Civil Rights Organizations, the Black Press, and Ethnic Nationalist Movements in Africa

Sylvanus Olympio in Munich, 1961. Photo: Wikimedia/German Federal Archives.
Sylvanus Olympio in Munich, 1961. Photo: Wikimedia/German Federal Archives.

As African societies began to break the shackles of colonial domination during the mid-twentieth century, African Americans looked to these nationalist movements to inform their own struggle against white supremacy. This interest in decolonization paved the way for closer political partnerships between African independence leaders and Civil Rights organizations in the United States. While scholars of twentieth-century black transnationalism have emphasized the utility of these networks for African nationalist leaders advocating for the sovereignty of their nations, little attention has been paid to the ways these leaders leveraged these networks to contest the very borders defining their nations. Absent this discussion, the prevailing narrative that African leaders blindly accepted the territorial boundaries imposed on them during colonialism goes unchecked. The Ewe Unification Movement — which challenged the division of Ewe-speaking people amongst a number of colonial administrations — belies this narrative. As leader of the movement, Sylvanus Olympio used his relationships with American Civil Rights organizations and black periodicals to advocate for the reconfiguration of the borders imposed on Ewe-speaking communities by European colonial powers.

Ewe-speaking people have historically occupied the coastal regions between the Volta River, in what is today Ghana, and the Mono River, on the border of contemporary Togo and Benin. By the late 1800s, portions of Ewe-speaking communities were integrated into the British Gold Coast Colony and French Dahomey, while Germany seized the majority of the Ewe-speaking territories as part of its Togoland colony. During World War I, the Allied powers stripped Germany of its colonies and divided German Togoland amongst themselves as French and British Togoland. These two territories then came under the administration of the League of Nations mandate system, which was established to oversee the administration of the territories seized from Germany following the First World War. The mandate system remained in place until the Second World War, when the League of Nations was disbanded and the two Togolands became United Nations Trust Territories. Consequently, by the mid-twentieth century, Ewe-speaking communities were fragmented between a number of colonial regimes with divergent legal, financial, and trade systems.

Ewe-speaking communities contested the borders that separated them. As inhabitants of Trust Territories, Togolanders had the unique ability to file complaints with the United Nations about the way they were governed by the colonial powers. Thus, in 1947, they sent a petition of 800,000 signatures to the Trusteeship Council demanding the unification of the Ewe-speaking regions. In response, the council invited a representative of the Ewe people to present their case at the United Nations. On December 8, 1947, Sylvanus Olympio, a prominent businessman from French Togoland, became the first petitioner from a Trust Territory to present a case at the Trusteeship Council. At the council meeting, Olympio argued that the colonial powers’ separation of Ewe communities led to serious problems because their villages were separated, in some cases, from their own farms; their children were taught diametrically opposed ways of life; and their trading was blocked by the customs and currency barriers that made it so a man in Lomé under the French Flag could not send corn, flour, or salt to his family in the Keta district under Britain.1 According to Olympio, uniting the Ewe territories was, naturally, the best solution to the social, economic, and political turmoil caused by their separation.

While the call to unite the Ewe territories directly challenged the authority of colonial governments to control communal engagement between Ewe-speaking people, it was not yet a call for territorial sovereignty. At an NAACP dinner held in his honor in Harlem, Olympio explained that the Ewe Unification Movement was primarily concerned with “the immediate gains of wiping out the red tape that makes it virtually impossible for Ewe individuals to move about freely.”2 Therefore, the main objective of the movement was to consolidate the Ewe-speaking territories under a single colonial administration. It was not a call to end the system of colonization itself. According to Olympio, this was because the Ewe territories were so severely underdeveloped by colonization that they could not at that point effectively govern themselves. Uniting the regions would thus allow Ewe communities to achieve greater economic and political development. Only then would they be ready for independence.

Luncheon in honor of the President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, 1962. Photo: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Luncheon in honor of the President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, 1962. Photo: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

U.S. Civil Rights organizations and black periodicals were eager to support Olympio’s bid for a united “Eweland.” At the NAACP dinner, the guests asked Olympio how organizations such as the NAACP could “assist the Ewe people in achieving what they are trying to accomplish.” In response, Olympio said that “organizations in the United States could do a lot of good in helping to publicize the case of the Ewes.”3 Representatives of Ebony magazine and New York Amsterdam News seemed to have taken this call to action seriously. In the years following Olympio’s first visit to New York, both periodicals dedicated considerable coverage to the unification efforts of the Ewe people. Representatives from both periodicals were at the NAACP dinner and Olympio’s activities were frequently documented by both periodicals in the years following his first visit.

In addition to the support he received from the NAACP and the black press, Olympio was also assisted by the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). Founded in 1953, the ACOA was built on the belief that anti-colonial movements in Africa were “part and parcel of the civil rights struggle.”4 Accordingly, many Civil Rights leaders joined the organization. Perhaps inspired by his 1957 visit to Ghana, Martin Luther King Jr., for example, joined the ACOA that same year and served on the committee until his death in 1968. King used his position within the organization to advocate for peaceful resistance against colonial and Apartheid regimes in Africa as a way to “demonstrate the international potential of non-violence” as a viable strategy for combating racialized oppression around the globe.5

The United Nations was the primary institution through which the ACOA lobbied for support of African independence movements. This reflected the board of directors’ conviction that their “only opportunity for a direct political approach to African questions including U.S. policy is at the United Nations.”6 In 1956, the ACOA became an accredited non-governmental organization at the U.N. and dedicated a large portion of its time and resources to assisting African nationalist leaders during their diplomatic visits to the United States.

The ACOA’s focus on using the United Nations as a platform to support liberation movements in Africa led to its close partnership with Sylvanus Olympio. As the organization’s founder George M. Houser explained, Olympio was one of the first United Nations petitioners to work with the ACOA.7 During Olympio’s visits to the U.N. headquarters in New York, the committee hosted several receptions in his honor and eventually sent delegations to observe the Ewe Unification Movement on the ground.8 Like the NAACP and the black press, the ACOA thus served as an important transnational platform through which Olympio advocated for the reconfiguration of the borders separating Ewe communities.

Despite Olympio’s best efforts, the vision of uniting Ewe communities was dealt a significant blow in 1956. In that year, the British Empire incorporated its portion of Togoland into the Gold Coast Colony, which gained independence in 1957 as the Republic of Ghana. Olympio went on to lead French Togoland to independence as the Republic of Togo in 1960 and became the country’s first prime minister. While Olympio and Ghana’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, attempted to find a solution that would reunite the Ewe territories, the two leaders could not agree on the specific terms of that unification. The movement was further hindered by Olympio’s assassination in a 1963 military coup that forced Togo under a dictatorship that persecuted Ewe-speaking communities.

Although Olympio was ultimately unsuccessful in his fight to unite the Ewe-speaking territories, his transnational activism offers critical insights into the diverse intentions behind partnerships between African nationalist leaders and American-based organizations during the twentieth-century. Speaking to Ebony magazine on the eve of Togo’s independence in 1960, Olympio explained, “I have personally had a great deal of encouragement and moral help from the American Negro…I am very grateful and have told my people about it. The American Negro was with me when I needed him.”9 While many African nationalist leaders focused on achieving sovereignty of their nations, Olympio used his relationships with Civil Rights organizations and the black press to articulate a vision of liberation that challenged the legitimacy of colonial powers to define the parameters within which African people lived their lives. Despite the movement’s failure, Olympio’s activism for the Ewe Unification Movement highlights the dynamic ways African leaders navigated the opportunities and constraints they encountered in their fight against colonial domination.

  1.  New Amsterdam News, “Protest Speech Sets UN Record,” December 13, 1947.
  2.  Hugh H. Smythe to Walter Francis White, Report on the dinner honoring Mr. Sylvanus Olympio, December 20, 1947, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
  3. Ibid.
  4.  George M. Hauser, Former Executive Director, American Committee on Africa and The Africa Fund. “Comments at the 50th anniversary of the American Committee on Africa,” Washington, DC, October 3, 2003.
  5.  Martin Luther King Jr, Address of Dr. Martin Luther King on December 1965 to the South African Benefit of the American Committee on Africa, “Speeches,” The King Library and Archive, The King Center.
  6.  “Minutes of the Executive Board Meeting of the American Committee on Africa,” November 11, 1957.
  7.  George M. Houser, interview by Lisa Brock, Rockland County, New York, July 19, 2004, transcript, African Activist Archives, Lansing, Michigan.
  8.  “Minutes of the Steering Committee of the American Committee on Africa,” March 14, 1960.
  9. Era Bell Thompson, “Freedom comes to 83 million as African rule passes from whites to Black,” Ebony, December 1960, 150.
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Marius Kothor

Marius Kothor is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Yale University. She has broad research interests in 20th century African history, gender, and Black internationalism. Her dissertation project has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright (IIE) program, the Social Science Research Council (IDRF), and the Fulbright-Hays (DDRA) Program. Follow her on Twitter @Mariuskothor.