In March 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King traveled to West Africa to attend Ghana’s independence ceremony. King’s voyage was symbolic of a growing global alliance of oppressed peoples and was strategically well timed; his attendance represented an attempt to broaden the scope of the civil rights struggle in the United States on the heels of the successful Montgomery bus boycott. King identified with Ghana’s struggle; furthermore, he recognized a strong parallel between resistance against European colonialism in Africa and the struggle against racism in the United States.
King was invited to the independence ceremony by Ghana’s new Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. King’s friend Bayard Rustin coordinated the invitation with the help of Bill Sutherland, a civil rights activist and pacifist who was then working for Nkrumah’s finance minister, K. A. Gbedemah. King’s trip was funded by the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his congregation.
King arrived in Accra, the Gold Coast (soon to be Ghana) on 4 March and attended a reception where he met then Vice President Richard Nixon. King told Nixon, “I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom the Gold Coast is celebrating” (“M. L. King Meets”). The next day, King attended the ceremonial closing of the old British Parliament. At the ceremony, the recently incarcerated Nkrumah and his ministers wore their prison caps, symbolizing their struggle to win Ghana’s freedom. King wrote: “When I looked out and saw the prime minister there with his prison cap on that night, that reminded me of that fact, that freedom never comes easy. It comes through hard labor and it comes through toil” (Papers 4:163).
At midnight on 6 March, King attended the official ceremony in which the British Union Jack was lowered and the new flag of Ghana was raised and the British colony of the Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana. King later recalled, “As we walked out, we noticed all over the polo grounds almost a half a million people. They had waited for this hour and this moment for years” (Papers 4:159). King’s reaction to the Ghanaians’ triumph was outwardly emotional. “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” (Papers 4:160).
Also in attendance at the ceremony were many prominent American activists, politicians, and educators: A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Mordecai Johnson, Horace Mann Bond, Senator Charles Diggs, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. The honor of inclusion in this impressive group indicated King’s prominence as a civil rights figure both at home and abroad.
Interviewed while in Ghana, King told radio listeners, “This event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions—not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America… It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice. And it seems to me that this is fit testimony to the fact that eventually the forces of justice triumph in the universe, and somehow the universe itself is on the side of freedom and justice. So that this gives new hope to me in the struggle for freedom” (Papers 4:146).
Despite falling ill for several days, the Kings had a private lunch with Nkrumah and met with anti-apartheid activist and Anglican priest Michael Scott and peace activist Homer Jack. King departed from Ghana for New York by way of Nigeria, Rome, Geneva, Paris, and London. In London, the Kings had lunch with Trinidadian writer and political activist C. L. R. James, who was very impressed by the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.