Pan-African Congress

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Pan-African Congress

The Pan-African Congress helped identify and shape African nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. Its origins lie first in a developing sense of nationalism among a mission-educated and increasingly university-educated elite who began challenging the notion of European dominance in the African colonies. Second, African Americans advanced the sense of racial unity capable of surpassing state borders. W. E. B. Du Bois, whose efforts in Pan-Africanism propelled it forward in the twentieth century, urged blacks to look to Africa for inspiration. Africa was to be central to the movement's expanding theories of black nationalism.


Although the post-World War I (1914–1918) congressional meetings are more well known, they were the fruit of the late-nineteenth-century efforts of African nationalists from the British Empire and the United States. Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian teacher and lawyer, formed the African Association in 1897 (changed to the Pan-African Association [PAA] in 1898). The group worked to establish contact with leading black intellectuals throughout the African diaspora. From the irregularities in native rights across Britain's African colonies, to the Black Codes in the American South, the organization sought to stress the common nature of black existence.

The black press was crucial to the development of the PAA's message, and as the rhetoric matured, leaders planned a conference to be held in London. The Pan-African Conference transpired in July 1900, attracting delegates from Africa, Canada, the West Indies, and the United States. One American representative was Du Bois, who continued to promote the Association's interests upon his return home.

Williams was not a socialist, but the goals of civil rights and sovereignty meshed well with the interests of the political Left. While these similarities certainly worked in the interest of the PAA, the differences that remained had the potential to undermine the organization's overall effectiveness. Following the 1900 conference, the movement suffered from ideological factionalism, and with its disbandment in 1902, and Williams's death in 1911, Pan-Africanism appeared to falter.


It was socialism, however, that helped reinvigorate Pan-Africanism, especially after the successful Soviet Revolution in 1917. European socialists preached racial equality and the themes that united those who were oppressed. As the small African elite began to access socialist publications, there developed a sense of a continent united across ethnic lines.

African and African-American soldiers in World War I had various expectations of national service, especially with regard to the touted principle of democracy. American troops saw combat with French forces that commonly employed their colonial troops at the front. Those African Americans who served under their own commanders performed manual labor, leaving the fighting to their white colleagues. While colonial African troops did see combat, they, like their American allies, did not receive the respect they believed was owed them. Upon returning from the war, both black American and colonial soldiers discovered that the war victory had served to protect the status quo in their respective societies.

Socialist organizations had been active in providing literature to black soldiers moving through the large cities toward the front, a fact African-American troops discovered in London. It was a common socialist theme that colonial powers waged the war to defend their principles of Bourgeois dominance. Black troops were simply the tools with which the imperial powers maintained control. Du Bois easily tapped into this rhetoric when he organized a meeting among African nationalists to discuss the commonality of the African experience, both in Africa and in the United States.

The Pan-African Congress met in Paris in 1919, with Du Bois and other delegates from fifteen nations debating proposals to present to the Peace Conference. Primarily, the delegates would demand that Africans play a role in administering their states. This platform, promoted chiefly by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), held that, at a future date, Africans would assume control in a home-rule status. Their approach was quite reasonable in light of the lessons learned about the violence in the Soviet Revolution. Delegates appreciated the limit of their political abilities in 1919, and so sought to move forward cautiously.

The Pan-African Congress met again in 1921, holding several sessions in London, Paris, and Brussels. Perhaps as a result of the ineffectiveness of the 1919 demands, the delegates assumed a more radical posture, publishing their demands in the "London Manifesto." The British government, argued the Congress, had developed a spirit of ignorance and neglect among Africans. Regardless of is pro-democracy rhetoric, Britain's African colonies had been and continued to be victimized. Du Bois's goal was to animate African Americans to lead the Pan-African struggle, as they had benefited from America's position as a leading international state. This was a well-established theme by 1921, one that also stressed the connection between black success in the United States and in Africa. The race as a whole had to advance in order for anyone to advance.

A third summit followed in 1923 and spoke more to the problems faced by the African diaspora, including the ongoing efforts of the colonial powers to exploit African resources. This exploitation was aided by the advancement of settler colonialists, white minorities that had achieved political control at the expense of the black majority. Racial policies came to define these societies, most notably in Rhodesia and South Africa. Yet, while the delegates now had still stronger evidence of the inequalities of the white/black relationship in both the United States and Africa, it appeared as if they were making little headway in the fight for civil rights and international black political identity.

The 1923 session lacked the momentum of the first and second meetings. Poorly planned and attended, there appeared to be fissures in the foundation of Pan-Africanism. The organization's socialist tendencies augmented these divisions, as the differences between liberalism and socialism were difficult to reconcile. Moreover, nationalist organizations in the different African states were still coming to terms with their own issues of concern. It was becoming evident that organizing an international movement was impossible without first coordinating state and local initiatives.


A fourth summit in 1927 varied little from 1923, giving credence to the idea that Pan-Africanism had lost its way after the optimism of 1919. Not until 1945 did another Pan-African Congress meet, this time in Manchester, England. Du Bois was in attendance, along with delegates from all over Africa and nationalist organizations. In the eighteen years that had passed since the last conference, a new spirit had come to animate the nationalists. In the intervening years the African national organizations had matured, honing their skills and redefining their goals. A new, younger generation of leaders also began to appear, thus reinvigorating the struggle. Socialism continued to be the ideology of choice, with delegates tying racial discrimination to capitalism and the onslaught of the white, industrial West.

More importantly, however, is the direction in which the Manchester meeting was pointing. By 1945 it had become quite apparent to the imperial powers that change was on the horizon. The British had even begun to make some preliminary plans to turn over the colonies to sovereign, African rulers. The optimism that Manchester represented would be obvious in the coming decade, but even in 1945 a feeling of change was in the air. It was due to the efforts of Pan-Africanists such as Williams and Du Bois that the ideas of African independence and black liberty would not die. While the struggle continued as the second half of the twentieth century began, great strides already had been made. Where the Pan-Africanist movement failed, however, was in its efforts to create an African solidarity. The newly independent African states, and their leaders, proved just as effective as the former colonial masters at exploiting resources for the advancement of their own ethnic communities. African cohesiveness continued to be checked by the very dynamic nature of the African diaspora.

see also Pan-Africanism.


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