The long crisis that was the Middle Passage and slavery gave rise to dreams of a black republic in the New World that date as far back as the seventeenth century. In Brazil, enslaved people fled their masters and formed fugitive communities as early as 1605; by 1630, they merged those collectives to form Palmares, which survived autonomously until the 1690s. In Jamaica, there were rebellions of enslaved people throughout the seventeenth century, the most famous of which joined with free black people to form a state in Cockpit Country. And in 1804, enslaved people overthrew French rule and gained independence in Haiti. They may not have experienced freedom while enslaved, but they knew what they wanted, and they took it.
Those dreams were hemispheric, leading to what some called “maroon communities”; they persisted in the United States even after emancipation. In the late nineteenth century, black people sought to create self-sufficient black communities in Nicodemus, Kansas (founded in 1877), and Mound Bayou, Louisiana (founded in 1887), among other places. In the twentieth century, activists carrying forward the dream of black sovereign territories set their sights on bigger patches of land. In the 1910s and 1920s, Marcus Garvey argued that black people in the United States ought to leave the country and form their own nation in Africa. In roughly the same period, the Communist Party theorized that majority black regions constituted a colony that ought to be independent. While the influence of both waned in the midcentury, Garvey’s pessimism toward black life under United States rule and the CPUSA’s push for self-determination lived on in several forms, including petitions to the United Nations for African American independence and calls for Black Revolution.
Few organizations went further in turning that idea into practice than the New Afrika Independence Movement, a black nationalist group founded in Detroit in 1968, two years after Stokely Carmichael called for Black Power. In March of that year, NAI activists signed a Declaration of Independence, renounced their American citizenship, and tried to secure international recognition for an African American country spanning from Louisiana to the Carolinas: the Republic of New Afrika. Even though their country was never recognized, and even though the United States government surveilled and attacked the citizens on several occasions, the New Afrikans performed many local-level functions of a state: running schools, marrying people, and holding political forums. Through these efforts, Edward Onaci argues in his new history Free the Land, “New Afrikans lived their evolving interpretations of the ideas that drove their movement from the Black Power era and beyond.” In so doing, they developed a model of politics without independence, of statehood without sovereignty, that survived through decades of assault.
In Free the Land, Edward Onaci draws on RNA publications, interviews conducted with surviving members, and other archival materials to trace the RNA’s lineage from slavery to the twentieth century. As descendants of the enslaved, the New Afrikans believed the United States was founded upon the exclusion of black people. Its violent post-Reconstruction history only furnished further proof that African Americans would always be “captives” in the nation, forced by law to become citizens of a country that did not provide for them. And its imperial ventures abroad and indigenous genocide at home convinced the New Afrikans they wanted no part in the American project, even if it would have them. Just as Garvey’s pan-Africanism and the CPUSA’s anti-colonialism stood in solidarity with international allies, so did the New Afrikans. Liberating black America and developing New Afrikan culture, in their eyes, would wound the United States directly and thereby support the global anti-colonialist cause.
Because the United States was fundamentally white supremacist, they believed that recovering and reclaiming black culture was a failed project without independence and land. As one of their flyers put it,
Black [P]ower means more than wearing Afros, dashikis, taking or teaching a course in Afro-American history, using traditional names and calling each other brother and sister . . . Black [P]ower means having your own nation.
Turning away from movements for inclusion, including contemporaneous Civil Rights movements, the New Afrikans decided to flee America by founding a new nation within it.
Black People Themselves
In Onaci’s account, one person carried the dream of an African American nation from the early twentieth century through to the RNA: “Queen Mother” Audley Moore. Born in 1898 in New Iberia, Louisiana, Moore was raised by her grandmother, who was born enslaved. To help out her family, Moore dropped out of school early and worked, educating herself by reading Frederick Douglass. At a young age, she traveled to New Orleans to see Marcus Garvey speak and then joined Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which urged black people in the Americas to return to Africa to form a country. After moving to Harlem in 1922, she continued on in the organization until Garvey was deported in 1927. Moore then joined the Communist Party and supported its Black Belt thesis, which argued that majority black regions in the South should self-determine. As Harry Haywood later put it, in his 1948 book Negro Liberation, “One can say that the Black Belt is a kind of ‘internal colony’ of American imperialism, made to function mainly as the raw material appendage of the latter.” The only means of severing black people from American’s violence, consequently, was self-government.
Though Moore left the Communist Party in 1950, citing its inability to confront racism and sexism, she continued to carry forward the fight for African American independence. In 1957 and 1959, Moore presented petitions to the United Nations that argued African Americans were akin to other colonized people and therefore had the right to self-determine under UN law. After the international arena failed her, she turned to black people themselves. In 1962, Moore and members of the African Descendants Nationalist Independence Partition signed a Declaration of Independence from the United States and demanded reparations that would form the foundation for their new nation.
Even as many fought for integrated education and housing throughout the twentieth century, a chorus of separatists continued calling for an African American state. When the struggle reached Detroit in the 1960s, the city’s history of black political organizing and as birthplace of the Nation of Islam set the stage for the creation of the Republic of New Afrika. Since its founding in 1930, the Nation of Islam had critiqued white supremacy vehemently, though its religious and political beliefs placed members on the fringes of civil rights organizing. As they grew in the midcentury, according to one New Afrikan, it was at the urging of Moore that the Nation began advocating for black separatism.
When Malcolm X gave three lectures in Detroit in 1963, he called for black nationalism, from an international perspective. In “Message to the Grassroots,” he said,
When you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours. And once you see how they got theirs straight, then you know how you can get yours straight.
In Russia, China, France, and even America, when “the land-less” faced the problems afflicting African Americans contemporaneously, they revolted against “the landlords” and fought for independence. Like Africans taking part in revolutions across the ocean, Malcolm X urged black people to fight for a nation in America, keeping alive a dream that reached back through Garvey to the enslaved.
Motor City Burning
Sitting in the audience as Malcolm X called for Black Revolution were two brothers who had helped organize the event and would go on to help found the RNA: Gaidi and Imari Obadele. Born and raised in Philadelphia, the two became politically active at a young age. While in the Air Force in World War II, Gaidi resisted discrimination in the armed forces until his dishonorable discharge; Imari joined the NAACP and exposed racism as a journalist. In 1950, Gaidi moved to Detroit, where he gained a reputation for defending “street brothers” in court, and Imari joined him. There, they collaborated in several civil rights organizations. In the 1960s, Gaidi’s travels in newly independent Ghana helped to move him toward fighting for self-determination, but seeing Malcolm speak was the tipping point for both brothers. They came to believe his “primary concern was to create a sovereign black nation that would help Third World revolutionaries destroy global oppression.” In 1967, two years after Malcolm’s death, the brothers founded the Malcolm X Society to fight for African American independence.
New Afrikans believed that recovering and reclaiming black culture was a failed project without independence and land.
The 1967 Detroit Rebellion convinced the Obadeles that black people were ready to fight for a country. The violence began when Detroit PD raided an unlicensed bar, found about eighty people celebrating the return of two black soldiers, and decided to arrest everyone. A crowd gathered, someone threw a bottle, and the uprising began. Over the next four days, violent confrontations took place between black residents and the police, resulting in about forty deaths, 7,200 arrests, and $40 million in property damage. To the Obadeles, the message of the violence was that the fight for inclusion was over. The revolution had begun.
Hoping to harness the fervor they witnessed in the uprising, the Obadeles and Moore organized the National Black Government Convention in Detroit in 1968 “to determine the destiny of the ‘captive black nation’ in America.” Taking place over the course of two days, the conference was attended by five hundred activists, including the writer Amiri Baraka, the organizer Betty Shabazz, several Black Panthers, and others. On the first day, participants discussed citizenship, international human rights law, and women’s equality, among other things, in the hopes of developing principles on which to found their government. On the second day, they ratified a Declaration of Independence, demanded reparations from the United States, and created a provisional government for the RNA. Their strategy was clearly influenced by Moore, the first person to sign the 1968 Declaration. Following her lead once more, they turned to international law: citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees people the right to change nationality, many renounced their American citizenship and became New Afrikans.
Grab This Land
Months after the 1968 Declaration, the RNA’s provisional government requested a meeting with Secretary of State Dean Rusk to negotiate the acquisition of southern land. As expected, Rusk refused to meet. “The anticipated response to the letter,” writes Onaci, “would serve as more proof to African Americans that they could not rely on the U.S. government for liberation. Liberation was something for black people to take on their own terms.” At the same time, the RNA formed the Black Legion, an army in which most citizens, regardless of gender, were expected to serve, though its exact size remains unclear. (Assistant Attorney General Walter Yeagley claimed the force was not legal but never brought a suit against them.) While frontline warfare never took place, the Legion’s founding nonetheless signaled the RNA was prepared to defend their citizens and take the land by any means necessary.
Even when politics seems to be about something as traditional as acquiring land, it is also about the unseen labor of building a movement and about the transformation of the lives of its constituents.
Though their independence was not recognized, the RNA nonetheless tried to fulfill all the features of a government. In Detroit, they ran political education courses and operated the Frederick Douglas [sic] Shooting Club to prepare black people to use firearms and to join the Legion. They met with representatives from the USSR and Sudan, among other countries, in the hopes of gaining international allies. And, in The New African Ujamaa, they developed an economic plan based upon Julius K. Nyere and the Tanzania African National Union’s vision of socialism, which aimed to limit personal wealth and advocated for every person to work in fields that bettered their country. All the while, the RNA continued to advocate for black community control, resulting in a 1969 petition to create a black court system and a Black City Council in Detroit that would oversee the police and banking.
All told, in their early months, the RNA attempted to widen their base, prepare their citizens for independence, and help black people govern their communities. The United States, in turn, persecuted the RNA. In May of 1969, when Gaidi was defending a client in court, a Michigan judge claimed he could not practice law nor hold membership in the State Bar because he had renounced American citizenship. While Gaidi was eventually allowed to litigate cases, the altercation foreshadowed future U.S. responses to their project.
Even more explosive than Gaidi’s court challenge was the New Bethel Incident of March 29, 1969. Members of the RNA had long been surveilled by the FBI, but tensions came to a head at the celebration of the Republic’s first anniversary. According to newspapers, armed Legionnaires were standing guard outside the building when police officers questioned them and the guards reportedly shot at the officers. Shortly thereafter, forty to fifty cops raided the building and fired at the two hundred attendees, including children. By day’s end, four attendees were injured and 143 arrested. Several were Legionnaires, whom the police then tortured. “As a captive nation,” writes Onaci, “they were unable to exercise their beliefs as fully as they desired.” They may have considered themselves RNA citizens, but they bore all the vulnerabilities of African American citizens.
State violence sowed division amongst the RNA. Following the New Bethel incident, Gaidi and his supporters thought fighting a war against the United States would be too dangerous and wanted to focus on educating the masses. Imari and his supporters, on the other hand, thought war unavoidable and believed their only hope of safety lay in moving south to majority black communities. “Disagreement over this relocation,” writes Onaci, “soon caused the Provisional Government to implode.” When they failed to ratify a constitution, they found themselves in crisis. Eventually, Imari’s opponents resigned from their positions and he became president. Facing no further internal opposition, Imari and the RNA moved to Mississippi in 1971, acquired land that they named El Malik, and declared it the capital.
Importantly, El Malik was not, in their eyes, simply an extension of America’s settler colonialism. In the “Code of Umoja,” the provisional government decreed that its policy would be “to negotiate with the American Indian Nations” for land “in the spirit of justice, brotherhood, and mutual revolutionary commitment to the human and natural rights of all oppressed nations in North America.” In other words, El Malik was only the first step in reclaiming the continent for oppressed people.
The New Afrikans, unfortunately, could not escape state intervention in the South. Early in 1971, the FBI sanctioned KKK harassment of New Afrikans. Months later, in August, the FBI and the police descended on the New Afrikans before dawn, shooting teargas into one home. The New Afrikans shot back. Authorities eventually arrested several RNA citizens, including Imari Obadele. “As young people,” one New Afrikan said of their confrontations, “we weren’t prepared to go up against the country the way we did.” The state took advantage of the RNA’s lack of resources, experience, and international support to hinder their nation building.
Following the shootout, the provisional government increasingly focused on the everyday practices of a nation. They dedicated many resources to freeing the incarcerated. In 1971, in an attempt to defend the RNA members arrested in the FBI raid, lawyers argued that the RNA “is a nation separate from, though held captive by, the United States of America.” In their eyes, U.S. courts held no jurisdiction over the incarcerated New Afrikans. The lawyers’ efforts failed. With Imari in jail, power transferred to three leaders, one of whom was Chokwe Lumumba. Having studied the Palestinian and Vietnamese liberation movements, Lumumba and his ilk came to believe that the group needed to focus on educating its people.
Accordingly, the new leaders expanded their grassroots efforts. In 1974, they founded a school that taught black children about their heritage. A year later, they educated New Afrikans about the state’s elections as a means of increasing engagement. Of such work, the New Afrikan Marilyn Killingham once said, “I don’t consider the movement to be work. It’s a duty . . . You owe it to yourself to get respect.” They also continued their solidarity campaigns, printing articles supporting the Puerto Rican and Native American liberation movements in The New Afrikan. At the United States’ bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia, New Afrikans marched side by side with Native American activists and other black liberation forces. Under the new leadership, the fight for New Afrikan sovereignty increasingly became a fight to build a mobilized base and win the support of Third World liberationists.
But the 1976 elections revealed two problems: a lack of clear leadership (elected leaders sometimes did not assume their responsibilities or missed meetings) and a lack of an educated voter base, despite Lumumba’s efforts. The two resulted in a government that struggled to run itself, leading to a second constitutional crisis in 1977, when there were too few members at a meeting to make a quorum. Organizing from prison, Imari Obadele attempted to wrest power from Lumumba. Already made fragile by factionalism, the RNA was further weakened in 1981, when an armed force of New Afrikans and others attempted to “expropriate” a Brinks truck. After the police apprehended those involved in the incident, federal agents arrested New Afrikans across the nation (as many lived in places other than the South), including, temporarily, several children. Of such repression, one New Afrikan said,
The message is this: You cannot oppose the policies of the U.S. government, you cannot resist these governmental declarations of war, and if you do we will send an army to terrorize you, your family, and any of your supporters.
While many of the arrested eventually went free, the FBI’s press releases and media coverage of the incident succeeded in smearing the RNA’s name. After the fallout, when the RNA factions reconciled and formed a new government in 1984, the damage was already done: several New Afrikans left to form other groups. Like many Black Power organizations, victimized by years of state persecution, they found themselves depleted in the mid-1980s. But they lived on in new forms, in other organizations, and in the persistence of their goals.
Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone
In Free the Land, Onaci reorients histories of African American territorial nationalism. Lesser historians might record the RNA’s history as one of failure, a group who tried and failed to secure sovereignty. Instead, Onaci foregrounds that the Black Power group most committed to independence—the RNA—also worked toward and succeeded at changing New Afrikans’ everyday lives. As Onaci writes,
When New Afrikans renamed themselves and their children, when they chose a name for their nation and their territory, and when they reimagined the potential of themselves and their geographies, they shaped identity around a political culture that was invested with the power and responsibility to create a new society.
He argues that the state prevented the RNA from becoming a nation, but their transformation of black lives ensured that black nationalism could live on.
By focusing on the changes in New Afrikan lives, Onaci foregoes the well-laid path of histories of the Black Power movement focused on leaders like Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. As political scientist Cedric Robinson argued in The Terms of Order and as literary critic Erica Edwards did in Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, African American politics tends to be understood in terms of charismatic male leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr. The result is that the many people who make up a movement tend to be forgotten. Black feminist historians like Robyn Spencer, Donna Murch, and Ashley D. Farmer have worked against this erasure by recovering the narratives of many people, and especially the many women, who constituted the movement. Following their lead, Onaci turns to the New Afrikans themselves, finding that the RNA’s roots lay in stories of slavery that they read about or heard from their elders. New Afrikan Marilyn Killingham, for instance, learned to resist racism and sexism from tales of violence that she heard from her great-grandmother, who was enslaved until the age of sixteen. The stories passed down across generations that Onaci brings to the surface demonstrate that the Black Power movement was shaped as much by charismatic leaders as it was by local efforts to make better lives that drew on the knowledge of the (orally preserved) long black tradition of resistance. Free the Land, ultimately, demonstrates that even when politics seems to be about something as traditional as acquiring land, it is also about the unseen labor of building a movement and about the transformation of the lives of its constituents.
Those transformations can outlast both leaders and movements themselves. The ideas of the Black Power movement remain essential to academic black studies, for example, not simply because Black Power activists fought for the founding of black studies departments. The understanding that capitalism and white supremacy are intertwined globally, as well as the argument that this country was founded on and continues to profit from racist imperialism, were, at the very least, elaborated and disseminated through the movement. Contemporary black theory, in other words, depends on the ideas developed by people in Black Power movements like the RNA.
The Black Power strategy of turning away from the quest for governmental support and toward harnessing the shared wealth of local communities persists in community organizing today.
Similarly, the Black Power strategy of turning away from the quest for governmental support and toward harnessing the shared wealth of local communities persists in community organizing today. Just as the Panthers provided food to the impoverished, so too have mutual aid efforts in the present supplied food and personal protective equipment in the place of negligent (if not aggressive) states that have, to a fatal degree, not met the rising need under the coronavirus pandemic. And just as Black Power movements worked to free prisoners, so too have local bail funds worked to free incarcerated people where governments will not, even as local police respond to nationwide protests against their brutality by incarcerating demonstrators in jails made even more lethal by Covid-19. The success of these initiatives is a reminder that, when governments neglect or purposefully persecute their people’s welfare, local organizing may be the most viable means of survival.
The RNA also lives on literally—as Robin Kelley, Kali Akuno, Ajamu Nangwaya, among others have detailed. Many New Afrikan citizens are still alive, as is the fight for their nation. One descendant of the RNA, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, was organized in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid-2000s to develop political forums and a cooperative economy. Both enabled MXGM to develop a base that elected Chokwe Lumumba, onetime leader of the RNA, to mayor of Jackson in 2013. MXGM has also continued the RNA’s project of allying with oppressed groups inside and outside of the United States. After Lumumba’s son became mayor in 2017, he fought to keep Jackson a sanctuary city and later became a delegate for Bernie Sanders. Though they faced a hostile state government, even as they came to be represented by local government, the MXGM and the Lumumbas made and continue to make real changes in Jackson. Their successes are a vindication of the methods the RNA has used for decades: interracial and international solidarity organizing, local economic mutual aid projects, and grassroots base-building.
Now, looking back on this more than forty-year-old history, it is hard not to applaud their electoral gains, the material transformations they brought to their constituents’ lives, their survival through America’s undeclared war, and the tradition of black radicalism that they have kept alive. It is hard, regardless of U.S. or international recognition, not to see the RNA as a country. No one knows what the future holds for the RNA, but their fight will live on in some form, much as it has since the seventeenth-century foundation of maroon communities across the Americas.