Founded in 1953, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) was dedicated to supporting African liberation struggles and informing the American public about African issues. As one of the first national organizations dedicated to anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the organization played host to countless African leaders in the United States. Martin Luther King served on the national committee from 1957 until his death.
ACOA grew out of the ad hoc group Americans for South African Resistance, which was created by civil rights activists George Houser, Bayard Rustin, and Bill Sutherland of the Congress of Racial Equality to support the 1952 Campaign to Defy Unjust Laws called by the African National Congress. In 1954 Houser traveled to Africa to meet with leaders of liberation struggles throughout the continent, including Chief Albert Lutuli and Walter Sisulu in South Africa, and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. When he returned he committed himself to ACOA full time, serving as executive director until 1981.
Based in New York, the organization lobbied the United Nations (UN) and the U.S. government to support African independence movements. The organization arranged meetings for African leaders on their trips to the United States and published pamphlets, a magazine, and reports on liberation struggles for both public and policy-making audiences. ACOA raised funds to support African university students, churches, and anti-colonial activists and refugees fleeing colonial regimes through direct appeals and special events. In 1966 Houser created the Africa Fund in an effort to manage tax-exempt donations for African causes.
Founded by pacifists, ACOA emphasized the nonviolent methods available to create social change, such as economic and cultural disengagement from South Africa. However, when confronted with the overwhelming military force of the French colonial regime in Algeria, ACOA supported the main group opposing French rule, the National Liberation Front, despite its use of guerilla warfare. Houser believed ACOA’s role should be to influence global and U.S. policy and inform the U.S. public about anti-colonial struggles but not to justify the violence of those struggles. As debate on Algeria began at the UN, King added his signature to a 1959 ACOA petition titled “A Call for Peace in Algeria,” which advocated a local African referendum to determine Algeria’s future. King balanced his concerns about apartheid and colonialism with his dedication to nonviolence when he spoke at the 10 December 1965 Human Rights Day celebration organized by ACOA. King called on all nations to boycott South Africa to “demonstrate the international potential of nonviolence” (King, 10 December 1965).
King participated in many other ACOA campaigns, including acting as vice-chair of the 1957 “Declaration of Conscience” against apartheid. In 1962 he co-sponsored an “Appeal for Action against Apartheid” and was an early participant in the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa, a group of African American leaders organized by ACOA to make recommendations on U.S. policy in Africa.
In 2001 ACOA merged with its sister organizations, the Africa Fund and the Africa Policy Information Center, to form Africa Action, which continues to work on economic, political, and social justice issues in Africa, and to help shape U.S. policy and the role of multinational institutions toward Africa.