Reframing a Movement and Re-Contextualizing Armed Struggle: The New Afrikan Independence Movement, Biographies of Struggle, and Visions for the Future

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Colonial/Revolutionary; Nationalism and Transnationalism


On March 31, 1969 Detroit became the scene of a violent event that brought infamy to New Afrikan independence activists. A tense interaction between two police officers and armed New Afrikan guards who were posted outside of New Bethel Baptist Church ended with the death of one officer, the wounding of another, significant damage of the church building, and the arrests of about 143 people. One lasting consequence was the widespread association of the Republic of New Afrika with one single tragic moment in the New Afrikan Independence Movement. By the time of the New Bethel Incident, New Afrikans were not the only Black Power advocates that outside forces viewed as destructive criminals. A network of local and national policing agencies and key media personnel coordinated their framing of Black revolutionaries and their aims as illegitimate. New Afrikans in their provisional government and other nationalist formations were just few of many “hate-type” organizations that the U.S. state sought to neutralize. However, cutting revolutionaries from their deep desire to achieve full liberation was not a simple matter. New Afrikans during the 1960s and 1970s continued to organize for their own liberation and for the destruction of global white supremacy and capitalist oppression. As they worked toward their goals, they consistently challenged and attempted to correct the images put forth and consumed by police, media, scholars, and even some of the people they sought to organize. Some, such as Nehanda Isoke Abiodun and Charles Hill/Fela Olatunji, did so while exiled in Cuba. Others continued to organize from within the RNA national territory—the states South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi—and various locales across the United States. This panel will historicize this struggle for land and liberation as put forth by New Afrikan independence activists and will bring attention to the people and ideas that are often obscured by sensationalized events, such as the New Bethel Incident. Collectively, the scholars on this panel make clear that the goals of their subjects need to be taken seriously for what they teach us about the nature of political struggle in a world that continues to value whiteness, the extraction of natural resources without concern for the consequences, and the private accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority of peoples in the U.S and abroad.

Papers Presented

The New Afrikan Independence Movement: Contested Citizenship, Land, Reparations, and Liberation from the Black Power Era to 1980s

When the leading Black nationalist thinkers of the mid-twentieth century claimed membership in the Republic of New Afrika, they initiated a movement that framed “Black Power” as the pursuit of national self-determination that had an explicit role in the international uprising against western hegemony. Doing so allowed them to make clear that they did not seek citizenship in a nation that held them as captives. Taking that position guided their work over the next several decades. This presentation will provide a historical analysis of the New Afrikan Independence Movement. It will explain some of the key ideas, victories, and losses that occurred between the movement’s founding convention in 1968 and the creation of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in 1990. Through the course of struggle, they helped make the wellbeing of political prisoners and the demand for reparations key concerns in the broader Black political agenda.

Presented By
Edward Onaci, Ursinus College

Social Banditry, Black Liberation, & Political Asylum: The Case of Nehanda Isoke Abiodun

Erik Hobsbawn’s concept of social banditry, as presented in Bandits (1969), challenged the meaning of criminality by arguing that banditry was an expression of revolt, and a primitive form of class struggle. Social bandits were rebels, who embodied the virtues of Robin Hood by robbing the rich and giving to the poor. They might have operated outside “legal” parameters, but stayed within the moral order of the oppressed. Social bandits, then, were not criminals but champions of the exploited masses. Hobsbawn’s thesis has been mostly applied to the study of peasant societies, or third world countries. I argue that it can be used in Black Power Studies in the United States. The 1949 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights embraced the social banditry concept when it established the right of political asylum and made a distinction between political refugees and criminals. Nehanda Isoke Abiodun was one of several black revolutionaries who fled the U.S.A. and was given political asylum. She said, “I am a revolutionary who fought against the oppression of my people, not some criminal.” This paper poses the question, “Was Nehanda Isoke Abiodun a criminal or a 20th-century social bandit, who was given political asylum by the Cuban government.

Presented By
Henry Louis Taylor Jr., University at Buffalo, State University of New York

New Afrikan Exile in Cuba: In Search of the Political Biography of Fela Olatunji

This paper examines the life of one of Cuba’s best-known U.S.-born residents, former Republic of New Afrika member Charles Hill, in light of broader encounters between the Cuban Revolution and the U.S. Black freedom struggle during the era of decolonization and Third World revolution. Hill, a Vietnam veteran known to the New Afrikan Independence Movement as Fela Olatunji, hijacked a commercial airliner from Albuquerque to Havana in 1971 with two comrades to escape charges of killing a New Mexico state trooper during a nighttime traffic stop. Granted political exile status by the government of Fidel Castro, which maintained that the three fugitives would be unlikely to receive a fair trial in the United States, Olatunji joined several hundred of other activists and revolutionaries from Africa, Latin America, and Asiaand over a dozen from the United Stateswho resided in Havana as political asylees during the 1960s and 1970s. Although Olatunji is Cuba’s longest remaining U.S. political exile, the significance of his time there has been little examined. Cuba’s provision of asylum to U.S. Black activists, including Olatunji, Robert F. Williams, Assata Shakur, Eldridge Cleaver, William Lee Brent and Nehanda Abiodun, has consistently influenced how radical movements have contended with the Cuban Revolution as a source of both inspiration and caution, and has repeatedly influenced U.S. and Cuban foreign policy, forcing both governments to contend with Black radicalism as a transnational political force capable of making demands upon nation states.

Presented By
Teishan A. Latner, Thomas Jefferson University

“We Are the Children of the Ones Who Didn’t Die”: Movement Inheritance and Contemporary Praxis of New Afrika

Beyond leaving a great legacy for younger generations, New Afrikan Independence Movement Builders provided them the movement. This presentation examines inheritance, legacy and contemporary praxis of New Afrikan ideology with a focus on the progressive works of offspring of New Afrikan Independence Movement citizens and leaders. It asks: In what ways do the progressive works of current New Afrikans align with the ideological principles and goals outlined in their founding documents? How have notions of New Afrikan independence and liberation taken new shape since the above documents were written? What are the spaces between carrying forward traditions and molding traditions to fit new times? What do activists carry forward? What is left behind?

Presented By
Asantewa Sunni-Ali, Kent State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Akinyele Umoja
Akinyele Umoja is a Professor of African-American Studies. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance and the Mississippi Freedom Movement, named the 2014 Anna Julia Cooper/ C.L.R. James Award for the best book in Africana Studies by the National Council of Black Studies. We Will Shoot Back also earned the 2014 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. He is also co-editor of Greenwood Press Black Power Encyclopedia (2018), which was named on the Reference and User Services Association’s (a division of the American Library Association) 2019 List of Outstanding References for Adults. Umoja also the editor of a special issue of The Black Scholar (2018) on the legacy of his comrade, the revolutionary activist, attorney, and late Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the Honorable Chokwe Lumumba. Umoja’s research has also been featured in several other journals and anthologies. Professor Umoja is also very engaged in social justice advocacy. Along with his wife Aminata and other comrades, Umoja organized Atlanta’s Malcolm X Festival in 1989, which is now attended by thousands annually. Umoja received acknowledgement from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (1998) and the National Council of Black Studies (2008) for his activism. Due to his civic engagement and scholar-activism, he was inducted into Selma, Alabama’s Hall of Resistance in the Enslavement and Civil War Museum during the annual Bridge Crossing and Jubilee Celebration. Other inductees into the Hall of Resistance include author Sonia Sanchez, and scholar-activists Asa Hilliard, Maulana Karenga, and legendary Hip Hop artist Tupac Shakur.

Presenter: Teishan A. Latner, Thomas Jefferson University
Teishan Latner is an assistant professor of history at Thomas Jefferson University. His first book, Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968-1992, was published by the University of North Carolina Press for the “Justice, Power, and Politics” book series. His articles have appeared in journals such as Diplomatic History, SOULS: a Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, and the Journal of Transnational American Studies. He has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War, and a Research Associate at the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Presenter: Edward Onaci, Ursinus College
Edward Onaci is an Associate Professor of History and African American & Africana Studies at Ursinus College. His first book is titled Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State and is published with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the history of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and the lived experience of revolutionary activism.

Presenter: Asantewa Sunni-Ali, Kent State University
Dr. Asantewa Fulani Sunni-Ali is director of the Center of Pan-African Culture and Assistant Professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University. Her educational background includes a BA in Africana Studies, an MA in African American Studies, and a PhD in Theatre for Youth. Dr. Sunni-Ali is the author of various publications and plays that explore her research interests: intersections of Black childhood, performance, agency, and liberation.

Presenter: Henry Louis Taylor Jr., University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. Ph.D. is a full professor is the Department of Urban and Regional Planning the University at Buffalo and founding director of the Center for Urban Studies. Taylor is a historian and urban planning that focuses on the intersection of race, class, gender, race capitalism and the city building process. Taylor is the recipient of numerous awards and has written and/or edited five books, along with dozens of articles and technical reports. He is completing a study on neighborhood change in Buffalo and a book, From Harlem to Havana: the Nehanda Isoke Abiodun Story (SUNY Press). Taylor is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2018 Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award by the Urban Affairs Association.