The first African-born Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was a prominent Pan-African organizer whose radical vision and bold leadership helped lead Ghana to independence in 1957. Nkrumah served as an inspiration to Martin Luther King, who often looked to Nkrumah’s leadership as an example of nonviolent activism. The evolution of Nkrumah’s power in Ghana, however, complicated relations between the two men. Just days after King’s assassination, Nkrumah expressed disagreement with King’s views on nonviolence.
Nkrumah was born on 21 September 1909, in the British colony of Nkroful, on the Gold Coast. Although raised in a small fishing village, Nkrumah was educated in the United States. He received both his Bachelor of Arts (1939) and Bachelor of Theology (1942) from Lincoln University and continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Masters of Philosophy and a Masters of Education (1942, 1943). While in college, Nkrumah became increasingly active in the Pan-African movement, the African Students Association of America, and the West African Students’ Union. In 1945 Nkrumah played a central role in organizing the Fifth Pan-Africanist Congress.
In 1947 Nkrumah’s activism attracted the attention of Ghanaian politician J. B. Danquah, who hired Nkrumah to serve as general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention, an organization pursuing independence for the British colony. However, ideological differences between the two men led Nkrumah to found his own party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP), in 1949. Nkrumah and the CPP sought self-government through the nonviolent strategy of “positive action.” Much like King’s nonviolent strategies, positive action employed the tactics of protest and strike against colonial administration. In 1951 Nkrumah and the CPP received a decisive majority of votes in Ghana’s first general elections, and on 22 March 1952, Nkrumah became the first prime minister of the Gold Coast. It would be five more years before full independence was realized, and the Gold Coast became the self-governed nation of Ghana.
Martin and Coretta King attended Ghana’s independence ceremony on 6 March 1957, at the invitation of Nkrumah. King was impressed by Nkrumah’s leadership and keenly aware of the parallels between Ghanaian independence and the American civil rights movement. While in Ghana, the Kings shared a private meal with Nkrumah, discussing nonviolence and Nkrumah’s impressions of the United States. After returning to the United States, King explained the lessons of Nkrumah and the Ghanaian struggle in a series of speeches and sermons. In a 24 April speech, King related a message from Nkrumah and his finance minister: “‘Our sympathies are with America and its allies. But we will make it clear thru the United Nations and other diplomatic channels that beautiful words and extensive hand outs cannot be substitutes for the simple responsibility of treating our colored brothers in America as first-class human beings.’ So if we are to be a first-class nation, we cannot have second-class citizens” (King, 24 April 1957).
King lauded Nkrumah’s leadership through nonviolent positive action. Both men were inspired by the life and teachings of Gandhi. In a sermon entitled “The Birth of a New Nation,” King said of Ghana’s newfound independence, “It reminds us of the fact that a nation or a people can break loose from oppression without violence” (Papers 4:162).
As early as 1962 Prime Minister Nkrumah faced the challenges of nation building in the legacy of colonialism. Mounting economic troubles led to increased discontentment with Nkrumah, and Ashanti nationalism further threatened his presidency. King struggled to understand the growing criticism of Nkrumah’s leadership, stating: “I’m sure President Nkrumah has made some mistakes. On the other hand I think we would have to see the problems that he has confronted. It is not an easy thing to lift a nation from a tribal tradition into a [democracy] first without having problems” (King, 19 July 1962). In 1966 Nkrumah was removed from power in a coup led by the Ghanaian military and police forces.
In response to King’s assassination in 1968, Nkrumah wrote: “Even though I don’t agree with [King] on some of his non-violence views, I mourn for him. The final solution of all this will come when Africa is politically united. Yesterday it was Malcolm X. Today Luther King. Tomorrow, fire all over the United States” (Nkrumah, 231). Nkrumah died of cancer in April 1972 while in exile in Conakry, Guinea.
King, Address Delivered to the National Press Club and Question and Answer Period, 19 July 1962, MLKEC.
King, “The Birth of a New Nation,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 7 April 1957, in Papers 4:155–167.
King, “This Is a Great Time to Be Alive,” Address in Acceptance of the Social Justice Award of the Religion and Labor Foundation, 24 April 1957, MLKP-MBU.
Nkrumah, Kwame Nkrumah, 1990.