In November 1960 Martin Luther King traveled to Lagos, then Nigeria’s capital city, to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as Nigeria’s first governor-general of African descent. Azikiwe, who later became the first president of Nigeria and was a life-long advocate of African independence, personally invited King to take part in the official inauguration festivities in a letter dated 26 October 1960.
Azikiwe was born 16 November 1904 in northern Nigeria and attended mission schools in Lagos. In 1925 he left for the United States, where he studied political science, earning a BA (1930) and MA (1932) from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Azikiwe met Marcus Garvey and other leaders of the Back to Africa movement. In 1934 Azikiwe returned to Africa where he joined the Nigerian Youth Movement and founded the West African Pilot and several other periodicals that advocated independence from Britain. After more than a decade of working as a writer, Azikiwe was elected to the Nigerian Legislative Council in 1947 and began a career in government.
When King traveled to Nigeria in 1960 the liberation struggles there and in other African nations were having a profound impact on the American civil rights movement. Noting that Azikiwe and other African leaders were “popular heroes on most Negro college campuses,” King called the African liberation movement “the greatest single international influence on American Negro students,” offering the young people hope and guidance in their own struggle for freedom (King, “The Time for Freedom”). Azikiwe was elected the first president of Nigeria in 1963, but was removed from office by a military coup in 1966.
King, “The Time for Freedom Has Come,” New York Times, 10 September 1961.