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Boycott Gulf! Angolan Oil and the Black Power Roots of American Anti-Apartheid Organizing

  • R. Joseph Parrott

Abstract

In the early 1970s, the African American divestment and boycott campaign against Gulf Oil's operations in colonial Angola bridged the gap between Black Power and anti-apartheid, two movements generally viewed separately. The success of the Boston-based activist couple Randall and Brenda Robinson in educating and mobilizing African Americans against investment in colonialism—first with the Southern Africa Relief Fund (SARF) and later with the Pan-African Liberation Committee (PALC)—reveals how a leftist anti-imperial ideology linked the domestic concerns of black Americans with African revolutions. At the same time, the Gulf campaign's participatory tactics, moral appeals, and critique of the global economic system proved attractive beyond radical Black Power advocates, allowing the PALC to cultivate relationships with African American politicians and build alliances across racial divides. Randall Robinson later replicated this organizing model as the founding director of TransAfrica, which became the most prominent African American organization opposing apartheid in the 1980s.

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References

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1 “Blacks Continue Gulf Protest by Planting Crosses in Yard,” Harvard Crimson, Mar. 7, 1972, 1, folder 7, box 45, Ewart Guinier Papers, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library, New York City, NY (hereafter NYPL).

2 Massie, Robert Kinloch, Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years (New York, 1997), 327–30; Nesbitt, Francis Njubi, Race for Sanctions: African Americans against Apartheid, 1946–1994 (Bloomington, IN, 2004), 100–2; Hostetter, David L., Movement Matters: American Antiapartheid Activism and the Rise of Multicultural Politics (New York, 2009), 75.

3 Sitkoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality, 25th anniv. ed. (New York, 2008), 194.

4 Massie, Loosing the Bonds, xxvii.

5 Neither anti-apartheid nor Black Power were centralized or cohesive movements. Black Power is most succinctly described by Cedric Johnson as “an ensemble of shifting and contradictory constituencies” that shared common sensibilities and goals of black empowerment, albeit with distinctive programs. See Johnson, Cedric, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis, MN, 2007), xxix.

6 Jeffries, Judson L., ed., Black Power: In the Belly of the Beast (Chicago, 2006); Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G., Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Baltimore, MD, 2004); Brown, Scot, Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism (New York, 2003), 2533.

7 Joseph, Peniel E., Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York, 2006); Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders; Fergus, Devin, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980 (Athens, GA, 2009); Bloom, Joshua and Martin, Waldo E. Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley, CA, 2013); Rickford, Russell, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York, 2016); Farmer, Ashley, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017).

8 Two exceptions are Nesbitt, Race for Sanctions, and Hostetter, Movement Matters, ch. 3. Mid-century African American internationalism has received far more attention: Von Eschen, Penny M., Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Meriwether, James H., Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935–1961 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002); Wilkins, Fanon Che, “‘A Line of Steel’: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969–1974,” in The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism, ed. Berger, Dan (New Brunswick, NJ, 2010), 97114; Plummer, Brenda Gayle, In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956–1974 (New York, 2013); Anderson, Carol, Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941–1960 (New York, 2015).

9 Tillery, Alvin B. Jr., Between Homeland and Motherland: Africa, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Black Leadership in America (Ithaca, NY, 2011), 7.

10 The complexity and decentralization of this anti-imperial ideology has prevented standardization. Literary theorist Robert Young argues that Tricontinentalism articulated a popular solidarity between peoples of the Third World—Asia, Africa, Latin America, and their diasporas—defined by a sense of non-whiteness, common historical experiences of exploitation, and Marxist-inspired strategies for reform and revolution. Paraphrasing Besenia Rodriguez, this created a space for African Americans to not only identify with but also as Third World peoples. For Cynthia Young, such dual local and transnational identities were a common element of a larger radical reorientation from north to south, where Americans merged ethnicity, social status, and politics to claim solidarity with Third World leaders seeking to resist an imperialist western power structure. See Besenia Rodriguez, “Beyond Nation: The Formation of a Tricontinental Discourse” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2006), v; Young, Robert J. C., Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Malden, MA, 2001), ch. 1; and Young, Cynthia A., Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham, NC, 2006).

11 Brenda Randolph (formerly Robinson), interview with author, Jan. 2, 2014.

12 The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an explosion of sympathetic literature on the Lusophone revolutions by Basil Davidson, Gérard Chalian, and the revolutionaries themselves, including Eduardo Mondlane and Amílcar Cabral.

13 Robinson, Randall, Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America (New York, 1998), 64–5.

14 The Harvard-Radcliffe Afro adopted an ideology of “progressive nationalism” after a founding on civil rights principles in 1964. Anonymous, “Brief History of Afro,” undated [1973], folder: Brief History of “Afro”, box 1, Records of the Association of African and Afro-American Students at Harvard and Radcliffe, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, MA [hereafter Afro].

15 Brenda Randolph interview. Randolph remembered Nteta “was our teacher, in a very personal way.” Robert C. Holmes, “Dear Friends,” undated [c. 1970?], African Activist Archive, Michigan State University, http://africanactivist.msu.edu/ [hereafter AAA]; Randall Robinson to Marshall Brown, Mar. 31,1971, Private Papers of Brenda Randolph, now held by Michigan State University Archives, East Lansing, MI [hereafter BRP].

16 Brenda Randolph Interview; “Dear Sir,” Feb. 1970, draft, BRP.

17 Robinson to Brown, Mar. 31, 1971, BRP.

18 Randall Robinson, “Southern Africa: A Role for Africans in the United States,” Black World, July 1971, 34–41, here 40.

19 See Wilkins, “Line of Steel,” 109; Cabral, Amílcar, Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts (New York, 1969), 17–9.

20 Randall Robinson, “Southern Africa,” 36–9.

21 Randolph remembers they presented to any interested group, white or black. The slide show is preserved in “South Africa,” Say Brother, episode 218, dir. Russell Tillman, Jan. 18, 1972, WGBH Media Library and Archives, http://openvault.wgbh.org/ [hereafter WGBH Archives].

22 Robinson to Andress Taylor, Mar. 27, 1970, BRP.

23 Rickford, We Are an African People, 2–9.

24 See Say Brother, episode 218.

25 Randall Robinson to Deborah Washington, Jan. 24, 1971, BRP; see also SARF, “Southern Africa: A Concern for All Peoples,” c. 1970, AAA.

26 Robinson pointed black Americans interested in African revolutions toward the Africa Research Group, ACOA, and Muhammad Speaks as reliable sources to be read alongside material from the nationalist parties. See Randall Robinson to Ron Johnson, Jan. 25, 1971, BRP.

27 Robinson to Van Lierop, Mar. 15, 1970, BRP. Robinson made contact with future leaders of the ALSC such as Gene Locke.

28 Ralph J. Bunche to Randall Robinson, Mar. 19, 1970, BRP.

29 Caroline Hunter, telephone interview with the author, Feb. 21, 2014.

30 PRWM, “Dear Brothers and Sisters,” Nov. 21, 1970, AAA. Polaroid promised to end sales of ID equipment, but retained business ties to South Africa. Parker Donham, “Polaroid Blacks Ask Worldwide Boycott,” Boston Globe, Oct. 27, 1970, 9.

31 PRWM, “On Behalf of all Black South Africans …,” Jan. 12, 1971, AAA; Caroline Hunter interview.

32 PRWM, “Polaroid Out of S. Africa [No Bullshit],” undated [likely 1971], AAA; Caroline Hunter interview; advertisement, “What Is Polaroid Doing in South Africa?,” Boston Globe, Nov. 25, 1970, 7.

33 Dellums, Ronald V. and Halterman, H. Lee, Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power (Boston, 2000), 121–2; Nesbitt, Race for Sanctions, 91–2; Daniel Schechter, “Polaroid Apartheid: Pull Tab, Wait 60 Seconds,” Ramparts Magazine, Mar. 1971, 47–50; Morgan, Eric J., “The World Is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa,” Enterprise & Society 7, no. 3 (Sept. 2006): 520–49, here 536–44.

34 Amílcar Cabral, “Practical Problems and Tactics,” in Revolution in Guinea, 138, 151.

35 John Clark, “South Afrikkka,” L'Ouverture, Apr. 1970, 9, folder 3, box 45, Guinier Papers, NYPL.

36 Brenda Randolph interview.

37 Mondlane was assassinated in 1969.

38 Robinson to Brown, Mar. 31, 1971, BRP. I have found no record of Robinson discussing this visit in detail, but FRELIMO likely urged specific action. The party directed two other activists, Robert Van Lierop and Owusu Sadaukai (Howard Fuller), toward specific actions—filmmaking and organizing, respectively—shortly thereafter.

39 Brenda Robinson continued managing the correspondence, but the birth of the couple's first child demanded much of her attention as the PALC rose to prominence.

40 Nteta to Karl Gregory, Mar. 30, 1971, BRP.

41 See Say Brother, episode 218. The document from which this number likely emerged is ACOA, United States Companies Investing in South Africa, undated [late 1970 or 1971], AAA.

42 Robinson to Charles Diggs, Feb. 6, 1971, BRP.

43 Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire, chs. 12–13.

44 Randolph interview.

45 Cabral, “The Development of the Struggle,” in Revolution in Guinea; Eduardo Mondlane, The Struggle for Mozambique (London, 1969), ch. 8.

46 Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory,” in Revolution in Guinea. The article was published in 1966 in Tricontinental and widely read among Black Power advocates.

47 See Plummer, In Search of Power, 18.

48 Massie, Loosing the Bonds, 283–301.

49 Janet Hooper to friends, Feb. 26, 1971, folder 24, box 79, ACOA Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA; Task Force on Southern Africa of the United Presbyterian Church USA, “The Southern Africa Task Force Proxy Statement on Gulf Oil Corporation,” Mar. 24, 1971, AAA.

50 “Imperialist Allies,” Mozambique Revolution, June 1964, 4.

51 See “Mozambique: Colony of America,” Mozambique Revolution, Sept. 1964, 7; and ACOA Fact Sheet, “Why We Protest Gulf Oil in Angola,” June 1973, AAA.

52 CRV, “Gulf Oil, A Study in Exploitation,” Apr., 1971, 37, AAA; Arthur H. Lubow, “Presbyterians Lead Proxy Fight over Gulf Involvement in Angola,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 17, 1971; Lubow “Ship Passes in Night: Harvard Votes Proxies with Gulf Management,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 24, 1971. Except where noted, all references to Harvard Crimson come from its website archive, available: http://www.thecrimson.com/sitemap/. The lone university to back any portion of the proposals was Wayne State, Charles Diggs's alma mater.

53 PALC, “Repression in Southern Africa: An Indictment of Harvard,” Sept. 1971, AAA.

54 John B. Wood, “Sit-In Demands End to Harvard's Africa Holdings,” Boston Globe, Feb. 25, 1972, 3.

55 “An End to Colonialism,” Harvard Crimson, Feb. 26, 1972.

56 David R. Ignatius, “Farber Releases Report on Gulf Oil Investments,” Harvard Crimson, Mar. 9, 1972.

57 Massie provides a sympathetic portrait of Bok, which nonetheless confirms his reluctance to use the president's “moral authority” to link business matters and the social justice issues with which he sympathized. Massie, Loosing the Bonds, 327–9.

58 “Afro Rally,” flyer, undated [Apr. 1972], folder: flyers 1972, box 1, Afro.

59 Clement Cann to Stephen Farber, Mar. 14, 1972, BRP. See also “Angola, Gulf, and Harvard,” Harvard Crimson, May 2, 1972.

60 Henry W. McGee III, “Rep. Diggs Urges University to Sell Its Gulf Stocks,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 10, 1972, 1, folder 7, box 45, Guinier Papers, NYPL. Within the soundtrack that accompanied the footage in Figure 3 is an audio-only record of the joint CBC-PALC-Afro session held during the Congressional Black Caucus' Harvard forum on April 7, 1972, which I worked with WGBH to digitize. Beginning around the 11:40 mark in the audio, Randall Robinson and Jim Winston present the PALC-Afro program alongside Congressmen Charles Diggs (D-MI), William L. Clay (D-MO), and Louis Stokes (D-OH), the last of whom likely introduces the speakers: http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/A_1CF40C47CCC947B9BAB7C89FAF3602FB.

61 “Black Caucus Backs Demand: Harvard Students Urge Gulf to Sell Interests in Africa,” Afro-American, Apr. 15, 1972, 2; see also Thomas Oliphant, “Final Steps Taken Toward Black Action Priority List,” Boston Globe, Apr. 7, 1972, 1. The quote came from the PALC document, “Repression in Southern Africa: An Indictment of Harvard.”

62 Rob Eggert, “No Word on Gulf Divestiture; PALC, Afro Issue Ultimatum,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 18, 1972.

63 Robinson recalls in his memoir that Nteta joined the occupation, but Winston remembers him staying away for fear of deportation.

64 Raw audio from Say Brother, “African Liberation Day Committee Press Conference and Demonstration,” undated, WGBH Archives.

65 “Harvard Out of Gulf, Come to a Rally,” flyer, undated [Apr. 1972], folder: flyers 1972, box 1, Afro; Say Brother, “African Liberation Day Committee Press Conference”; “Freshmen Move into Hotels to Escape Mass Hall Noise,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 25, 1972.

66 Jeff Greenfield, “Stocks as Tools for Social Change,” New York Times, Apr. 16, 1972, E5.

67 Press—and some activists—often merged the movements. See United Press International, “Columbia Calls Police to End Riot,” Hartford Courant, Apr. 26, 1972, 14.

68 Barbara Brown, telephone interview with author, Feb. 3, 2014; Richard Clapp, “A Brief History of the Boston Coalition for the Liberation of Southern Africa,” 2004, AAA; Richard Clapp, telephone interview with author, May 28, 2015. Gulf activists became key leaders in the Southern African Solidarity Coalition.

69 For an overview of the protest, see Harvard Crimson, Apr. 20, 1972; “Blacks at Harvard Protest Gulf Stock by Seizing Building,” New York Times, Apr. 21, 1972, 45; Robinson, Defending the Spirit, 90; “Angola, Gulf, and Harvard,” Harvard Crimson, May 2, 1972; and Roy Campanella, Jr., “Harvard Investment Draws Protest,” African World, May 16, 1972, 9.

70 Derek C. Bok, “Open Letter to Harvard Community,” Apr. 23, 1972, folder 7, box 45, Guinier Papers, NYPL.

71 Corporation Votes Against Management,” Harvard Bulletin 74, no. 11 (June 1972): 18.

72 Derek C. Bok, “The President's Statement on Gulf,” Apr. 21, 1972, folder 7, box 45, Guinier Papers, NYPL.

73 Henry W. McGee, III, “PALC, Afro Ignite Support,” Harvard Crimson, Apr. 28, 1972.

74 “Harvard Blacks Protest,” Chicago Defender, Apr. 29, 1972.

75 Robinson to Diggs, May 10, 1972, BRP.

76 Robinson to Herschel Challenor, Oct. 30, 1972, BRP; “Caucus to Focus on Africa Next,” Afro-American, Apr. 15, 1972, 8; ACOA Summary Notes on Angolan Coffee Campaign, Dec. 20, 1972, folder: Gulf Boycott Angola, box 2, Southern Africa Support Group, Vivian G. Harsh Collection, Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL [hereafter Harsh Collection]; Richard W. Franks to ACOA, Jan. 18, 1973, folder 26, box 79, ACOA Papers; Robinson to Diggs, May 10, 1972, BRP.

77 Howard Fuller, telephone interview with author, July 5, 2013.

78 Anonymous, Brief History of Afro, folder: Brief History of “Afro,” and African Freedom Fighters Day program, Nov. 1970, folder: flyers 1969–1970, box 1, Afro.

79 Letterhead, African Liberation Day Coordinating Committee, undated [early 1972], provided to author by Fuller; Jim Winston, telephone interview with author, May 20, 2014.

80 National Black Political Agenda,” in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, eds. Carson, Clayborne et al. (New York, 1991), 495; Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, 107–13.

81 “Understand the Struggle,” African World, May 27, 1972, 7.

82 “The African Liberator,” May 19, 1972, ALSC, FBI Library, 1126832000 HQ15725073 Section 4, Archives Unbound. Numbers were likely lower, perhaps 10,000–15,000.

83 SOBU News Service, “Positive Action Steps for Black Community,” African World, July 8, 1972, 5.

84 Nesbitt argues that Gulf was an attempt to salvage national action after Sadaukai ignored the proposed protest of chrome imports from the rogue white minority state of Rhodesia, but he overlooks that ALD organizers had earlier backed the PALC campaign. Nesbitt, Race for Sanctions, 100–1.

85 James Cassell, “James Cassell … and Africa,” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 21, 1972, 9.

86 With responsibility for taking care of their young family, Brenda Robinson's contributions to the PALC occurred mostly behind the scenes, while Jim Winston drifted away from activism as he prepared to relocate to New York. Chris Nteta remained active in Boston especially, but he seems to have taken a backseat to the charismatic lawyer: Randolph interview; Winston interview.

87 PALC, “1971 National and State Gulf Product Distribution Breakdown,” June 8, 1972, 1126832-000—157-HQ-25073—Section 4. 6/8/72–11/21/72, ALSC, FBI Library, Archives Unbound. Gulf's next most profitable states—including South Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland, Tennessee, and Alabama—had large black populations.

88 Robinson to Diggs, Aug. 9, 1972, BRP.

89 Robinson, Nteta, and Winston to Reverend Isaac H. Bivens, Nov. 10, 1972; Robinson and Winston to William Ferry, Dec. 6, 1972, BRP.

90 Randall Robinson et al., “Dear Friend,” undated [1973?], AAA.

91 Nteta, Robinson, and Winston to Brother/Sister, Apr. 27, 1973, BRP. The full page advertisement appeared in Jet on May 31 and in Ebony later that fall.

92 PALC to Brother/Sister, Mar. 9, 1973, BRP.

93 PALC, “We Can Fight Portuguese Colonialists,” poster, undated [1973], AAA.

94 Robinson and Winston to William Ferry, Dec. 6, 1972, BRP.

95 Various Questionnaires Responses, Labeled Packet #2, undated; PALC to State and Local Organizers, May 15, 1973, BRP.

96 PALC advertisement, Ebony, Aug. 1973, 11. Diggs and Dellums found new interest from colleagues in advancing legislation on African issues. In July, for instance, Young proposed a bill prohibiting use of U.S. funds for Portugal's African wars. DeRoche, Andrew J., Andrew Young: Civil Rights Ambassador (Wilmington, DE, 2003), 46.

97 Charles Foley, “What Conscience Costs,” The Observer, Apr. 8, 1973, 20.

98 PALC to State and Local Organizers, July 27, 1973, BRP.

99 Robinson and Winston to William Ferry, Dec. 6, 1972, BRP.

100 Randall Robinson to General Mwesi Chui, July 31, 1972, BRP.

101 Pat Roach, “Gulf Boycott Coalition Response to Gulf Building Bombing,” June 20, 1974, folder: Gulf Boycott Angola, box 2, Southern Africa Support Group, Harsh Collection. Other cities with shared organizing included Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Toronto, and Birmingham.

102 PALC, “Gulf Boycott: Propaganda Strategy,” Mar. 19, 1973, BRP.

103 Robinson and Winston to William Ferry, Dec. 6, 1972, BRP.

104 Barbara Brown interview.

105 Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire, 301–2.

106 Cincinnati to Washington, FBI, memo, July 2, 1973, ALSC, FBI, 1126832000 HQ15725073 Section 9, Archives Unbound; see also Abdul Alkalimat and Nelson Johnson, “Toward the Ideological Unity of the African Liberation Support Committee: A Response of Criticisms of the ALSC Statement of Principles” (Greensboro, NC, 1974); and Marable, Manning, Race, Rebellion, and Reform: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945–2006, 3rd ed. (Jackson, MI, 2007), 135.

107 Gulf advertisement, Ebony, Aug. 1973, 128. See Ethel L. Payne, “Politics of Oil,” Chicago Defender, Dec. 8, 1973, 22; and “Critics Rap SCLC for Taking Gulf Gift,” Afro-American, Nov. 24, 1973, 16. See also Robinson, Randall, “Gulf Oil's Strategy to Appease and Oppress,” Black Scholar 5, no. 4 (Dec. 1973–Jan. 1974): 51–5.

108 Steven A. Holmes, “Boycotts Rarely Have Impact on Bottom Line; But Actions Serve as Rallying Points,” New York Times, Nov. 15, 1996, D4.

109 Even after the campaign was suspended in the wake of Portuguese decolonization, Gulf remained a grassroots target for pro-MPLA activists. Harry Amana, “Philadelphia Angola Backers to March on Gulf Oil Offices,” Philadelphia Tribune, Feb. 7, 1976, 3.

110 Robinson, Defending the Spirit, 56.

111 “Randall Robinson, Executive Director of TransAfrica,” interview with Anthony J. Hughes, Africa Report, Jan. 1980, 9. See Robinson, Defending the Spirit, 108–10, 151–5.

I would like to thank all those who agreed to speak with me for this article, the participants of the 2014 International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War for their comments on an early draft, Paul Adler, and the staffs at the African Activist Archive Project at Michigan State University, WGBH Media Library and Archives, and the Harvard University Archives. I am especially indebted to Brenda Randolph, whose personal papers and memories relating to these events made this article possible.

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