‘They are our building blocks’

Christina Stavale

Remembering Africa’s civil rights leaders celebrates those often forgotten in the continent’s development

Chris McVay, lecturer in English and Pan-Africian Studies, shares stories with one of her classes. McVay not only lectures on Pan-Africian Studies but also teaches several classes as well. DANIEL DOHERTY | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Ron Soltys

When Sheila Denanyoh visits her home country of Ghana this summer, she said she wants to see the changes she’s only heard about. She left Ghana for the United States when she was 11 years old.

“Things were pretty good when I left,” she said. “I expect when I go back that things will be better. I want to see change. I read the news and things seem to be going pretty well, but all this wouldn’t be possible if people hadn’t fought for us.”

Denanyoh is a sophomore interior design major and programmer for the Kent African Student Association. She and other KASA board members said it’s important to remember the African civil rights leaders who have brought Africa to where it is today, as their history is often overshadowed.

“You’re almost walking around ignorant if you don’t know your own people,” said junior communications major Stella Sulle, adding that she has read up on African civil rights leaders “for KASA, for my (Pan-African studies) minor and for myself.”

Extreme separation

Chris McVay, lecturer in English and Pan-African studies, said the African civil rights movement that draws the most parallels with the United States’ is also the most recent one – South Africa’s.

Written within South Africa’s constitution was a legal form of segregation called apartheid. Apartheid limited the places blacks could live; they were far below whites’ standards of living.

“Many people point out that the big difference between the U.S. civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa is that here in the United States, the civil rights activists wanted to make our country do what the Constitution said it should do,” McVay said. “In South Africa, the constitution said that blacks don’t have the same rights as whites.”

The leaders who helped guide South Africa out of apartheid were Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Mandela led an organization called the African National Congress that fought for rights for blacks. McVay said the white government then outlawed the ANC, and Mandela spent 27 years in prison for treason.

“He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance to get out,” McVay said. “But he was such a respected person – an admired person – among the blacks in South Africa that his name became a sort of rallying cry.”

Even while he was in prison, Mandela continued to fight – something Denanyoh said she admires about him.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “He had it all planned out in his head. He knew the worst possible thing could happen, and he was ready.”

An end to apartheid

But the worst possible thing didn’t happen. Though he was in prison, Mandela still managed to communicate, advise and direct blacks in the country. During this time, the rest of the world continued to put pressure on the South African administration to end apartheid. And when Frederik Willem de Klerk took over the presidency in 1989, McVay said de Klerk “saw the writing on the wall,” and began to negotiate with Mandela to release him from prison.

“And the day he got out of prison, it was such a day of celebration,” McVay said. “De Klerk’s government began dismantling apartheid piece by piece. If the rest of the world wasn’t putting pressure on them, they would still have apartheid.”

The new government then allowed blacks to vote, and Mandela was elected president. Tutu, Mandela’s adviser, set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where whites who were responsible for torturing or killing people could confess their crimes in front of victims’ families and be granted amnesty. McVay said most families accepted this confession, trusting that God would punish criminals for their crimes.

“This is one of the things I find so fascinating,” she said. “There’s something in that African culture that is not about payback or vengeance.”

Despite all the violence that went on with apartheid, McVay said, the transition was a pretty smooth one.

“And that is in great part thanks to Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela,” she said.

A violent struggle

But not all civil rights struggles in Africa were peaceful. In Kenya, for example, the struggle was quite violent.

“Kenya started with the Mau Maus,” McVay said. “I can remember when I was a little girl being as scared of the Mau Maus (on the news) as I was of the Indians watching John Wayne movies.”

Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of the independent nation of Kenya, and he belonged to the anti-white group, whom McVay said would attack white farms and kill everybody.

“They wanted to make it as uncomfortable as they could for the white government,” she said. “It worked for them in the long run.”

The beginning of a movement

But before the African civil rights movements officially began, Ghana was the first African nation to gain its independence in 1957.

“There was no domineering independence group like the Mau Maus in Kenya or the ANC in South Africa,” McVay said. “But there was a lot of unrest and discontent among all the blacks in Ghana.”

At the time, Ghana was a colony of Great Britain. Faustina Agyeman, senior health care administration major and Ghana native, said Yaa Asantewaa is an important person to note in the Ghanian civil rights struggle.

“She was one of the first ladies to stand up,” Agyeman said. “She was the first lady to go to war and fight against the British.”

Also important in Ghana’s civil rights struggle, Denanyoh said, is Kwame Nkrumah.

“He paved the way for African civil rights leaders,” she said. “He went beyond his comfort zone (of Ghana). He went to Europe, the U.S. and kept fighting for civil rights.”

As black discontent in Ghana continued to grow, British leaders began to give in.

“They thought, ‘OK, we’ll let blacks run for local positions, and maybe gradually we’ll turn over the reigns of government,'” McVay said. “And they really believed that they could hand pick those blacks who would run, and who would win, but that didn’t happen.”

Nkrumah, an activist, managed to get his name on the ballot, and in fear that he would actually promote change, McVay said, the British arrested him. But he still won, and eventually became their president.

A celebration of independence

Ghana’s transition of power was peaceful and included a ceremony where the British took down their own flag and raised a new one for the now independent nation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. attended this ceremony, declaring “the whole universe is on the side of freedom.”

McVay said this quote resonates with her because of the word “universe.”

“I feel that when you say the whole world, you’re talking about all the people in the world,” she said. “But when he said ‘the whole universe,’ it seemed like all of nature is on the side of freedom.”

Still, the responsibility lies within humanity to keep these leaders alive, said Sulle.

“You must keep them alive,” she said. “If you don’t, they’ll disappear. Teach your own people. Teach people you don’t know. Teach people who aren’t your own people. I always think, if Mandela can accomplish what he did, I can be whatever I want.”

Agyeman said the struggle must continue.

“They are our building blocks; they’re our pillars,” she said. “We have to finish what they started.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected].