African Activist Archive Project (East Lansing)

12 February 2009

African Activist Archive Project Launches New Website

press release

Video, photos, posters, historical documents, remembrances, political buttons, and T-shirts from the movement in the United States supporting freedom and justice in Africa have been released this week on the new African Activist Archive website (www.africanactivist.msu.edu).

This project, sponsored by the African Studies Center and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University, has collected and made freely available online more than 1300 documents and artifacts from 50 years of organizing against apartheid, minority rule, and colonialism. In addition to the historical materials, the African Activist Archive is collecting remembrances of activists, both written and recorded, that provide unique insight to the challenges and achievements of this movement.

This racially diverse movement made an important contribution toward ending minority rule in Southern Africa, according to both former South African President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and it is an important part of the history of political organizing in the United States, as well.

“The anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s-1980s was unprecedented,” said Project Director Richard Knight, himself an activist in New York. “Campaigns by community activists, students, faculty, churches, unions, and state and city legislators led to divestment from U.S. companies doing business in South Africa by 90 cities, 28 states, religious institutions, and more than 150 colleges and universities.”

“We are collecting the evidence of a unique historical movement,” commented David Wiley, sociologist and principal investigator for the project at MSU. “Without this movement organized in local communities across the country, the U.S. Congress would not have passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which finally signaled the end of American support for the South African apartheid government.”

Mark Kornbluh, Director of MATRIX and chair of the MSU Department of History, explained the broader relevance of this digitizing project. “At this moment, when a U.S. president has just been elected by a movement that excited young activists, it seems especially important to bring to the public – with lively, multimedia materials – the history of this movement that has many lessons to teach us today.”

In this diverse movement, African Americans and Africans in exile played leading roles. The earliest documents on the website are about the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa which included Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other key civil rights leaders of that time. The website also includes documents of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, Winnie Mandela Solidarity Coalition, and the Pan-African Liberation Committee and Southern Africa Relief Fund organized by students at Harvard University.

Interviews are available on the site with Americans – Prexy Nesbitt, who led the Committee Against Bank Loans to South Africa; Gay McDougall, Director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law which supported political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia; and Solveig Kjeseth of National Namibia Concerns – as well as with some South Africans who were politically active in exile – Ben Magubane (United States), Horst Kleinschmidt (United Kingdom), John Daniel (Swaziland), and Kader Asmal (Ireland).

The site contains items from 21 states and the District of Columbia. Numerious publications, buttons, posters and other historic material relate to South Africa, including a 1957 Los Angeles radio interview with Mary-Louise Hooper, who had worked as a volunteer personal assistant to Chief Albert Luthuli and was forced to leave South Africa in the wake of the arrests of the Treason Trial defendants; photos of a protest of South African participation in the Davis Cup tennis tournament in 1978;  a 1987 audio recording of Harry Belafonte and African National Congress President Oliver Tambo at a reception for Tambo in New York; 1970s and 1980s leaflets and buttons from protests at South African consulates in Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles; and a T-shirt from the USA NGO Observer Team at the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994.

The website has documents, posters and buttons supporting the Namibian struggle for independence including by the Lutheran World Ministries, the American Lutheran Church and National Namibia Concerns; and the 1981 movie “A Cry for Freedom” directed by John Evenson. It also documents support for the liberation movements in Mozambique and Angola by Chicago Committee for the Liberation of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau (CCLAMG); the Committee for a Free Mozambique; Mozambique Resource Center and the Mozambique Solidarity Office; the MPLA Solidarity Commttee; the Angola Support Conference; and a poster calling for a boycott of Gulf Oil for its support for Portuguese colonialism in Angola produced by the Pan-African Liberation Committee. Zimbabwe material includes documents and photos related to protests against the importation to the U.S. of Rhodesia chrome in violation of mandatory United Nations sanctions.

“This is an unusual digitizing project,” commented Christine Root, the African Activist Archive project manager at MATRIX. “Most such projects begin with a library collection that already is organized and catalogued, but we are contacting individuals and asking them to look through their attics and garages and save their materials. We are eager to add materials and interviews from more activists to more fully represent this diverse movement."

The MSU Library is accepting donated collections from U.S. organizers who wish to have their materials preserved and made available to the public. Cliff Haka, Director of the Michigan State University Libraries said, "We are excited about adding to the 15 collections in our African Activist Archive Special Collection. These collections of documents, posters, photographs, T-shirts, and audio and video tapes are building on two of the library's nationally-recognized areas of strength – in African studies and American radicalism."

The African Activist Archive Project, begun in 2003, has received support from the Ford Foundation; individual donors; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and several local churches; the CWA Local 1180 and SEIU Local 371 unions; Our Developing World; and the DJB, Marin Community, Normandie, and Samuel Rubin foundations.

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