA supported anti-Lumumba elements
within the factionalized Congo government, confident that before long they would do the job. They did.
After being arrested and suffering a series of beatings, the prime minister was secretly shot
in Elizabethville in January 1961. A CIA agent ended up driving around the city with Lumumba’s body in his car’s
trunk, trying to find a place to dispose of it...
The key figure in the Congolese forces that arranged Lumumba’s murder
was a young man named Joseph Desire Mobutu, then chief of staff of the army and a former NCO in the old colonial Force Publique. Early on, the Western powers had spotted Mobutu as someone who would look out
for their interests. He had received cash payments from the local CIA man and Western military attaches while Lumumba’s
murder was being planned....
I had been writing about human rights for years, and once, in the course of half a dozen trips
to Africa, I had been to the Congo.
That visit was in 1961. In a Leopoldville apartment, I heard the CIA man, who had too much
to drink, describe with satisfaction exactly how and where the newly independent country’s first prime minister, Patrice
Lumumba, had been killed a few months earlier.
He assumed that any American, even a visiting student like me, would share his relief at the
assassination of a man the United States government considered a dangerous leftist troublemaker.”
Lumumba and his compatriots Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were physically and verbally abused,
brutally tortured and humiliated in every conceivable way until the very last minute of their lives.
Even after they were pushed out of the plane and hit with rifle butts and dumped
at the airport in Elisabethville by the Luba guards, they continued to suffer. They were given a thorough beating by Tshombe's
henchmen at the airport and the Luba guards who had tortured them all the way from Leopoldville participated in this orgy
of violence. As Brian Urquhart who once served in the Congo during the crisis and later as UN undersecretary-general stated
in his article, "The Tragedy of Lumumba," in The
New York Review of Books, October 4, 2001:
“After Lumumba and his two companions (Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito) were dumped, bloody
and disheveled, in a remote corner of the Elisabethville airfield, they were beaten again with rifle butts, and thrown onto
a jeep and driven two miles from the airport to an empty house in the bush, where a veteran Belgian officer, Captain Julien
Gat, took charge.
A series of visitors - the notorious Katangese interior minister Godefroid Munongo and other
ministers, Tshombe himself, and various high-ranking Belgians - came to the house to gloat over the prisoners, who were again
Some of the Belgian visitors later spoke of Lumumba's courage and dignity under this treatment,
but none saw fit to stop it.
The soldiers were ordered to kill Lumumba if UN troops located the house.
During the evening, drinking heavily, Tshombe and his ministers decided that the three should
be executed at once.
Around 9:30 PM the inebriated Katangese ministers returned to the house in the bush. After
once again being beaten up, the prisoners were stuffed into a car with Captain Gat and police commissioner Frans Verscheure,
and, in a convoy that also carried Tshombe, Munongo, and four other 'ministers,' were driven at high speed to a remote clearing
fifty kilometers out in the wooded savanna.
Joseph Okito, the former vice-president of the Senate, was the first to face the firing squad;
next came Maurice Mpolo, the first commander of the Congolese National Army; and finally Patrice Lumumba. Their corpses were
thrown into hastily dug graves.
This was not the end of the atrocious affair. During the night, the Belgians, increasingly
apprehensive, began to concoct an elaborate cover plan under which Lumumba and his companions had been well treated, but had
later managed to escape and had been killed by the inhabitants of an unnamed 'patriotic' village.
The Belgians also decided that the corpses must disappear once and for all. Two Belgians and
their African assistants, in a truck carrying demijohns of sulphuric acid, an empty two-hundred-liter barrel, and a hacksaw,
dug up the corpses, cut them into pieces, and threw them into the barrel of sulphuric acid.
When the supply of acid ran out, they tried burning the remains. The skulls were ground up
and the bones and teeth scattered during the return journey.
The task proved so disgusting and so arduous that both Belgians had to get drunk in order to
complete it, but in the end no trace was left of Patrice Lumumba and his companions. Lumumba was 36 years old.”
Lumumba's dignified composure was evident throughout his ordeal since his capture. It was also
reflected even in his last message to his wife written before he was flown to Elisabethville and handed over to Katangese
authorities for execution. The letter was also a farewell message to the Congo and to Africa as a whole:
“My dear wife,
I am writing these words not knowing whether they will reach you, when they will reach you,
and whether I shall still be alive when you read them.
All through my struggle for the independence of my country, I have never doubted for a single
instant the final triumph of the sacred cause to which my companions and I have devoted all our lives.
But what we wished for our country, its right to an honourable life, to unstained dignity,
to independence without restrictions, was never desired by the Belgian imperialists and the Western allies, who found direct
and indirect support, both deliberate and unintentional, amongst certain high officials of the United Nations, that organization
in which we placed all our trust when we called on its assistance.
They have corrupted some of our compatriots and bribed others. They have helped to distort
the truth and bring our independence into dishonour.
How could I speak otherwise?
Dead or alive, free or in prison by order of the imperialists, it is not myself who counts.
It is the Congo, it is our poor people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage from whose confines the outside
world looks on us, sometimes with kindly sympathy, but at other times with joy and pleasure.
But my faith will remain unshakeable. I know and I feel in my heart that sooner or later my
people will rid themselves of all their enemies, both internal and external, and that they will rise as one man to say No
to the degradation and shame of colonialism, and regain their dignity in the clear light of the sun.
We are not alone. Africa, Asia and the free liberated people from all corners of the world
will always be found at the side of the millions of Congolese who will not abandon the struggle until the day when there are
no longer any colonialists and their mercenaries in our country.
As to my children whom I leave and whom I may never see again, I should like them to be told
that it is for them, as it is for every Congolese, to accomplish the sacred task of reconstructing our independence and our
sovereignty: for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there
are no free men.
Neither brutality, nor cruelty nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer
to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under
subjection and disregarding sacred principles.
History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that is taught in Brussels,
Paris, Washington or in the United Nations, but the history which will be taught in the countries freed from imperialism and
Africa will write its own history, and to the north and south of the Sahara, it will be a glorious
and dignified history.
Do not weep for me, my dear wife. I know that my country, which is suffering so much, will
know how to defend its independence and its liberty.
Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!
His death was not announced until almost a month later on 13 February 1961.
The tragic news of Lumumba's death sent shock waves throughout Africa and other parts of the
world. And his death only plunged the country deeper into chaos.
The country was already in deep crisis. When Lumumba was killed, Katanga Province, which he
tried to subdue although at a great risk since his national army was not strong enough to end the secession, was still defiant
and refused to reunite with the rest of the Congo. And his death only encouraged the secessionists even further to assert
Many other parts of the country were also in a rebellious mood since there was no strong central
authority to exercise power over this vast expanse of territory. Besides the secession of Katanga Province, secessionists
in South Kasai, whom Lumumba tried to neutralize when he sent his troops there in August 1960, continued to pose a big threat
to the territorial integrity of the Congo and were emboldened to pursue their goal after their nemesis had been eliminated.
And different groups in other provinces contemplated similar moves, only in varying degrees.
Then you had the supporters of Lumumba. Saddened and angered by his assassination, many of
his supporters in different parts of the country vowed to carry on the struggle for Congo's liberation from the clutches of
the Western imperialists who played a major role in the ouster and elimination of their leader, the only true nationalist
politician of national stature the Congo had produced just before independence.
Lumumba's loyalists constituted the core of the nationalist forces which went on to launch
guerilla warfare in an attempt to topple the Western-backed government in Leopoldville. The strongest insurgencies were in
the eastern part of the country, Lumumba's political stronghold, and in Kwilu Province in the west, the home of Lumumba's
education minister and heir-apparent, Pierre Mulele.
But it was not until three years later, after Lumumba was assassinated, that these insurgencies
got underway, first in Kwilu Province in January 1964. However, some of the civil unrest in the country was fueled by Lumumba's
supporters who refused to recognize the regime in Leopoldville.
Elsewhere in Africa, the year 1961 was not marked by any significant events of continental
scope like the Congo crisis. It was mainly a year of celebration and of anticipation as more and more countries moved towards
In the 17 countries which won independence in the previous year, many people were highly optimistic
of the future under the new leadership of fellow Africans, hoping and expecting that their lives would improve dramatically
now that they were no longer under colonial rule.
It was a period of rising expectations - as they were described back then - among millions
of people in the initial euphoria of independence, although the events in the Congo were an ominous warning of what could
happen in any of the countries on the continent if ethno-regional rivalries and foreign intrigue were encouraged to flourish
on their soil after the end of colonial rule.
Hardly a year passed without at least one or two African countries winning independence in
In 1961, two African countries, Tanganyika and Sierra Leone, won independence.
Both won independence from the same colonial power: Britain. Sierra Leone won independence on April 21st and Tanganyika on December 9th.
Tanganyika's independence would later prove to be critical in the history of the continent
in one fundamental respect: liberation. And it helped to change the destiny of a significant part of the African continent,
mainly southern Africa.
It was the first country in the region to win independence and became a haven and training
ground for freedom fighters from the countries of southern Africa still under white minority rule. Soon after Tanganyika won
independence, Julius Nyerere offered sanctuary to the people of southern Africa fleeing persecution and oppression in their
countries and invited the freedom fighters to establish their operational bases in the country.
It was also in the same month and in the same year, December 1961, that the military wing of
the African National Congress (ANC), Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), launched a campaign of sabotage in South
Africa as an integral part of a concerted effort to bring down the apartheid regime.
Less than two years later after the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded in Addis
Ababa, Ethiopia, in May 1963, Tanganyika (later renamed Tanzania in 1964 after uniting with Zanzibar) was chosen by the African
leaders to be the headquarters of the OAU Liberation Committee and all the African liberation movements. And they all went
on to open their offices in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital. They also established guerilla training camps in the country.
The decision by African leaders to choose Tanzania as the headquarters of the OAU Liberation
Committee angered Nkrumah who wanted his country, Ghana, to be the headquarters. His rivalry with Nyerere came out into the
open at the OAU summit the following year in Cairo, Egypt, in July 1964 when he denounced Nyerere as "an imperialist agent"
who could not be trusted to handle such an important responsibility.
What was behind all this was not because Nkrumah really believed that Nyerere was an imperialist
agent; it was because he saw Nyerere as a rival and as his biggest challenge to his stature as a continental leader.
Although 13 years younger than Nkrumah, Nyerere was fast rising as a major African leader who
was highly respected by his colleagues across the continent and was exercising a lot of influence in African affairs - especially
with regard to liberation of southern Africa from white minority rule - in a way Nkrumah did not expect or want him to, and
which he saw as a challenge to his leadership on the continent. As Professor Ali Mazrui stated in his lecture at the University
of Ghana Legon, Accra, in 2002:
“Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania was regarded as revolutionary partly because he became
the most radical voice of Pan-Africanism after the overthrow of Nkrumah. Nyerere was also regarded as a revolutionary innovator
in socialism and a left-wing experimentalist....
In the debates between incremental Pan-Africanism and rapid unification Nkrumah found a rival
in Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania....
Nyerere’s reputation came much later as a symbol of post-independence African radicalism
rather than of pre-independence African militancy....the torch of African radicalism, after the coup which overthrew Nkrumah
in 1966, was in fact passed to Nyerere.
The great voice of African self-reliance, and the most active African head of government in
relation to liberation in Southern Africa from 1967 until the 1980s was in fact Julius Nyerere....
In reality Nkrumah and Nyerere had already begun to be rivals as symbols of African radicalism
before the coup which overthrew Nkrumah. Nkrumah was beginning to be suspicious of Nyerere in this regard.
The two most important issues over which Nyerere and Nkrumah before 1966 might have been regarded
as rivals for continental pre-eminence were the issues of African liberation and African unity.
It was soon clear that the most difficult problems of decolonization were likely to be the
Portuguese dependencies and Rhodesia.
The Organization of African Unity, when it came into being in May 1963, designated Dar es Salaam
as the headquarters of liberation movements.
The choice was partly determined by the proximity of Dar es Salaam to southern Africa as the
last bastion of colonialism and white minority rule. But the choice was also determined by the emergence of Nyerere as an
important and innovative figure in African politics.
Nkrumah’s Ghana did make a bid to be the headquarters of liberation movements but Nkrumah
lost the battle. If the reason had simply been that Dar es Salaam was closer to the arenas of colonial conflict, Nkrumah might
have accepted this more readily.
But at least as important a reason for the success of Dar es Salaam in being designated the
Mecca of liberation movements was the fact that Nkrumah, by mid-1963, had already accumulated several enemies, especially
in French-speaking Africa. Nkrumah’s encouragement of dissidents from neighboring countries, although it had yet to
reach the proportions it reached in 1965, had begun to rear its head as a grievance among neighbours....
As the years went by Nkrumah felt that freedom fighters were not simply those who were fighting
against colonial rule but also those who were fighting against their own African neo-colonial regimes. This was domestic revolution
versus anti-colonialism first phase.
The hospitality he extended to rebels from his French-speaking neighbours, and even to dissidents
from Nigeria, made him less and less acceptable as a patron of major Pan-African ventures, especially if these depended on
the blessing of the Organization of African Unity. In 1963 suspicion of Nkrumah was already strong enough to make it unlikely
that Accra, Ghana, would be acceptable as the official liberation capital of the African continent. Nkrumah strongly resented
The other major arena in which Julius Nyerere was a rival to Nkrumah was the arena of regional
integration. For years Nkrumah had been the eloquent voice of Pan-Africanism and the symbol of the continent’s quest
for greater integration. On a more modest scale Nkrumah had even attempted to lead a union first between Guinea and Ghana,
and later between Guinea, Ghana and Mali....But these...attempts at unification which Nkrumah had led proved abortive.
Then in 1961 and 1962 it appeared as if Nyerere was going to succeed in leading the East African
countries to a regional federation of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. By June 1963 the three heads of government in East Africa
- Kenyatta, Obote, and Nyerere - felt confident enough to announce plans to form an East African federation before the end
of the year.
In 1960 Nyerere had already stolen the limelight on federalism in Africa by announcing his
readiness to delay Tanganyika’s independence until Kenya and Uganda became independent if this would facilitate the
formation of an East African federation. In June 1963 Kenya was still not independent, but the other two had attained theirs.
This time the clarion call was not for Tanzania to delay its independence but for Kenya to
speed up its own timetable of decolonization. The British were called upon to grant Kenya independence by December 1963 so
as to enable it to join in a federation with the other two.
It was in this sense that Nyerere had by that time become a symbol of African unification,
apparently standing a greater chance of success in effective inter-territorial integration than Nkrumah had stood in his own
ventures with Guinea and Mali.
Nkrumah’s reaction was not overly subtle. He propounded a new thesis that sub-regional
unification of the kind envisaged in East Africa was in fact simply 'Balkanization writ large.'
Further, the enterprise was likely to compromise the bigger ambition of a continental union
in Africa. It was a case of the good being the enemy of the best - and East Africans who accepted the minimally good achievement
of sub-regional federation would no longer have the incentive to embark on continental union as more a effective bulwark against
neo-colonialism and poverty. Nkrumah pointed out that his own country could not very easily join an East African federation.
This proved how discriminatory and divisive the whole of Nyerere’s strategy was for the African continent.
Nyerere treated Nkrumah’s counter-thesis with contempt. He asserted that to argue that
Africa had better remain in small bits than form bigger entities was nothing more than 'an attempt to rationalize absurdity.'
He denounced Nkrumah’s attempt to deflate the East African federation movement as petty
mischief-making arising from Nkrumah’s own sense of frustration in his own Pan-African ventures.
Nyerere was indignant. He went public with his attack on Nkrumah. He referred to people who
pretended that they were in favour of African continental union when all they cared about was to ensure that 'some stupid
historian in the future' praised them for being in favour of the big continental ambition before anyone else was willing to
Nyerere added snide remarks about 'the Redeemer' (Nkrumah’s self-embraced title of the
On balance, history has proved Nkrumah wrong on the question of Nyerere’s commitment
to liberation. Nyerere was second to none in that commitment.
At that Cairo conference of 1964 Nkrumah had asked 'What could be the result of entrusting
the training of Freedom Fighters against imperialism into the hands of an imperialist agent?'
Nyerere had indeed answered 'the good Osagyefo' with sarcasm and counter-argument. But Nyerere
was also already trying to sharpen his country’s militancy in anti-colonial policy. At Cairo he took the posture of
a leader disillusioned with the arts of persuasion in matters of liberation. He now demanded rigorous action to expel Portugal
from Africa. As he put it:
'I am convinced that the finer the words the greater the harm they do to the prestige of Africa
if they are not followed by action …Africa is strong enough to drive Portugal from our Continent. Let us resolve at
this conference to take the necessary action.'
Nyerere did indeed attempt to take the lead in this new militancy. He became the toughest spokesman
against the British on the Rhodesian question. His country played a crucial role at the OAU Ministerial meeting at which it
was decided to issue that fatal ultimatum to Britain’s Prime Minister, Harold Wilson - 'Break Ian Smith or Africa will
break with you.'”
Yet, in spite of some of the differences they had, the two African leaders worked
together and agreed on most things on African liberation and continental unification. As Nyerere said in an interview with
Ikaweba Bunting, an African American who had lived in Tanzania for 25 years when he conducted the interview which was published
in the New Internationalist in December 1998 about one year before
“Kwame Nkrumah and I were committed to the idea of unity. African leaders and heads of
state did not take Kwame seriously. However, I did. I did not believe in these small little nations. Still today I do not
believe in them. I tell our people to look at the European Union, at these people who ruled us who are now uniting.
Kwame and I met in 1963 and discussed African Unity. We differed on how to achieve a United
States of Africa. But we both agreed on a United States of Africa as necessary. Kwame went to Lincoln University, a black
college in the US. He perceived things from the perspective of US history, where the 13 colonies that revolted against the
British formed a union. That is what he thought the OAU should do.
I tried to get East Africa to unite before independence. When we failed in this I was wary
about Kwame’s continental approach. We corresponded profusely on this. Kwame said my idea of ‘regionalization’
was only balkanization on a larger scale. Later African historians will have to study our correspondence on this issue of
Africans who studied in the US like Nkrumah and [Nigerian independence leader] Azikiwe were
more aware of the Diaspora and the global African community than those of us who studied in Britain. They were therefore aware
of a wider Pan-Africanism. Theirs was the aggressive Pan-Africanism of WEB Dubois and Marcus Garvey. The colonialists were
against this and frightened of it.
After independence the wider African community became clear to me. I was concerned about education;
the work of Booker T Washington resonated with me. There were skills we needed and black people outside Africa had them. I
gave our US Ambassador the specific job of recruiting skilled Africans from the US Diaspora. A few came, like you. Some stayed;
We should try to revive it. We should look to our brothers and sisters in the West. We should
build the broader Pan-Africanism. There is still the room - and the need.”
So, under Nyerere, Tanganyika - later Tanzania - was not only in the forefront of the African
liberation struggle; it was, like Ghana under Nkrumah, a leading advocate of Pan-African solidarity transcending continental
boundaries to embrace people of Africa descent in the Americas and elsewhere in the diaspora.
Tanganyika was also the first independent African country Nelson Mandela visited in 1962 when
he secretly left apartheid South Africa to attend a conference of African leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to seek support
for the liberation struggle in his country. And the first African leader he met was Julius Nyerere at his house in Dar es
It was also in the same year that the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique - FRELIMO - was
founded in Tanganyika with the encouragement of Julius Nyerere who urged Mozambican nationalists to bring all their nationalist
organizations under one umbrella and form a united front in their struggle against Portuguese colonial rule.
Other liberation movements based in Dar es Salaam included the African National Congress (ANC)
and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of South Africa; the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); the Zimbabwe
African National Union (ZANU); the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU); and the South West African People's Organization
(SWAPO) of Namibia.
Had Tanganyika not won independence as early as it did, the history of southern Africa may
have taken a different course and the liberation struggle would probably have been delayed. The country played a critical
role as an operational base for the freedom fighters until all the countries in southern Africa finally won their freedom
after a long, bitter and bloody struggle which, in the case of South Africa, lasted for decades.
It was also in 1961 that the MPLA launched an armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule
in Angola and went on to wage one of the most successful liberation wars in the history of colonial Africa and the entire
Third World. It lasted until 1975 when the country finally won independence after 500 years of Portuguese imperial rule.
Another important development in the history of colonial Africa and of the liberation struggle
was the release of Jomo Kenyatta from prison. Acknowledged by many Africans as the Grand Old Man of the African independence
movement, and known as Mzee (a Swahili term of respect meaning "Old Man"), Kenyatta was arrested in October 1952 and was later
sentenced to 7 years in prison for being the leader of Mau Mau, a charge he denied.
He was sent to a remote, arid region of northern Kenya to serve his sentence and was released
in August 1961.
The release of Jomo Kenyatta was a turning point in the history of one of the countries with
the largest number of white settlers on the continent. As he stated on October 14, 1961, about two months after he was released
“Non-Africans who still want to be called 'Bwana' should pack up and go, but others who
are prepared to live under our flag are invited to remain.”
The quotation comes from a Kenyan professor, Ali Mazrui, in his book Towards A Pax Africana (p. 253) and caused quite a furor among the white settlers in
Kenya especially after Kenyatta went even further in his remarks on January 28, 1962, when he said: "I want Europeans, Asians
and Arabs to learn to call Africans 'Bwana'." He later explained that he was demanding respect rather than servility from
whites and other non-blacks in Kenya.
Two years after he was released from prison, he led Kenya to independence. The country won
independence from Britain on December 12, 1963, after a bitter struggle. Tens of thousands of Africans, mostly Kikuyu, died
during the emergency in the 1950s when the colonial government with the help of the Royal Air Force and ground soldiers fought
the Mau Mau insurgents led by Dedan Kimathi. Declassified documents later showed that about 100,000 Africans were killed as
a result of this brutal operation to suppress the Mau Mau.
Kenya was the last country in East Africa to win independence. Others were Tanganyika in December
1961, Uganda in October 1962, and Zanzibar on December 10, 1963, only two days ahead of Kenya.
However, Zanzibar's independence was a highly contentious issue. It was hotly contested by
black Africans in the island nation and elsewhere. They did not accept the leadership of the newly independent nation as being
truly representatitve of the majority of Zanzibaris.
The British handed over power to the Arab minority who had ruled the island nation for hundreds
of years, thus perpetuating the status quo. Blacks were excluded from power. It was a recipe for disaster. About a month later,
Zanzibar was engulfed in a revolution.
The Zanzibar revolution on January 20, 1964, was one of the most significant events in the
history of post-colonial Africa. It had profound implications and repercussions far beyond the borders of this island nation
whose ideological orientation under the new revolutionary rulers, and geopolitical considerations of the East and the West
during the Cold War, made it a target in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the People's
Republic of China.
However, the revolutionary change was enthusiastically supported by the black majority in the
island nation since it marked the end of Arab rule and oppression under which they had lived for centuries. The Zanzibar revolution
was also celebrated in other parts of Africa as a major achievement in the liberation of the continent.
But while Africans on the African continent were winning and celebrating independence in the
sixties, as one country after another shook off the shackles of imperial domination, African Americans - then simply known
as Black Americans - were struggling to achieve racial equality in the United States. And the year 1961 was no exception.
It was also a year of tragedies in this struggle as opponents of racial equality reacted violently
to peaceful protests against racial injustices black people had suffered in the United States for centuries since slavery.
The year 1961 witnessed some of the strongest and most successful protests against racial injustice
and segregation in the southern states of the United States. It was the year of the Freedom Riders.
The Freedom rides were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and
had their origin in the Journey of Reconciliation planned by CORE in 1947. The Journey of Reconciliation was intended to test
a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1946 - Morgan
vs. Virginia -
which declared segregated seating on interstate buses unconstitutional and therefre illegal.
But the riders on the Journey of Reconciliation met with stiff resistance in the south which
was not ready for integration. Even in the upper south, most whites were strongly opposed to racial integration and some of
the riders were arrested and sentenced to hard labour, forced to serve on a chain gang after their arrest in North Carolina.
However, CORE persisted in its campaign to end segregation. But it was not until after nearly
a decade and a half later that the civil rights organization tried to go on the road again. John Kennedy had just been elected
president of the United States with overwhelming support from black voters and CORE was determined to test the his commitment
to racial equality, a position he articulated during the presidential campaign. And many blacks believed he was more sympathetic
to their cause than his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, was. So, CORE proposed a new Journey of Reconciliation but this
time called it the Freedom Ride.
The strategy was the same as in the late forties when CORE tried a number of Journeys of Reconciliation.
A group of blacks and whites would board buses bound for the south. Whites would sit in the back and blacks would sit in the
front. At rest stops, the riders would defy convention mandating separate facilities for blacks and whites. Black freedom
riders would go into "Whites only" areas including rest rooms, and their white counterparts would use inferior facilities
reserved exclusively for blacks.
And they were ready to go. Not only justice but even the law itself was on their side since
the US Supreme Court had ruled back in 1946 that segregation in interstate travel facilities was unconstitutional.
Also on December 5, 1960, the US Supreme Court invoked the constitution's Interstate
Commerce clause to rule that segregation was illegal not only on buses and trains but in all interstate travel facilities
including restrooms, waiting rooms and restaurants. The case involved Boynton vs. Virginia. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that racial segregation in public transportation was
illegal because such segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.
Earlier in April the same year, what came to be known as the Civil Rights Act of 1960 was passed
by Congress. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Bill into law in May. But it was never enforced. It was passed
only after it was severely weakened by Senate filibusters. It allowed federal officials to register voters in cases where
a "pattern" of voting discrimination was demonstrated at trial and set criminal penalties for obstruction of related court
But that was only on paper, just as the 1946 Supreme Court decision against segregated interstate
travel was, prompting CORE to take action in the latter case.
CORE national director, James Farmer, proposed interracial freedom rides to test the effectiveness
of this ruling in the deep south. He planned the freedom rides as extensions of the student sit-ins which were also used to
fight segregation. He and his colleagues hoped that by being arrested for violating segregation laws in the southern states,
the federal government would be forced to compel local authorities in those states to enforce the law against segregation.
If arrested, which was inevitable, the freedom riders would not pay fines or bail to get out
of jail but would stay in there. This would bring publicity to their cause, force the federal government to act, and fill
up jails thus forcing southern states and cities to incur a lot of expenses for keeping them locked up. It was hoped that
this would make the southern states realize that segregation was too costly to maintain and would force them to end it. As
CORE national director James Farmer explained the strategy:
“This was not civil disobedience, really, because we [were] merely doing what the Supreme
Court said we had a right to do....We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal
government would be compelled to enforce the law....
When we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown
at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death.”
Farmer was quoted by Juan Williams in his book, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954
- 1965 (pp.147
So, on May 4, 1961, CORE began sending student volunteers and other people on bus trips to
desegregate interstate buses and travel facilities in the southern states. The trips were designed to test the implementation
of new laws prohibiting segregation in interstate travel facilities.
But before the rides began, James Farmer wrote President
Kennedy, the FBI, the Justice Department and bus companies to tell them what he and his colleagues intended to do and asked
the government to enforce the law. But he did not any response to that.
The people who went on those trips came to be known as "freedom riders," peaceful freedom fighters
who were prepared to take all kinds of abuses on those risky and dangerous journeys.
The first Freedom Ride which left Washington, D.C., on May 4th, involving seven
black and six whites volunteers, was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17th, the seventh anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board
of Education decision
which declared school segregation and the "separate-but-equal" doctrine unconstitutional. But, unlike the original Journey
of Reconciliation in 1947, the Freedom Ride in 1961 met little resistance in the upper south. Still, the freedom riders expected
the worst in the deep south.
When they arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on May 9th, John Lewis, a 21-year-old student
from Nashville, Tennessee, who had participated in sit-in protests in Nashville in the same month and was now one of the leaders
of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was attacked by white youths, together with another freedom rider,
Albert Bigelow, before the police intervened.
The buses continued through South Carolina and Georgia without anymore attacks. When they arrived
in Atlanta, Georgia, the freedom riders had dinner with Dr. Martin Luther King who warned them to expect trouble in Alabama.
On May 14th, the freedom riders split up into two groups to travel through Alabama,
a state with a bad reputation for vicious racism and attacks against blacks like other southern states including Mississippi.
After leaving Atlanta, the first bus of the freedom riders arrived in Anniston, Alabama, about a week and a half after the
freedom rides formally began on May 4th.
When the the first group of the freedom riders arrived in Anniston on May 14th, they were met
by a mob of about 200 whites at the bus station. There was no police to protect them in spite of the violence that was expected
when the freedom riders arrived. Then, all of a sudden, a mob of whites carrying all kinds of weapons including tyre chains,
pipes, iron bars, blackjacks, clubs and baseball bats, unleashed terror after surrounding the bus.
When the freedom riders refused to leave the bus, the mob smashed the windows, stoned the bus
and slashed its tyres. Attempting to escape the mob, the bus managed to leave the terminal and get away but it was trailed
by about 50 cars carrying the whites from the mob in Anniston. Six miles out of town, the tyres went flat and the mob caught
up with the freedom riders.
The bus driver and the freedom riders did not even get the chance to change tires when some
of the whites who were following them threw a firebomb into the bus. As the bus burned, the mob tried to block the door so
that the passengers and the driver would be trapped in there.
The mob was forced to get away from the bus when an Alabama law enforcement officer aboard
identified himself and threatened to use his gun. But they did not leave. As the freedom riders got out of the smoke-filled
bus, they were attacked by the mob and were severely beaten.
When the second bus of the freedom riders arrived in Anniston, eight white men board the bus
and attacked the riders, severely injuring them. The freedom riders on this bus met a similar fate in Birmingham, Alabama.
A mob of at least 30 white men was waiting for them and viciously attacked them. It was a bloody scene.
The riders were so severely beaten that an FBI informer who was with the mob later reported
that he "couldn't see [the riders'] faces through the blood. The mob also attacked news reporters covering the incident..
No police were at the scene. The defiantly racist public safety commissioner of the city of
Brmingham, Eugene "Bull" Conner, claimed that he had no police officers at the bus station because it was a holiday.
The FBI knew of the planned attack and the city police stayed away from the
bus station so that the freedom riders would get a thorough beating once they arrived to challenge the southern way of life
where "niggers know their place." The FBI agents themselves played a major role in facilitating those attacks. There were
also active participants in the terror campaign. According to COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story:
“In May, 1961, as civil rights activists turned up the heat, the FBI passed information
to the Klan about Freedom Rider buses on their way to Birmingham, Alabama. A police sergeant, Thomas Cook, attached to the
Birmingham police intelligence branch was plied with reports by Bureau informants.
A Klan member himself, Cook furnished this information to Robert Shelton's Alabama Knights
and arranged several meetings to discuss 'matters of interest.' Cook supplied Klan leaders with the names of 'inter-racial
organizations,' the location of meetings, and the membership lists of civil rights groups for circulation in Klan publications.
FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe wrote a confidential memo to the Birmingham Special Agent in
Charge (SAC) stating that Cook had handed over inter-office intelligence memos on civil rights activists during a Klan meeting.
Rowe insisted that Cook not only gave him relevant information that police had in their files, but urged Rowe to 'help himself
to any material he thought he would need for the Klan.'
According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Birmingham SAC called
Cook and informed him of the progress that Freedom Rider buses had made and when they were scheduled to arrive in the city.
According to Rowe, Cook and Birmingham's public safety director, arch-segregationist Eugene 'Bull' Connor conspired with Klan
leaders and directly organized physical attacks on Freedom Riders when the buses reached their destination. According to one
FBI memo, Connor declared: 'By God, if you are going to do this thing, do it right.'
In consultation with Shelton's group, Birmingham police agreed not to show up for 15 or 20
minutes after the buses pulled in, to give Klansmen sufficient time to carry out their attack. Assailants were promised lenient
treatment if through some fluke, they managed to get arrested. During a planning meeting that finalized logistical details,
Grand Titan Hubert Page advised Klansmen that Imperial Wizard Shelton had spoken with Detective Cook, and was informed that
Freedom Rider buses were scheduled to arrive at 11:00 am.
Earlier that day, the KKK intercepted another bus on its way to Birmingham, beating the passengers
and setting the vehicle ablaze. As agreed during consultations with Klan leadership, when the buses arrived no police were
present at either of Birmingham's bus terminals, but 60 Klansmen - including Rowe - were waiting. Klansmen attacked civil
rights workers, reporters and photographers, viciously beating anyone within reach with chains, pipes and baseball bats. According
to ACLU attorney Howard Simon, 'We found that the FBI knew that the Birmingham Police Department was infiltrated by the Klan,
that many members of the police department were Klan members, that they knew a person in intelligence was passing information
directly to leaders of the Klan, and they also knew their undercover agent had worked out an agreement with the police department
to stay away from the terminals. They knew all that and still continued their relationship with the police department.'
Though the Bureau claimed that its 'Klan - White Hate Groups' COINTELPRO was launched in order
to stifle white supremacist activities, the historical record proves otherwise. The more well known, but by no means only
examples of Klan terror during the period - the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four black
children; the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in Mississippi: and the 1965 assassination
of Viola Liuzzo and her companion near Selma, Alabama, point to knowledge of the crimes, and complicity in subsequent cover-ups
by FBI officials.
Bureau informant Gary Thomas Rowe was a central figure in some of the most publicized crimes
of the period, indulging in freelance acts of racist terror. He was suspected of involvement in firebombing the home of a
wealthy Black Birmingham resident, the detonation of shrapnel bombs in Black neighborhoods and the murder of a Black man during
a 1963 demonstration.
He became a prime suspect in the Birmingham church bombing after he failed two polygraph tests.
His answers were described by investigators as 'deceptive' when he denied having been with the Klan group that planted the
Despite enough evidence to open a preliminary investigation, the FBI refused, covering-up for
Rowe even when another informant, John Wesley Hall, named him as a member of a three-man Klan security committee holding veto
power over all proposed acts of violence.
Years later, an independent inquiry uncovered evidence that Hall became a Bureau informant
two months after the bombing and despite the fact that a polygraph test convinced the Alabama FBI that he was probably involved
in the attack himself, Hall admitted to having moved dynamite for the plot's ringleader, Robert E. Chambliss, a Klan member
since 1924. Even though court testimony and a wealth of evidence linked Hall, Rowe and other members of the Alabama Knight's
to the bombing, the suspects were convicted on a misdemeanor charge - 'possession of an explosive without a permit.' It took
more than a decade and three bungled investigations to finally convict Chambliss of the crime.
In July 1997, almost 35 years after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, the FBI re-opened
its investigation based on 'new information.' However, mainstream news accounts failed to report the pivotal role played by
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a target of a 1963 Klan assassination plot, believes he knows
why only one man was convicted for the bombing. 'It is well known,' the 75-year old civil rights leader said, 'there was collusion
all along between the FBI, local law enforcement and the Klan.' Rev. Shuttlesworth should know: Bureau informant John Wesley
Hall was the man who proposed killing the minister.”
FBI reports about the attack show that Birmingham's safety commissioner, "Bull" Conner, had
agreed to allow the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes to attack and brutalize the freedom riders without police intervention. He was
reported to have said he wanted them beaten until "it looked like a bulldog got hold of them."
"Bull" Conner was quoted by Harris Wofford in his book, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties (p. 152).
The governor of Alabama, John Patterson, was equally blunt about it and said there was no need
to apologize for what happened to the freedom riders. As he put it:
“When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it....You just can't guarantee
the safety of a fool and that's what these folks are, just fools.”
The governor was quoted in "Ain't Afraid of Your Jails," in Eyes on the Prize.
And after the bus was bombed, the bus company did not want to take another risk. Company officials
did not want to lose another bus. And the bus drivers, who were all white, did not want to jeopardize their lives either.
The freedom riders tried to negotiate with the company to continue the ride but were not successful. But they also feared
for their lives if they were to travel by bus.
The federal government made arrangements for the civil rights activists to be flown from Birmingham
to New Orleans but a number of bomb threats forced the authorities to postpone the flight. Finally, the injured 18 freedom
riders flew from Birmingham to New Orleans, their final destination. It seemed the Freedom Ride was over, in spite of the
safe freedom flight to New Orleans.
It was at this juncture that a new group of freedom riders, 10 of them and associated with
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), decided to come in. It was a group of students from Nashville, Tennessee,
and they decided to go to Birmingham and continue the Freedom Ride. The students had earlier been involved in sit-in protests,
a tactic employed by many students and other civil rights activists in the south to desegregate lunch counters and other facilities,
and were therefore "seasoned" protesters ready for the task.
Failure to continue the ride would have been a death blow to the freedom riders' campaign.
As Diane Nash, one of the black students who helped to organize the ride, explained, if the freedom riders had been stopped
as a result of the violence, the kind that was unleashed against them in Anniston and Birmingham in Alabama, that would be
the end of the freedom ride movement and would send out the wrong signal. People, especially racists, would get the impression
that whenever a movement was started in pursuit of a just cause, all you had to do was attack it viciously and blacks would
be intimidated into submission.
The Nashville students were warned of the violence they could face if they went on the Freedom
Ride but were undeterred. As Diane Nash said, if they got killed or something else bad happened to them, "others will follow."
With that spirit, they left Nashville, Tennessee, and arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, on the
same day, ready for whatever their enemies had in store for them.
After they arrived in Birmingham, they asked the bus company to let them use the buses and
continue the Freedom Ride to New Orleans. Attorney-General Robert Kennedy also intervened on behalf of the students exerting
pressure on the Greyhound bus company and the Birmingham police asking them to do what had to be done.
He said he was determined to enforce the US Supreme Court's decision which outlawed segregation
and demanded integration of interstate travel and facilities.
He was also concerned that if the students remained in Birmingham much longer, there was a
high probability that they would be attacked by racists as the other freedom riders had been earlier. The best option was
to have them leave on the buses and continue the Freedom Ride to New Orleans as they had requested, and provide them with
After they arrived in Birmingham, the police kept the riders on the bus for an hour at the
bus station before escorting them through an angry crowd of whites to the white waiting room. Three hours later, the city's
safety commissioner, "Bull" Connor, had them taken to the Birmingham jail where they were placed in "protective custody" to
forestall danger and another cycle of violence.
And at 2 a.m. on May 19th, the police drove the students back to Tennessee and dumped them
by the side of the highway at the state line which forms a boundary between Alabama and Tennessee. They were 100 miles away
from their home in Nashville. But after they got a ride back to Nashville, they went right back to Birmingham.
As the contest of wills continued, Governor John Patterson of Alabama who became increasingly
angry with the freedom riders because of their persistence and demands for racial equality agreed to meet with John Seigenthaler,
a federal official from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., who was also a native of Tennessee. The governor did not
want to provide the students with protection as they travelled through Alabama from Birmingham to Montgomery.
Also at the meeting was Floyd Mann, head of the Alabama state highway patrol who was finally
authorized to protect the freedom riders. Then, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy applied pressure on the Greyhound bus company
which finally agreed to provide transportation for the students for them to continue the Freedom Ride.
The freedom riders left Birmingham on May 20th with a promise from the state police that
a private plane would fly over the bus to oversee the safety of the students. The state also promised that there would be
a state patrol car every 15 or 20 miles along the highway between Birmingham and Montgomery, a distance of about 90 miles.
But as soon as the buses carrying the freedom riders entered the Montogmery city limits, the
state police patrol cars which had escorted them disappeared, knowing full well what lay ahead. No Montgomery police took
over the escort. The freedom riders rode into a trap.
There was an eerie silence when they arrived at the bus station. "And then,
all of a sudden, just like magic, white people everywhere," said Frederick Leonard, one of the black freedom riders who was
there on that fateful day, quoted by Juan Williams in his book, Eyes on the Prize (p. 153).
It was a mob of white racists, with all kinds of weapons including chains, pipes, and baseball
bats. Many of them were also obviously armed with guns, ready for anything. The bus terminal became another bloody scene reminiscent
of what happened earlier in Anniston.
The freedom riders thought about leaving the bus terminal by the back of the bus hoping that
the attack on them would not be so vicious. However, one rider, Jim Zwerg, who was white, got off the bus first. The mob descended
on him. He was attacked viciously. His face was smashed with his own suitcase. As he lay on the ground, the mob knocked out
his teeth with their fists. A white female, Susan Wilbur, was also attacked. White women beat her with their pocketbooks.
While the attackers were busy pummeling Jim Zwerg, some of the riders slipped off and got away
safely. The head of the Alabama state patrol, Floyd Mann, tried to stop the attack but the mob continued to viciously beat
up Zwerg and the other freedom riders who were cornered at the bus terminal and anybody else who tried to help them.
A Justice Department official from Washington D.C.,, John Doar, was at the scene and called
Attorney-General Robert Kennedy to tell him what was going on: "A bunch of men led by a guy with a bleeding face are beating
them. There are no cops. It's terrible. It's terrible. There's not a cop in sight. People are yelling, 'Get 'em, Get 'em'
Another Justice Department official at the scene, also from Washington, D.C., was John Seigenthaler.
He got a thorough beating. He was beaten unconscious and was left in the street for about half an hour after he tried to help
two freedom riders who were being beaten up viciously. Mann finally called in the state troopers to stop the violence but
when they arrived it was too late. The damage had been done. And there was nothing to stop.
Seigenthaler was able to call the Justice Department and the news of the Montgomery attack
reached Washington, D.C. from other people as well, including the freedom riders themselves, Attorney-General Kennedy decided
to send 665 federal marshals to the city despite protests by Governor John Patterson that the state of Alabama was being "invaded."
The attack had a big impact on many people and the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther
King left a speaking tour and flew to Montgomery to attend a rally for the freedom riders. The meeting was held at a church
surrounded by a crowd of thousands of angry whites
There were about 1,500 blacks inside the church, held virtually hostage by mobs of white racists
outside, and they fully supported the freedom riders. When peaking to them, Dr. King told the audience: "The law may not be
able to make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me."
And nothing could dissuade racists from attacking the church. As night fell, the mobs of whites
who had surrounded the church were ready to teach blacks a lesson and keep them in "their place." The people in the church
were not only under siege and could not leave the building but faced extreme danger from the mob outside.
When the whites outside the church started hurling stones and bottles through the windows,
federal marshals were called to disperse the crowd with tear gas. And this was done only after Dr. King made a personal appeal
for emergency assistance.
At 3 a.m., Dr. King called Robert Kennedy to tell him what was going on and asked for federal
intervention. Kennedy called Governor Patterson of Alabama who eventually, and reluctantly, declared martial law. He sent
in 800 National Guardsmen to maintain law and order and the mob finally dispersed. And the people who had been trapped in
the church were able to leave safely.
After the violence in Montgomery, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy asked for some time to cool
down tempers between the two opposing sides. But the freedom riders were determined to continue with their campaign. Their
next destination was Mississippi, another hotbed of rabid and violent racists highly notorious for attacks on blacks, including
lynchings and other murders.
The Alabama National Guardsmen escorted the bus of the freedom riders to the state line where
the civil rights activists were met by units of the Mississippi National Guard and state police.
When they arrived in Mississippi, things seemed to be somewhat different. As they crossed the
border between Mississippi and Alabama, they knew they were under the "protection" of the Mississippi authorities. They didn't
trust them. But there was no mob of white racists waiting for them at the bus terminal in Jackson, the state capital. The
police were there. And the freedom riders walked into another trap.
Years later, Frederick Leonard, one of the freedom riders, recalled what happened on that day:
"As we walked through, the police just said, `Keep moving' and let us go through the white side. We never got stopped....They
just said `Keep moving,' and they passed us right on through the white terminal into the paddy wagon and into jail."
The quotation comes from Juan Williams' Eyes on the Prize (pp. 146 - 148).
What happened at the bus station in Jackson was a result of compromise between Attorney-General
Robert Kennedy and Mississippi US Senator James O. Eastland, a well-known racist. Kennedy promised not to send in federal
troops if there was no mob violence against the freedom riders. And it worked. In the compromise with Senator Eastland, the
Kennedy administration also agreed not to interfere with local authorities if they arrested the freedom riders for violating
local segregation ordinances; which is what they freedom riders wanted, of course, to bring attention to their cause.
But the freedom riders were now at the mercy of the local authorities, now that they were in
jail in Jackson, Mississippi, with their reputation for mistreating blacks. The courts were no better than the police.
On May 25, they were taken to court from their jail cells. They refused to pay their fines.
And as the lawyer who defended them spoke, arguing their case before the judge, the judge turned his back. And after the defence
lawyer finished speaking, the judge turned around and sentenced the freedom riders to 60 days in the state penitentiary. It
was Mississippi justice at its best when blacks and their white supporters were involved.
But the freedom riders did not give up. More freedom riders arrived in Jackson to continue
the Freedom Ride and they, too, were arrested when they attempted to use "whites only restrooms.
The arrests encouraged even more freedom riders to go to the southern states and, by the end
of summer, more than 328 of them had been arrested and jailed in Mississippi.
Still, the freedom rides continued even in some of the most dangerous parts of the south and
about 1,000 volunteers, black and white, had participated in those rides by September, in a span of about four months since
the rides began in May the same year.
The persistence of the freedom riders was an embarrassment to the United States. It exposed
the hypocritical nature of American leaders who professed democracy abroad while denying democracy to its own citizens at
home for no other reason than that they were black. And this gave America's critics and adversaries, including the Soviet
Union, plenty of ammunition.
The Soviets were quick to point out that America's perennial racial problems clearly showed
that freedom and democracy were more apparent than real in the citadel of democracy despite professions to the contrary.
Also, denial of racial equality for African Americans did not help the United States in trying
to establish and foster good relations with the newly independent nations of Africa. Even African diplomats in the United
States faced discrimination in a number of areas including interstate travel.
To avoid some of this embarrassment, President Kennedy is said to have asked African diplomats
travelling between New York and Washington, D.C., to fly instead of travelling by car and run the risk of being denied service
at restaurants, motels, and rest stops on the highway in states which enforced segregation. They included Maryland and Virginia,
both of which border the federal territory of Washington, D.C.
The civil rights activists who went on freedom rides in the sixties highlighted all those problems,
and not just those affecting American citizens who were victims of racial injustice simply because of what they were, black,
and as a people of African descent.
The freedom riders never made it to New Orleans. Many of them spent their summer languishing
in jail in Mississippi. And some of them suffered permanent emotional and physical scars from the severe beatings they sustained
at the hands of white racists. But they did not suffer in vain. The torture and abuse they suffered helped to fuel and sustain
the civil rights movement in more than one way.
They forced the Kennedy administration to take a stand on civil rights and honour its commitment
to racial equality as John F. Kennedy promised during the presidential campaign in 1960. And at the request of Attorney-General
Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel.
The US Supreme Court, in its 1946 decision, had already declared segregation in interstate
travel facilities unconstitutional, as it did again in December 1960. But the ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission
was more specific in intent and implementation that the original decision by the Supreme Court. On November 1, 1961, the Interstate
Commerce Commission invoked its regulatory powers and honoured Attorney-General Robert Kennedy's request to ban segregation
of terminal facilities in interstate travel.
It took effect immediately, only a few weeks after the freedom rides ended in September. And
it was another major victory for racial equality which was being gradually won in different ways.
Earlier in March the same year, President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which established
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and required equal opportunity in placement and promotion in the military. It
was a victory for racial justice in one area, just as desegregation of interstate travel was in another. But they complemented
each other and cumulatively, together with other achievements, would eventually lead to comprehensive victory . The freedom
rides played a critical role in achieving this goal.
The freedom riders may not have completed their journey to New Orleans, their final destination;
and even their much longer journey to freedom. But they helped galvanize the civil rights movement and its supporters across
the colour line.
The year 1961 will always be remembered as the year of the Freedom Riders, and the Freedom
Rides, in their quest for racial equality in the citadel of democracy whose claim to liberty and equality was severely compromised
by its tolerance of racism against the descendants of African slaves who helped build America and make it the richest and
most developed country in the history of mankind.
But black people still had a long way to go on the long walk to freedom. And they still do
in many fundamental respects in spite of the progress they have made since the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties....
Godfrey Mwakikagile, Africa and America in The Sixties