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Chapter 11: Birth of a New Nation

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. Freedom is never given to anybody. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.

  • March 4, 1957 King party arrives in Gold Coast for independence celebration    
  • March 6 Attends midnight ceremony marking Ghana's independence    
  • March 12 Departs from Accra to Rome, by way of Nigeria    
  • March 26 Returns to New York after stays in Paris and London

    The minute I knew I was coming to Ghana I had a very deep emotional feeling. A new nation was being born. It symbolized the fact that a new order was coming into being and an old order was passing away. So I was deeply concerned about it. I wanted to be involved in it, be a part of it, and notice the birth of this new nation with my own eyes. The trip, which included visits to other countries of Africa and several stops in Europe, was of tremendous cultural value and made possible many contacts of lasting significance. 

    Struggling had been going on in Ghana for years. The British Empire saw that it could no longer rule the Gold Coast and agreed that on the sixth of March, 1957, it would release the nation. All of this was because of the persistent protest, the continual agitation, of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and the other leaders who worked along with him and the masses of people who were willing to follow.

    A new age coming into being

    So that day finally came. About midnight on a dark night in 1957, a new nation came into being. That was a great hour. As we walked out, we noticed all over the polo grounds almost a half million people. They had waited for this hour and this moment for years. 

    People came from all over the world-seventy nations-to say to this new nation: "We greet you and give you our moral support. We hope for you God's guidance as you move now into the realm of independence." It was a beautiful experience to see some of the leading persons on the scene of civil rights in America on hand: to my left was Charles Diggs, to my right were Adam Powell and Ralph Bunche. All of these people from America: Mordecai Johnson, Horace Mann Bond, A. Philip Randolph; then you looked out and saw the vice-president of the United States. 

    A handsome black man walked out on the platform, and he was followed by eight or ten other men. He stood there and said, "We are no longer a British colony. We are a free and sovereign people." When he uttered those words, we looked back and saw an old flag coming down and a new flag going up. And I said to myself, "That old flag coming down doesn't represent the meaning of this drama taking place on the stage of history, for it is the symbol of an old order passing away. That new flag going up is the symbol of a new age coming into being." I could hear people shouting all over that vast audience, "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" 

    Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment. 

    After Nkrumah made that final speech, we walked away, and we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying: "Freedom! Freedom!" They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before. And I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: "Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last." They were experiencing that in their very souls. And everywhere we turned, we could hear it ringing out from the housetops. We could hear it from every corner, every nook and crook of the community. "Freedom! Freedom!" This was the breaking loose from Egypt.

Sermon on Ghana

It seems this morning that I can hear God speaking. I can hear him speaking throughout the universe, saying, "Be still and know that I am God. And if you don't stop, if you don't straighten up, if you don't stop exploiting people, I'm going to rise up and break the backbone of your power. And your power will be no more!" And the power of Great Britain is no more. I looked at France. I looked at Britain. And I thought about the Britain that could boast, "The sun never sets on our great Empire." And I say now she had gone to the level that the sun hardly rises on the British Empire. 

April 7, 1957

The thing that impressed me more than anything else that night was when Nkrumah and his other ministers who had been in prison with him walked in. They didn't come in with the crowns and all of the garments of kings. They walked in with prison caps. Nkrumah stood up and made his closing speech to Parliament with the little cap that he wore in prison for several months and the coat that he wore in prison for several months. Often the path to freedom will carry you through prison. 

Nkrumah had started out in a humble way. His mother and father were illiterate, not chiefs at all, but humble people. He went to school for a while in Africa and then he decided to work his way to America. He went to the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and took his theology degree there. He preached a while in Philadelphia. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and took a master's degree there in philosophy and sociology. 

He always realized that colonialism was made for domination and exploitation. It was made to keep a certain group down and exploit that group economically for the advantage of another. He studied and thought about all of this, and one day he decided to go back to Africa. 

He was immediately elected the executive secretary of the United Party of the Gold Coast, and he worked hard getting a following. And the people in this party-the old, the people who had had their hands on the plow for a long time-thought he was pushing a little too fast, and they got a little jealous of his influence. So finally he had to break from the United Party of the Gold Coast, and in 1949 he organized the Convention People's Party. It was this party that started out working for the independence of the Gold Coast.

He urged his people to unite for freedom and urged the officials of the British Empire to give them freedom. The officials were slow to respond, but the masses of people were with him, and they had united to become the most powerful and influential party that had ever been organized in that section of Africa. 

Nkrumah himself was finally placed in jail for several years. He was an agitator. He was imprisoned on the basis of sedition, but he had inspired some people outside of prison. They got together just a few months after he had been in prison and elected him the prime minister. The British Empire saw that they had better let him out. He was placed there for fifteen years, but he only served eight or nine months. He came out the prime minister of the Gold Coast.

A symbol of hope

I thought that this event, the birth of this new nation, would give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I thought it would have worldwide implications and repercussions-not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America. Just as in 1776, when America received its independence, the harbor of New York became sort of a beacon of hope for thousands of oppressed people of Europe, I thought Ghana would become a symbol of hope for hundreds and thousands of oppressed peoples all over the world as they struggled for freedom.

The birth of this new nation renewed my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice. And it seemed to me, this was 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. This gave new hope to me in the struggle for freedom. 

Wednesday morning the official opening of Parliament was held, and we were able to get on the inside. There Nkrumah, now the Prime Minister of the Gold Coast, with no superior, made his first speech. The Duchess of Kent, who represented the Queen of England, walked in. She was just a passing visitor now-like M. L. King and Ralph Bunche and Coretta King and everybody else-because this was a new nation. After Parliament was open, and Nkrumah drove out, the people standing around the streets of the city cried out: "All hail, Nkrumah!" Everybody was crying his name because they knew he had suffered for them, he had sacrificed for them, he'd gone to jail for them. 

This nation was now out of Egypt and had crossed the Red Sea. Now it would confront its wilderness. Nkrumah realized that. For instance, Ghana was a one-crop country, cocoa mainly. In order to make the economic system more stable, it would be necessary to industrialize. Nkrumah said to me that one of the first things that he would do would be to work toward industrialization. 

Ninety percent of the people were illiterate, and it was necessary to lift the whole cultural standard of the community in order to make it possible to stand up in the free world. It was my hope that even people from America would go to Africa as immigrants. American Negroes could lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation. I was very happy to see people who had moved in. A doctor from Brooklyn, New York, had just come in that week. His wife was a dentist, and they were living there, and the people loved them. Nkrumah made it very clear to me that he would welcome any persons coming there as immigrants. 

I realized that there would be difficulties. Whenever you have a transition, whenever you are moving from one system to another there will be definite difficulties, but I thought that there was enough brainpower, enough determination, enough courage and faith to meet the difficulties as they developed. 

When I hear, "People aren't ready," that's like telling a person who is trying to swim, "Don't jump in that water until you learn how to swim." When actually you will never learn how to swim until you get in the water. People have to have an opportunity to develop themselves and govern themselves. 

I am often reminded of the statement made by Nkrumah: "I prefer self-government with danger to servitude with tranquility." I think that's a great statement. They were willing to face the dangers and difficulties, but I thought that Ghana would be able to profit by the mistakes of other nations that had existed over so many years and develop into a great nation. 

After meeting Kwame Nkrumah, we stopped in Nigeria for a day or so. Then we went to Europe and then back to America to deal with the problems there.


NEXT: Chapter 12: Brush with Death