“Stronger in death than alive”: Reactions to the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Montreal

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Unidentified protester at Lumumba rally in Montreal (1961)

Recently, my colleague Keisha N. Blain wrote a post commemorating the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As Professor Blain wrote, Lumumba was a visionary national leader who was firmly committed to Congolese independence and a strong supporter of African liberation who was “sacrificed on the altar of imperialism and Cold War politics.”

Professor Blain reminds us of the extent to which Lumumba’s memory is an important touchstone in the African and African diasporic political traditions as a symbol of resistance to imperialism and white supremacy – a role that the memory of Lumumba took on in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. In this post, I’m going to talk about a protest staged by African students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who rallied in memory of the slain African leader and used his death as a way to criticize neoimperialism in Africa. In order to get something of a picture of the backdrop against which the African students’ protest took place, I will also talk about how reactions to the Congo crisis in the Montreal press brought to the fore the centrality of racist and imperialist ideas in Canadian understandings of Africa and Africans. While African students in Montreal expressed frustration with Canadian perceptions of Africa and protested Lumumba’s assassination as an instance of neo-imperialist interference in African affairs, mainstream Canadian reactions to Lumumba’s assassination reinforced the notion that Africans were insufficiently “developed” to govern themselves and needed continued Western guidance.

From roughly 1960-1965, African students at McGill were remarkably active in campus debates about African political developments as the continent moved from colonial rule to political independence and as Africans fought against white supremacist regimes in countries like South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). During the first half of the decade, talks and debates about Africa staged by McGill’s African Students’ Association were a regular occurrence on campus and the main campus paper, the McGill Daily, ran several analyses of African politics written by African students. African students who participated in campus discussions of Africa condemned the racism and imperialism that shaped relationships between Africa and the industrialized world, questioned the ideas and policies of the first generation of independent African leaders, and called for a politics that was grounded in African theory, not in transplanted Western political thought and values.

Alongside participating in debates about African politics, African students at McGill were committed to undoing the preconceived notions about Africa that were common among Canadians. In 1960, students Ifegwu Eke (a Nigerian who became commissioner for education and information minister for the breakaway Biafran republic) and Godfried Agama (a Ghanaian who was later his country’s opposition leader and then deputy leader of the opposition in the Justice Party under Joe Appiah) criticized the Canadian press for portraying Africans as uncivilized and violent. Eke also commented on the racism he had experienced in Canada, saying that he believed that younger Canadians wanted to connect with African students, but were leery of how their parents and the wider society would react.[1] Four years later, Ahmed Mohiddin (author of African Socialism in Two Countries, a key text on Tanzania and Kenya) wrote that, on top of the daily strains of university life, African students in Canada had to deal with their home countries being “grossly misrepresented” by the Canadian media’s “affected, undifferentiated and biased view” of Africa. African students thus needed to inform Canadians about “African life in all its ramifications—social, political, cultural, philosophical, and the problems involved in the nations-building effort.”[2]

The assassination of Lumumba was a moment when Canadian preconceptions of African realities and the political vision of activist African students came into sharp relief. When word of Lumumba’s death was confirmed on 13 February 1961, some three weeks after he was murdered, there were protests across Africa, Europe and the United States. Perhaps the best known demonstration took place at the United Nations in New York, where African-American activists including Maya Angelou picketed the UN building and disrupted the General Assembly. McGill’s African student community were part of this international outpouring of rage and grief.

The day after news of Lumumba’s death broke, the African Students’ Association held an emergency meeting at which they condemned Belgium and the UN for having “contributed to this savagery,” and critiqued “African upstarts” Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu for having “allowed themselves to be used as colonial stooges.” They declared the next day to be “Lumumba Mourning Day” and announced that they would take to the streets to protest the Congolese leader’s murder.[3] The students linked Lumumba’s death to larger issues of African unity and the sovereignty of the African people. ASA vice-president Steve Makinwa saw the group’s actions as as “a sign that for the first time that Africans are united,” while Nigerian graduate student Samuel Okori suggested drafting letters to African leaders calling for the creation of an African Liberation Army. ASA members also discussed how Cold War politics shaped the Congo crisis, seeing fears of a communist role in Congo as “another form of interference” in African affairs.[4]

As demonstrators were gathering at the UN, African students from McGill and Université de Montréal boycotted class and took to the streets, joined by students from Barbados and Pakistan, representatives from the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and a handful of white supporters. Protesters carried placards reading “Belgium Saboteur of Independence,” “Lumumba est plus fort dans le mort que vivant,” (“Lumumba is stronger in death than alive”) and “Lumumba: Abe Lincoln of the Congo.” They marched to the American and Belgian consulate and delivered letters condemning “the eternal forces that have contributed to this savagery and the attitude of foreign nations who … made possible the assassination of a great national leader.” Officials at both consulates expressed confusion at why they had been targeted for protest, and denied that they were at all responsible for Lumumba’s death.[5]

Lumumba’s death was a rallying point for Montreal’s African activists and their allies; it was also a lightning rod for harsh criticisms of political developments in newly-independent African nations that reflected Canadian racism and a particularly imperialist and paternalist attitude towards Africa and its people. The Montreal Star, in an editorial tellingly titled “The Ancient Rhythms,” argued that Belgium had not lived up to its responsibilities as a colonialist nation by failing to teach the Congolese people how to secure “the amenities of civilization,” a lapse which had allowed “the African” to “[revert] at the first opportunities to the outlook of his ancestors.”[6] Meanwhile, the Montreal Gazette’s Drummond Burgess wrote that the “bitter hatred” that African leaders shared for the West was compounded by the fact that Africans had “no relevant history” outside of the colonial experience upon which to build a nation.[7] Analyses of the Congo crisis were accompanied by cartoons that reflected the paternalism that often guided Canadian perceptions of Africa by literally portraying the Congo as a baby. One cartoon depicted the Congo as a Black man wearing a diaper and standing in a pair of over-sized shoes; another showed a rifle-wielding baby knocking over a carriage labeled “independence.”[8] One Star reader asked ask why the protesting students, most of whom “know the African tribesmen and their spears only from a very safe TV screen or newspaper,” did not address how “Lumumba tribesmen” had allegedly killed “scores of white women and children.”[9]

"Not ready for those shoes," Montreal Star, 15 July 1960
“Not ready for those shoes,” Montreal Star, 15 July 1960

The protests that broke out around the world in reaction to Lumumba’s murder are an important reminder of how political activism in Africa and in the African diaspora has historically intersected and overlapped. The Lumumba protest at the UN revealed the extent to which the African-American freedom struggle was closely tied to the struggle for Africa’s freedom from imperialist and neo-colonialist domination. African students in Montreal, with their criticisms of Canadian perceptions of their home countries, repeatedly expressed their frustration with how imperialist ideas continued to shape relationships between Africa and the West as the continent moved towards political independence. Their march on the Belgian and American consulates to denounce “the eternal forces” that oppressed Africans reflects how many young African intellectuals and activists saw contemporary Western interactions with Africa as a continuation of imperialist dynamics under another name – an idea that became central to international Black Power movements later in the decade.

Meanwhile, reactions to the Congo crisis coming from the daily press reproduced the very imperialist attitudes towards Africans that had brought the students onto the streets in the first place. In future blog posts, I will talk more in depth about the ways in which ideas inherited from Canada’s history as part of the British Empire shaped national perceptions of Africans and the African diaspora – those cartoons were by no means exceptional, and they are a way to start thinking about Canada’s self-image as a country largely free from anti-Black racism.

[1] “Africans Claim Public Misinformed,” McGill Daily, December 2, 1960.

[2] Ahmed Mohiddin, Montreal Star, December 4, 1964.

[3] “African Students’ Statement,” McGill Daily, February 15, 1961.

[4] Garth Stevenson, “Lumumba’s Death Protested,” McGill Daily, February 15, 1961.

[5] “Journee de Deuil et Manifestation,” La Presse, February 14, 1961; D.B. MacFarlane, “Marching African Students Protest Death of Lumumba,” Montreal Star, February 15, 1961; “Aroused Students,” Montreal Gazette, February 16, 1961; La Presse, February 15, 1961; “Colonialism Condemned,” McGill Daily, February 16, 1961; Herbert Lampert, “Students Told Public Support Needed to Aid UN in Congo,” Montreal Gazette, February 16, 1961.

[6] “The Ancient Rythyms,” Montreal Star, July 12, 1960.

[7] Drummond Burgess, “What Lumumba Stood for,” Montreal Gazette, February 23, 1961.

[8] Don Hesse, “Not Ready for Those Shoes,” Montreal Star, July 15, 1960; Unknown cartoonist, “Problem Child,” Montreal Star, July 23, 1960.

[9] Montreal Star, 21 February 1961.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Paul Hébert

Paul Hébert is an independent scholar who received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960–1969.” Follow him on Twitter @DrPaulHebert.

Comments on ““Stronger in death than alive”: Reactions to the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Montreal

  • I am learning so much “invisibilized” (my coinage) African Diasporan history from AAIHS. Thanks for this sadly enlightening essay. The fact that UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent is, so far, a well-kept secret and a microscopic bandaid on the wounds of the past millennium. I am grateful for articles like Paul Hébert’s that help me understand the incomprehensible systemic attack on every aspect of and every culture of African achievement. A luta continua!!!

  • Thanks so much for reading, and for your kind words about my work and the work of the AAIHS.

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