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Burning an illusion

Kwame Ture was a champion of women’s rights and empowerment. Foremost he recognised, acknowledged and accepted that African women must lead their own emancipation

On 24 May 1963, as 32 independent African countries met in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to find ways to unite the continent, Ghana’s then president, Kwame Nkrumah, gave one of the greatest speeches of his life, a speech which has since become the definitive blueprint for a strong, but so far sadly elusive, African unity.

‘I am happy to be here in Addis Ababa on this most historic occasion. I bring with me the hopes and fraternal greetings of the government and people of Ghana. Our objective is African union now. There is no time to waste. We must unite or perish. I am confident that by our concerted effort and determination, we shall lay the foundations for a continental Union of African States’.

Some 7,156 miles away, three months later John Lewis spoke to 250,000 people gathered on the streets of Washington D.C,

“For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence”. (Speech by John Lewis representing the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Council (SNCC) at the March on Washington, August 28th 1963)

What do two events, one taking place in colonised Africa and the other in USA, have in common?
Despite the physical separation of continents the events had two key aspects in common, the most obvious being their representation of qualitative moments in the advancement of the African/Black liberation struggle. Less obvious but still of significant was the distinct lack of representation of the African woman on their platforms.

This lack of African female political presence is more startling given the key role that they played in both struggles. As we know, throughout Africa women grasped the anti-colonial struggle with open arms. In Ghana the market women were a social force significant in Nkrumah’s victory in 1951. Nkrumah in power took several steps to institutionalise women’s equality. Likewise, African–American women played a leading role in the civil rights movement. The likes of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Poinsette Clarke and others risked their lives and worked tirelessly demanding a social revolution.


This year’s anniversary marks the opportunity to examine how the dominant media continues to distort the history of the revolutionary process. Since August the global media has been celebrating the famous ‘I have a dream speech’ delivered by Martin Luther King. In the USA, President Obama delivered a speech on the same day, at the same location 50 years on.

I contend that the continued focus on the individual man, his speech , ‘I have a dream speech’ and the march represents a revision of history and an attempt to freeze the African/Black liberation struggle in time making it synonymous with African/Black female oppression. In this way the required divide between the African women and men is maintained, juxtaposing one as oppressor and the other as oppressed.

Kwame Ture was a pivotal political figure of the time and one of the few activists with feet in Africa and the diaspora. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was able to continue in revolutionary political organisation until his death in 1998. 50 years on the dominant neo-liberal media continues to isolate the revolutionary wing of the movement, to almost deny its existence. I want to suggest an alternative history which is told through Kwame’s development as a revolutionary pan africanist and his dedication to achieving the total liberation and unification of mother Africa.


This tribute article sets out to confront the all-consuming mantel of sexism that has so effortlessly been hung around the necks of African/Black masculinity generally and the liberation struggles in particular. The media’s tagging of individual men with the slur of sexism, goes beyond the person and is implicitly used to deny Black/Africa liberation struggles as critical agents in the processes of civilisation and modernity. This attaching of the label of gender fundamentalism/essentialism is very clearly seen in story of Kwame Ture who’s call for `Black Power’ and an equally widely reported comment about` the position of women in the struggle being pone’ remain key features in western academic and media documented history .

Challenging the slur of endemic sexism is a key contribution to the burning of an illusion, which is not that sexism wasn’t present but that amongst the movement leadership we see the development of both anti-sexism and anti-patriarchy as principled and practical guides. Evidence from the two main organisations within which Kwame played a pivotal role (SNCC and the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, AAPRP ) reveal something very different. In the case of the women of SNCC they were forceful women who would undoubtedly have had an impact on Kwame’s political and ideological development. Their position was certainly not prone and Kwame was aware of this and always acknowledged the role of women in building SNCC and the wider movement.


African-American women activists played a major role in the founding and development of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ella Baker is a prime example of this leadership (1903-86). As director of the Atlanta headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she organized the April 1960 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, that resulted in the formation of SNCC by the time Kwame met her.

During its first months of existence, SNCC's operations were conducted in a corner of SCLC headquarters, and the fledgling organization made use of Baker's extensive contacts with Black activists throughout the South. Baker remained an advisor to SNCC through the mid-1960s, consistently arguing for organizing strategies that emphasized the nurturing of grassroots leaders. Particularly in the more recent discussions, both are said to have ignited the organisation together. The reality of women as agents of change must have been evident.

Women who were active in the lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960 led in the transformation of SNCC from a coordinating office into a cadre of militant activists dedicated to expanding the civil rights movement throughout the South. In February 1961, Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith were among four SNCC members who joined the Rock Hill, South Carolina, desegregation protests. In May 1961, Baker helped to avoid a damaging split by suggesting separate direct-action and voter-registration wings. Nash became the leader of the direct-action wing of SNCC.

During the period from 1961 to 1964, as SNCC established a staff of full-time office workers and field secretaries, women continued to play a central role in the organization. African-American women served on SNCC's office staff or in its support network, including Roberta Yancy, Smith's successor as southern campus coordinator, Norma Collins, Judy Richardson, jean Wheeler Smith, Lenora Tate and Carol Merritt.

Active also in voting rights campaigns included Victoria Jackson Gray of Hattiesburg, who ran in the 1964 Democratic primary to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate and later ran for Congress on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) ticket. Muriel Tillinghast, a former Howard University student, served as SNCC's project director in Greenville and later worked under Ruby Smith-Robinson in Atlanta.

The best known of the local leaders who were drawn into the struggle by SNCC's organizing efforts was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-77), in 1962, after attending a SNCC meeting, Hamer attempted to register to vote and was promptly evicted from the plantation where she worked. After enduring a beating in jail, Hamer became a SNCC field secretary and, in 1964, ran for Congress as a candidate of the MFDP. Hamer received national attention in August 1964, when she testified about her beating before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention . Hamer and other MFDP delegates rejected a compromise that would have given them two at-large seats.

After the convention, SNCC grew increasingly concerned with issues beyond civil rights reform. Reflecting a long-term interest among SNCC workers in Pan-Africanism, a SNCC delegation, including Hamer, Hall, Smith-Robinson, and Richards, toured Africa during fall 1964.

Most African-American women in SNCC were initially reluctant to affiliate with the white-dominated women's liberation movement of the late 1960s. Nevertheless, at the November 1964 staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, two white SNCC workers, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote a controversial paper on the position of women in the group that has since been described as a pioneering statement of the modern women's liberation movement.

During SNCC's Black Power period in the late 1960s, African-American women remained active in the organization's ideological discussions. Ethel Minor edited SNCC's newspaper and worked closely with Kwame SNCC‘s chair at the time. The Black Women's Liberation Committee was founded by Frances Beal a SNCC member.

SNCC was of course a short lived and to some extent an agenda specific organisation. By the time the push came for the principles of anti-sexism to be institutionalised the organisation had lost the radical leadership (including Kwame) that had provided its drive. A number of women (both Black and white) transferred that drive to other organisations, which for many were women’s organisations. The fact that many feminist historians now acknowledge SNCC as the precursor of the Women’s Movement should not be lost here. It should also be acknowledged that the institutionalisation of gender equality was also transferred to revolutionary Pan Africanist organisations. Failure to acknowledge this is to continue to slur the individual and the movement as a whole.


Kwame was a champion of women’s rights and empowerment. Foremost he recognised, acknowledged and accepted that African women must lead their own emancipation. He spoke worldwide on behalf of the AAPRP and did not fail to include the need to fully incorporate African women as equal partners in the African revolution.

He worked tirelessly to build the All African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP). The role of the party was to unite all African revolutionary and progressive forces fighting for the total liberation and unification of Africa under an all Africa socialist government. By 1998, the party had replicated itself across the USA, Canada, some Caribbean islands, England and states in Africa. Each chapter consisted of work study cells, committees and a women’s wing, known as the All African Women’s Revolutionary Union (AAWRU). For over 30 years AAPRP cadre have travelled worldwide spreading the ideology of Nkrumahism-Tureism and asserting the equality of the African woman and man.

It is my view that given his prior political experiences Kwame would not have been politically naive to assume that the gender inequalities that characterised Black male/ female relations in the wider community would not be reflected in the new party. The evidence supports that he believed that the women themselves needed to bring the AAWRU into being and would do so.

It did not take long and by 1976 the call for a women’s organisation reverberated throughout the organisation. In May 1980, the Central Committee (CC) of the AAPRP of which Kwame was a member mandated the organisation to set up a women’s wing.

The cadre of the AAPRP remember that Kwame played a leading role in the founding of the AAWRU and acted as an ambassador building relations between the AAWRU and the women’s wing of the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG), UDEMU the women’s wing of the PAIGC and PAWO the women’s wing of the PAC. He was clear that the call for the AAWRU was not feminist but was for a vehicle to advance the line on women in the organisation. .

A sister cadre of over 30 years reflected on his role and the power of his beliefs, as follows:

‘I joined the AAPRP in 1976, when the discussions of building a women’s union were launched . Many of us did not want to have a union and felt separation. Kwame pushed the necessity for women to arm themselves for liberation because men would continue to exploit women. It is women who must arm themselves against the exploitation of men and the society. He also argued that women must educate men in our roles, our responsibilities, our history and the future of women fully engaged in the liberation movement. He pushed these issues heavily and fully convinced me and others because of his own belief that he too would grow from the birth and development of the AAWRU. He helped facilitate our process for reading, seminars, suggested sisters who should lead the charge in all regions of the party and continued to push our involvement.’

A male cadre, who joined in 1975, had this to say,

‘Kwame played a key role. The Central Committee insisted that at all levels the Political Education committee co-coordinator should be a sister. Having sisters speak on behalf of the party was important; most speakers internationally, regionally and locally were brothers. The issues of taking care of, educating and organizing the youth were central to the party with a number of sisters with young children in and around the party. The organizing of YPI was central. What role sisters should play in ideological development of the AAPRP was central.’


The founding of the AAWRU is consistent with the historical and current role of African women as freedom fighters on the frontline. Kwame Ture the individual did not found the AAWRU. The AAWRU arose out of the objective conditions of African women’s oppression within the wider society and replicated within our political organisations.

The primary contradictions of the time were summed up by a female cadre as follows:

1) Women themselves were afraid to raise these issues in front of men. There was a sense of inferiority among some women that did not feel they could engage with men or felt that they could not lead, speak, direct or orchestrate a women's union.

2) There was the threat of men feeling the liberation of women would impose restraints upon them: Politics coming into the bedroom. They felt that politics did not belong inside the house but only outside. The liberation movement could not dictate their relationships with women who were not in the movement.

3) There was the class struggle of women who were already workers being equal to men in other areas such as on the stage, speaking, coordinating. This was seen as a threat as well for both women and men.

4) There was the internal struggle of revolutionary ethics which was new for this party. This discussion opened up new avenues and issues of ethics and morality that had been swept under the rug in the past.... that further highlighted the need for ideological struggle implementation across the board.’

Not all sisters agreed with the formation of an AAWRU as the way forward and one sister stated that,

“Kwame recognized the triple oppression of women, and fought hard for the AAWRU as a process through which women could assume their rightful position within the revolution, and where they could be part of a process that would contribute to their own growth and development through systematic study and work. He fought to ensure that women were politically aware and active at every level. I was one who did not initially agree with the formation of the AAWRU for several reasons. First, I felt that it placed the burden of women's emancipation on the backs of women, relieving men of participating. Second, I did not agree with the system of quotas on the leadership bodies. It was largely through fierce struggles with Kwame and Mawina that I came to support the merit of the AAWRU”.


Kwame Ture’s life is a testimony to the evolution of struggle and the ability of the revolution to adopt new forms of resistance. Given his 30-year commitment to revolutionary panafricanism (the highest objective of the African revolution) it is dialectical to accept his efforts to institutionalise women’s leadership as the genuine representation of the consciencised African man. This is in opposition to ‘the women is prone’ comment, driven by the media and refuted by both the women and men who were there. The freezing of Kwame Ture into two moments in time is a neo-liberal strategy that we need to consistently challenge. It enables mistruths to be represented as t facts and conveniently renders everything outside of the media non existent.
The contradiction of women’s inequality continues to exist and women must change this. There can be no revolution without the full participation and ultimate emancipation of women. Kwame Ture building on the legacy of Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Cabral upheld this line.

I’d like to thank the AAPRP cadre past and present who shared their views with me, which have helped shape this piece.

Long Live the memory of Kwame Ture, a true socialist.


1. Ready for Revolution. The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael
by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
2. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-65, by Juan Williams
3. Women and the Civil Rights Movement ; Trailblazers and torchbearers, 1941-65 by Vicki L. Crawford et al
4. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S Holsaert
5. Double Jeopardy; To Be Black and Female by Frances M Beal, 1969
6. What is the All African Women’s Revolutionary Union -
7. Some aspects of the AAPRP -
8. Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare by Kwame Nkrumah, 1968
9. Kwame Nkrumah’s Politico-Cultural thought and Politics; by Kwame Botwe-Asamoah

Sister Maxine Davis is an AAPRP cadre, Britain Chapter



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