Josslyn Jeanine Luckett
And I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: "Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last." They were experiencing that in their very souls.
—Martin Luther King Jr., "Birth of a New Nation," 1957
These lyrics are perhaps most familiar to us as the prophetic closing cry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," delivered on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the world looks back this year on that summer afternoon half a century ago, I am interested in taking us a bit further back, to the spring of 1957, when our beloved freedom dreamer Dr. King traveled across the Atlantic to witness Kwame Nkrumah become the first prime minister of the newly independent Ghana. In fact, the epigraph is from a lesser-known sermon, "The Birth of a New Nation," which King delivered to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church upon his return from Ghana. I only discovered this sermon and the fact of this trip to the former Gold Coast recently, and I confess that in all my years of loving King, in all my years of insisting on a broader assessment of his global engagement, his religious pluralism, and his radical political vision, I was foggy about whether or not King had ever been to Africa. While much is made of his 1959 trip to India to follow the footsteps of his deceased satyagraha guru, Mahatma Gandhi, I wonder why so much less is made of his earlier trip to West Africa to bear witness to Kwame Nkrumah as he nonviolently led his nation to independence from the British Empire. Stanford historian Clayborne Carson's phenomenal digital archive has guided me to details of this first trip to Ghana, and also to documentation of King's later meeting and correspondence with Trinidadian scholar C. L. R. James, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's support of various African independence leaders and scholarships for African students to study in the United States, and of King's second trip to West Africa for Nigeria's independence. Taken together, this information paints for me a brand new portrait of a diasporic King.1 Looking more closely at King's sermon on Ghana and wondering what it meant for him to consider the Negro spiritual "Free at Last" while in Accra watching Africans "experience" those words, I think we get a much stronger sense of the inspiration of the liberation movements of Africa as a driving force for King's dreaming, marching, and freedom visioning, not only for African Americans and Americans, but for all people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Only about ten weeks passed between the conclusion of the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and Martin and Coretta King's trip to the Gold Coast. During those ten weeks, terror reigned in Alabama. When I first considered King among the Africana intelligentsia present in Ghana that first week of March 1957, I imagined an energized, victorious, twenty-eight-year-old Martin, humble yet privately giddy, perhaps signing copies of his cover photo on the February 17, 1957, issue of Time magazine. That fantasy was crushed when I read King's letters to President Eisenhower dated January 11 and February 14, 1957. In the first letter, King describes brutal acts throughout the South and calls for the president's immediate response:
Extreme violence continues to be directed toward Negro people in the South who merely seek rights guaranteed every American citizen by the United States Constitution. . . . In Alabama . . . [m]en and women, black and white sitting peacefully in buses have been attacked by snipers. A fortnight ago, a 15 year old Negro girl was brutally beaten. A few days ago the legs of a woman eight months pregnant were shattered by a gun fired in a public conveyance. A state of terror prevails. . . .
We ask you to come South immediately to make a major speech. . . . As the leader of a great nation which proclaims its defense of freedom abroad, you will understand our urgent plea that you make this trip to defend, by words of wise counsel, American citizens unjustly and brutally attacked at home.2
And, by February 14:
Violence has continued to erupt by night and day. . . .
While we are sensitive to the burden of your responsible office, we are aware that human life and orderly, decent conduct of our communities are at stake. . . .
To this end,
1. We implore you to re-examine your decision not to speak out to the South on the question of law and order.
2. We further urge you to call a White House conference on the maintenance of law and order similar to those held earlier on education and juvenile delinquency. . . .
. . . our people, though resolute and courageous, cannot be expected forever to be targets for rifles, shotguns, and for bombs. . . . 3
Amid this state of siege and in despair at the inaction of the highest in command of their nation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church pooled their resources to send their leader/pastor and his wife to West Africa to experience the swearing in of Kwame Nkrumah as prime minister of the newly independent Ghana.
On his first Sunday back in the pulpit, King was eager to share the experience and delivered his "Birth of a New Nation" sermon, using as his scripture the Exodus story of Moses. The sermon extends nearly an hour, and when I heard it in its entirety, I felt that I, too, had crossed the ocean, stood outside the Gold Coast's parliament, and watched the Union Jack come down and the new flag of Ghana rise, surrounded by thousands shouting, "Freedom! Freedom!" King tells his congregation that, at that moment, "I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: 'Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last.' They were experiencing that in their very souls." The way he stresses and stretches the word "experiencing" took my breath away. As many times as King sang or quoted that freedom song, did he ever experience it on this earth?
King relates how Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people and stated, "We are no longer a British colony, we are a free, sovereign people." Then King confesses his tears: "I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment."4 Surely the story of those tears included all of the struggles, pain, and agony of the women and men of Montgomery who made this moment of witness possible for King.
Part of why the sermon is so long is that King shares all he has researched about the geography of Africa, the Gold Coast's history of colonialism, and a detailed biographical sketch of Nkrumah's life and education (which included a degree in sacred theology from Lincoln University in Philadelphia). However, it is in his colorful description of the numerous inauguration ceremonies that the sermon comes most alive. King admits to rubbing shoulders with a who's who of Africana studies, saying, "Look over, to my right is Adam Powell, . . . Ralph Bunche. To the other side is Her Majesty's First Minister of Jamaica, Manning,5 Ambassador Jones of Liberia, . . . A. Philip Randolph." Finally, Nkrumah walks in, with members of his cabinet who had been fellow political prisoners. King reflects: "The thing that impressed me more than anything else that night was the fact that . . . they didn't come in with the crowns and all the garments of kings, but . . . with prison caps and the coats they had lived with for all of the months that they had been in prison."
At the official opening of the new Parliament, King observed the Duchess of Kent's entrance, and commented:
The night before she was the official leader and spokesman for the Queen, thereby the power behind the throne of the Gold Coast. But now it's Ghana, . . . and she is just an official visitor like M. L. King and Ralph Bunche and Coretta King and everybody else, because this is a new nation.
Later, at the State Ball, King says that Mordecai Johnson "called his attention to the fact that Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah was dancing with the Duchess of Kent. And I said, 'Isn't this something? Here it is the once-serf, the once-slave, now dancing with the lord on an equal plane.' "
It is one thing to consider King part of a historic Pan-African gathering and, from there, to consider and connect his work and relationships with black liberation struggles around the Atlantic, but it is quite another (and startling) thing to imagine that King would ever suggest to his Montgomery, Alabama congregation that he hopes black Americans will consider immigrating to Ghana. But he does say this quite clearly in the sermon. Threading the Exodus story back into his Ghana story, King asserts that this new nation, Ghana, may be "out of Egypt," may have "crossed the Red Sea," but that now "it will confront its wilderness" and will need help: "Yes, there is a wilderness ahead, though it is my hope that even people from America will go to Africa as immigrants. . . . Right now is the time that American Negroes can lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation." He then lists some—a black American doctor, a dentist, and an insurance agent—who had already made the move to Ghana, saying, "And Nkrumah made it very clear to me that he would welcome any persons coming there as immigrants." It makes me wonder if King did not at some point during the visit to Ghana whisper in Coretta's ear: "Is this so bad? Yoki could grow up with a black prime minister, instead of that insensitive, ineffective Eisenhower!" But we know that Martin and Coretta returned home to face the wilderness of Alabama, circa 1957; and King brought his sermon home, too.
He delivers repeated refrains of "Ghana teaches us" and "Ghana has something to say to us," and it seems that what King most wanted to drive home to his people at Dexter Avenue that morning was that Egypt won't always be. Ghana teaches Montgomery "that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. . . . And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire." He urges his congregation not to think that their work in Montgomery is over and that all they have to do is wait for the city commissioners to come around:
If we wait for it to work itself out, it will never be worked out! Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation. . . . [D]on't sit down and do nothing now because the buses are integrated, because if you stop now, we will be in the dungeons of segregation and discrimination for another hundred years. (Emphasis mine)
Perhaps because he can hear himself getting a little more heated than he might like, he transitions to another lesson Ghana teaches Montgomery: the benefit of breaking out of Egypt nonviolently. Quoting from Nkrumah's autobiography, he stresses that Nkrumah came out of prison with "the determination to free my people from the colonialism and imperialism that had been inflicted upon them by the British. But I came out with no bitterness."6 It must have bolstered King to have an African leader of a newly independent nation speak on the power of nonviolence. Given the bloodshed in Montgomery after the boycott, there must have been folks at Dexter Avenue still questioning the viability, the sustainability, of nonviolence for African Americans navigating the brutal south. King's good news about Ghana arriving at independence nonviolently must have bolstered his congregation as well.
Finally, King preaches two related lessons that Ghana teaches Montgomery. He starts with how hard it is physically, psychically, and emotionally to break out of Egypt: "you better get ready for stiff backs. You better get ready for some homes to be bombed. . . . You better get ready for a lot of nasty things to be said about you, because you getting out of Egypt." Next he says, in language that will be familiar to us, "The road to freedom is difficult, but finally, Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice." And then, in a rare move (does he sense the congregation is doubting him?), he shifts from "Ghana tells us" to "Ghana tells me," and he becomes simultaneously more internal, almost mystic, yet also more political:
You can interpret Ghana any kind of way you want to, but Ghana tells me that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up, I saw something else. That wasn't just an ephemeral, evanescent event appearing on the stage of history. But it was an event with eternal meaning, for it symbolizes something. That thing symbolized to me that an old order is passing away and a new order is coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. . . . Somehow the forces of justice stand on the side of the universe, so that you can't ultimately trample over God's children and profit by it.
When I heard those lines, they felt directly related to King's letters to Eisenhower just prior to crossing the Atlantic. No matter how defeated King may have felt amid the terrorism in Montgomery following the end of the boycott, the forces of justice were working even then to motivate his church and the MIA to send him across the waters so he could bear witness to and be emboldened by Ghanaian independence, then return to carry on the work of justice back home. The very next line of the sermon says just that: "I want to come back to Montgomery now"—with new faith and new hope inspired by the birth of this new, free, African nation.
My soul looks back and wonders, how we got over? 7
A moment of silence was held for W. E. B. Du Bois at the March on Washington. The visionary leader, scholar, and Pan-Africanist had died the night before, in Ghana. If you had asked me a couple of years ago about a connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghana, I would only have been able to offer that the announcement of Du Bois's death in Accra came right on the eve of "I Have a Dream." Now, taking Mahalia Jackson's lead, my soul looks back and wonders at the deeper layers that tied these two African American icons to each other and to Ghana. On hearing that Du Bois died there the night before the march, did King reflect back on his 1957 trip? When King dreamed that "one day" his children would be judged for the content of their character and not the color of their skin—an echo of Du Bois's earlier line, "sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins"8—did he remember witnessing the reality of the end of colonial rule in Ghana? While King said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream, we miss something fundamental if we fail to include the impact of the independence struggles in Africa on King's freedom dreaming. If, as King repeatedly suggested, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, the single garment of destiny to which we are all tied must extend across the Atlantic to include the entire African diaspora.9 It is important to me that we never fix our iconic African American leaders on one side of the Middle Passage. Du Bois and King, and so many diasporic women and men before and after them, traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, carrying political and spiritual wisdom, sorrow songs, and chants of liberation in both directions.
Diaspora in its most classic sense suggests a scattering, a forced scattering in the case of the Atlantic slave trade. The notion of "return" is not always feasible or desirable. These days, I think much more about the notion of "gathering." What is scattered must yearn to be gathered. On this anniversary of the great 1963 gathering in Washington, DC, I celebrate the lessons, the inspiration, and the power that the great gathering in Accra in 1957 had, not only for the young Martin Luther King, but for all who still seek to experience the reality of the spiritual, "Free at last, free at last," in their very souls.
- See the King Papers Project website, sponsored by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford: mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/index.
- To Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 11, 1957, King Papers Project, Stanford University.
- To Dwight D. Eisenhower, February 14, 1957, King Papers Project, Stanford University.
- The written text and a link to the audio of the April 7, 1957, "Birth of a New Nation" sermon can be found on the King Papers Project site, Stanford University.
- King means Norman Washington Manley, who worked for Jamaican independence as chief minister (1955–1959) before becoming the country's first prime minister.
- Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1957), 138.
- From Clara Ward's gospel hymn "How I Got Over." When you listen to Mahalia Jackson's version sung at the March on Washington (August 28, 1963), you can hear her change the lyrics from "how I" to "how we."
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (First Vintage Books / Library of America Edition, 1990), 188.
- The "inescapable network of mutuality" metaphor is most famously documented in King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," reprinted in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (Harper & Row, 1986).
Josslyn Jeanine Luckett, MDiv '12, is a playwright, essayist, and occasional preacher from Los Angeles. She is currently working on her PhD in Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She blogs at jazzhallelujah.wordpress.com.