US activists in African liberation movements

Thursday January 3 2013

Other prominent people from the diaspora, who, like Walter Rodney, trooped to Dar included African Americans like Sylvia Hill, a courageous woman who was also closely involved in the organisation of the Sixth Pan-African Congress.

The so-called Six-PAC gathering was the sixth – but the first to be held in Africa — in the series of Pan-African congresses initiated by the famed African American writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Its convening in Africa came more than two decades after the historic Fifth Congress held years earlier in 1945 in Manchester, England.

Hill and other organisers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans.

Tanzania, which hosted the event and had fostered wide participation from the US through its embassy in Washington, was the key venue for bringing black people together.

According to chronicles of the times, the then Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere was keenly aware of the importance of people-to-people contact and of the critical contribution that could be made by those who worked behind the scenes. He was therefore raring to meet the American delegation to the Congress.

Hill would years later mirthfully relate how an all-male group chose themselves as the ones to meet the president, thereby sidelining her.

That was despite a suggestion from veteran activist Mary Jane Patterson that Hill should be included. With a light touch, Hill was to explain later how ambassador Mark Bomani, the then Tanzanian ambassador to the US, had approached her with a view to saving the situation.

Bomani had consequently assured her that she would be among those having an audience with Nyerere that evening. Indeed, she met with Nyerere alone, so that by the time her male colleagues got there she would already be settled.

“I was there half an hour before they got there,” Hill mirthfully recalled years later. “I was already on my second cup of tea when they walked in, and they were so stunned to see me sitting there.”

Hill was to later devote much time and energy to working for the Free South Africa Movement, and after the liberation of that country from apartheid she was to be honoured by none other than Nelson Mandela, its first African President.

In fact she was, together with Gay McDougall, among the few African American activists invited by Mandela to visit South Africa in October 1991 on what was called a “Democracy Now” tour.

Hill and her fellow American activists also participated in the Southern Africa Support Project, which was responsible for organising demonstrations outside the South African embassy in Washington.

Apart from those activities, she was also prominent in organising Nelson Mandela’s tour of the United States following his release from prison in 1990.

Also very active in Dar during the same era was Bill Sutherland, another African American activist engaged in the non-violence movement.

He had also rubbed shoulders with pioneer African American actors within the Pan-African movement, including the Guinea-based late Kwame Ture.

This latter was formerly known as Stokely Carmichael during the black power movement in the US, and was at one time married to the South African diva Miriam Makeba.

Sutherland himself had lived in Ghana for many years, and was at one time married to Efua Sutherland, the Ghanaian writer, and was to later co-author, with fellow American Matt Meyer, of a book, Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa, an important text on the pursuit of non-violent change in Africa.

Published by Africa World Press in 2000, the book has a foreword written by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It remains a treasure trove on Pan-Africanism, and contains intimate interviews with numerous African freedom fighters, including a lengthy one with the late president Julius Nyerere.

In the meantime, the research for the book brought Sutherland and Meyer, his co-author, in close contact with almost all the major players in African liberation movements.