Council on African Affairs

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Council on African Affairs

The Council on African Affairs (CAA), the most important Pan-Africanist group of the 1940s, was founded on January 28, 1937, by a group led by Paul Robeson and Max Yergan, a former YMCA secretary. Originally named the International Committee on African Affairs, it was a small information and lobbying group. Anticolonialist in nature, it was dedicated to increasing Americans' awareness of conditions in Africa, to expose the "ruthless exploitation of the people; repressive legislation and the growing poverty of the Africans." For many years it was the only organization dedicated to African problems. It was funded largely by Frederick V. Field (of the Chicago department store family), who had communist leanings, as did many of the CAA's leaders. Its seventy-member board, however, included such noncommunist luminaries as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Alain Locke, Channing Tobias, Herbert Delany, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Two other board members, Ralph Bunche and Mordecai Johnson, decided shortly after joining that the CAA was too left wing in its politics and resigned. In 1941 the group had fourteen active committee members who met three times per year.

In 1942 the organization, renamed the CAA, set up offices at 23 West Twenty-sixth Street in New York City, and in August published its first two-page newsletter, News of Africa. In 1943 Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University English professor, became the CAA's educational director. He began a monthly bulletin, New Africa (later called Spotlight on Africa ), which was part of a program to influence mass opinion, especially on the U.S. role in Africa as exploiter of cheap labor and raw materials. In April 1944 the CAA sponsored a conference titled "AfricaNew Perspectives" with Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) as the guest speaker.

During World War II Hunton and Yergan conferred with the U.S. State Department's Division of African Affairs about economic and political questions, advocating a program of postwar liberation and self-determination for African colonies. In 1945 CAA chairman Paul Robeson lobbied President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to support African decolonization at the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. Hunton was an accredited observer, and he attended meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee on Non-Self-Governing Territories. He prepared reports for UN delegates on South Africa. When Jan Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, applied for permission to annex South West Africa, the CAA led the successful fight at the UN to block the measure.

By 1946 the CAA had seventy-two members, some 80 percent of whom were African Americans. Often the only source of information on Africa, the CAA provided news releases to sixty-two foreign and sixty-seven U.S. newspapers. Its African Bibliography was published from January 1945 to February 1950. It publicized apartheid, starvation, and exploitation of black Africans in South Africa, and supported the African National Congress. So influential was the CAA that New Africa was banned in British-held Kenya. CAA activities included mass meetings, picketing of the South African embassy, and a food drive.

The last big CAA event was an April 1947 meeting at the 71st Regimental Armory in New York. Paul Robeson spoke, comparing the United States unfavorably to the Soviet Union, citing the latter's aid to third-world countries. That year, as the cold war heated up, the CAA was placed on the attorney general's list of subversive organizations.

In February 1948 a major schism occurred. Executive Director Max Yergan insisted that the CAA Council should declare its "nonpartisan" character, while Robeson and his followers claimed this would aid anti-Soviet reactionaries. The dispute was referred to a policy committee headed by W. E. B. Du Bois, who had become active in the CAA following his departure in 1948 from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In March the CAA board defeated Yergan's motion and censured him for alleged financial irregularities. Yergan claimed the CAA had been taken over by communists and formed his own rump faction. That summer, the CAA leadership expelled him. This action cost the organization the support of Powell, Tobias, Delany, and Bethune. Robeson remained as chairman, Du Bois became vice chairman, and Hunton became executive secretary. Louise Thompson Patterson, a prominent communist, became the director of organization, and with Robeson he organized fund-raising concerts and local chapters. The CAA became Robeson's power base, and supporters demonstrated in 1950 after he was denied a passport.

In 1953 the CAA was ordered to register under the McCarran Act as a subversive organization, and in 1955 Hunton was called before a federal grand jury to testify about whether the CAA was a foreign agent, given its ties with the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress. Funding soon dried up, and in 1955 the CAA ceased most activities. The U.S. government's Subversive Activities Control Board finally shut it down for good in 1956.

See also Bethune, Mary McLeod; Du Bois, W. E. B.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Robeson, Paul; Yergan, Max


Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Horne, Gerald. Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 19471963. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Hunton, Dorothy. Alphaeus Hunton: The Unsung Valiant. Self-published, 1986.

Lynch, Hollis R. Black American Radicals and the Liberation of Africa: The Council on African Affairs, 19371955. Ithaca, N.Y.: Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, 1978.

alana j. erickson (1996)

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Council on African Affairs