“Free the Land!”: Fifty Years of the Republic of New Afrika

Robert F. Williams and Members of the Pan-African Congress in Dar Es-Salaam, Tanzania (Robert F. Williams Papers, Box 14, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

An impressive assortment of Black radicals gathered to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was not Philadelphia 1776, of course, but Detroit in 1968, a city still smoldering from its 1967 Rebellion, one of the most significant urban rebellions the country has ever known. The colonial authority from which Black radicals sought independence was none other than the United States. And like the British, the United States would not relinquish its colonial authority.

Thus began the rise of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) (the group later changed the spelling of “Africa” to “Afrika,” in keeping with Swahili phonetic traditions). From the beginning the RNA embodied both a concept and an organization. Never a large organization, RNA members and the idea of New Afrika have shaped a myriad of foundational campaigns for reparations and the freedom of US political prisoners over the last half-century. In each of its campaigns, the New Afrikan framework has insisted on the centrality of land and power to any idea of Black politics.

New Afrikan political thought synthesized long-prevalent strands of Black nationalism: cultural pride, anti-imperialism, spirituality, self-defense, self-governance, land ownership, and economic uplift. As both an individual right and a collective future, self-determination has been the guiding proviso. As an organization the RNA joined the Black arts cultural renaissance with the militancy of the Black Panther Party and a spiritual cosmology redolent of the Nation of Islam. Like the Nation of Islam, the RNA’s “New Afrikan creed” maintained the “genius of black people,” regulated personal behavior such as dress and hygiene, and upheld the heteronormative family as the natural unit of political community. The evolution of New Afrikan politics has shed some of these conservative gender politics, while still synthesizing a blend of Black radical influences. Inspired by Garveyism and Rastafarianism, New Afrikans capitalize “We” and use lowercase “i.” Like other Black nationalists, New Afrikans often change their names to reconnect to their African ancestry and reject the “slave names” they had received at birth. New Afrikans described the US as “Babylon,” characterizing Black liberation as a biblical struggle.

As an organization the RNA built on the legacies of Garveyism and heterodox Black radicalism. The 1968 Black Government Conference that founded the RNA brought together a wide array of Black radicals—including Betty Shabazz, Queen Mother Moore, Muhammad Ahmad and Herman Ferguson of the Revolutionary Action Movement, Ron Karenga of the US Organization, Amiri Baraka, H. Rap Brown, and others. The first president of the provisional government was Robert F. Williams, the NAACP organizer whose advocacy of armed self-defense against racism ran him out the country. A figurehead more than a founder, Williams resigned his presidency after returning to the US in 1969.

Central to its cosmology, the RNA advocated the creation of a separate nation for Black people—New Afrika—by carving territory from the five Black Belt states of the Deep South: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina where slavery was once most strongly concentrated. This position revived one held by the Communist Party in the 1930s and echoed by many of the small communist parties emerging in the 1970s, which held that the history of racial slavery and its afterlives had created a colonized people in the cotton belt South. However New Afrikans argued that across the country Black people were colonized. Even though decades of migration north and west had decreased the Black population in the cotton belt South, many Black folks still lived in the region. New Afrikans upheld the South as a more strategically defensible and historically authentic location of Black politics than the northern and western cities.

Although RNA started in Detroit, it moved to Mississippi in 1970—around the time that African Americans began returning South in large numbers. The RNA’s move South was not without conflict, however. Longtime Detroit organizers Gaidi and Imari Obadele (née Milton and Richard Henry) founded the RNA to continue the ideology of Malcolm X, as well as what the pair had learned from figures such as Reverend Albert Cleage, Kwame Nkrumah (a college classmate of Milton Henry), and Grace Lee Boggs. The brothers had a falling out about the strategic direction of the group, however, and Imari led a small group of partisans in moving to Jackson in 1970 to set up a “provisional government.”

The more significant conflict came from the government. RNA members gathered in March 1969 at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, pastored by the Reverend C. L. Franklin—a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) member and the father of soul singer Aretha Franklin—to celebrate the church’s one-year anniversary. When a shooting occurred outside the church, police surrounded the building and opened fire. Some RNA members were armed and returned fire; one officer died, and the police arrested 140 people inside the church. The case immediately became embroiled in Detroit’s high-pressure environment, where divisions between the police and Black activists remained sharp. George Crockett, a judge who had previously represented the United Auto Workers and defended activists who were being persecuted as Communists, set up an impromptu court in the police station to hear the charges against arrested Black activists. Working through the night, Judge Crockett freed many of the activists.

Police continued to hound the RNA in Mississippi. In August 1971 the group faced a dramatic raid on two of its houses by local and state police, as well as the FBI. In early morning raids, police surrounded the RNA’s headquarters in Jackson. When the police attacked the residence, some RNA members returned fire. One police officer died, and two were wounded. This raid resulted in the arrest of eleven RNA members, of which eight—including Imari Obadele—were convicted and spent much of the 1970s as political prisoners.

Audley Queen Mother Moore (Photo: Judith Sedwick, Black Women Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Flickr).

RNA members continued to organize while incarcerated. They used the strict conditions of their confinement as further proof of their political arguments. Obadele participated in the formation of a multiracial coalition of radical prisoners at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois and wrote for Black Pride, a Black-nationalist-prisoner magazine based there. With its leaders incarcerated, in 1972 the RNA released a legislative “Anti-Depression Program.” The title was similar to the manifesto of demands issued during the previous year’s rebellion at Attica. Both writings demanded legislative changes while upholding self-reliance as a necessary practice on the way toward self-determination.

New Afrikan politics also grew because its cosmology resonated with Black people who were disproportionately represented in American prisons. The notion of New Afrika as a nation formed by slavery echoed what Malcolm X had said about America itself being a prison. New Afrikans claimed that prisoners were on the front lines within the prison that held all Black people. Staking their authority “by the grace of Malcolm,” New Afrikans extended his message that the Black condition was one of perpetual imprisonment. They spoke of the US as imprisoning the New Afrikan nation, urged adherents to support prisoners’ struggles, and promoted prisoners as strategists for the developing Black revolution.

The prison system was the most explicit expression of the colonial relationship between the US government and the Black diaspora, here and abroad. Led by the prolific-imprisoned intellectual James Yaki Sayles, New Afrikan prisoners studied the afterlives of slavery evident in everything from the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery except as a punishment for a crime, to gentrification. New Afrikans identified prison and slavery as foundational elements of the United States—problems only reparations and self-determination could address. Providing a robust worldview for the anti-Blackness that yokes chattel slavery to mass incarceration, New Afrikan politics continue to animate contemporary Black prison organizing.

After fifty years New Afrika remains a North Star in the imagination of Black freedom. The provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika still exists, hosting annual New Afrikan Nation Day celebrations to honor the history of the Black freedom struggle. Yet the most salient influence is likely to be found in the elastic, transformative concept of New Afrika itself. A neologism coined to name a diasporic Black identity formed through slavery and its afterlives, “New Afrika” can be found wherever people struggle for reparations, self-determination, the freedom of political prisoners, the eradication of police and vigilante violence, and—as seen today in Jackson, Mississippieconomic democracy and eco-socialism. In short, it can be found where Black people govern themselves.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.