Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first African-born Prime Minister, was a famous Pan-African organizer whose radical vision and brave leadership helped the country achieve independence in 1957. Martin Luther King often looked to Nkrumah's leadership as an example of nonviolent activism, and Nkrumah's leadership served as an inspiration to him. The rise to power of Nkrumah in Ghana, on the other hand, hampered relations between the two leaders. Nkrumah expressed his displeasure with King's nonviolent ideas just days after his assassination.
On September 21, 1909, in the British colony of Nkroful on the Gold Coast, Nkrumah was born. Despite his upbringing in a tiny fishing hamlet, Nkrumah received his education in the United States. He graduated from Lincoln University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1939 and a Bachelor of Theology in 1942, and continued his study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Masters of Philosophy and a Masters of Education (1942, 1943). Nkrumah became more involved in the Pan-African movement, the African Students Association of America, and the West African Students' Union while in college. Nkrumah was a key figure in the planning of the Fifth Pan-Africanist Congress in 1945.
Nkrumah's activism drew the attention of Ghanaian politician J. B. Danquah, who hired him as the general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention, a group working for the British colony's independence. However, Nkrumah formed his own political party, the Convention People's Party (CPP), in 1949, due to ideological differences between the two men. Through the peaceful tactic of "positive action," Nkrumah and the CPP sought self-government. Positive action used protest and strike tactics against colonial government, similar to King's nonviolent strategies.
Nkrumah and the CPP won a commanding majority of votes in Ghana's first general elections in 1951, and on March 22, 1952, Nkrumah became the Gold Coast's first prime minister. It would be another five years before the Gold Coast achieved full independence and became the self-governing nation of Ghana.
On Nkrumah's invitation, Martin and Coretta king attended Ghana's independence ceremony on March 6, 1957. Nkrumah's leadership captivated King, and he saw parallels between Ghanaian independence and the American civil rights fight.
The Kings had a private supper with Nkrumah in Ghana, where they discussed nonviolence and Nkrumah's perceptions of the United States. Following his return to the United States, King delivered a series of speeches and sermons in which he described Nkrumah's lessons and the Ghanaian fight. “‘Our sympathies are with America and its allies,” King said in a speech on April 24, referring to a letter from Nkrumah and his finance minister. But, through the United Nations and other diplomatic channels, we will make it obvious that beautiful words and large handouts cannot replace the simple obligation of treating our colored brothers in America as first-class human beings.' So, if we want to be a first-class nation, we must do the following:
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”.
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.
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