Narratives of Social Solidarity: The Journey of a Black Scholar-Activist

 

Richard Joseph

At an elegant dinner in June 2018 to acknowledge retirees awarded Emeritus status at Northwestern University, I asked the Provost, Prof. Jonathan Holloway, what this moment meant. He replied: “Now you can focus on the Journey”.[1]

 

This essay is written for a virtual meeting of the Dartmouth College Club of Sarasota, Florida. Appropriately, it takes place on November 20, 2020, exactly two months before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated President and Vice-President of the United States. Their resounding victory follows what has been called the “social justice uprising” of 2020.[2]

Dr. Ken Dychwald, a leading student of retirement, refers to a post-retirement stage “when folks piece together what their life was – to make sense of it and turn it into wisdom and get set to leave a legacy.” He calls this phase “reconciliation”.[3] These remarks resonate. In these “Narratives”, I will begin “piecing together” episodes of my journey involving activities that relate to social solidarity and social justice.[4] They constitute a sampling of engagements since I matriculated at Dartmouth in September 1961. I thank the Dartmouth Club, and Edward John Bash, for providing this opportunity to begin connecting the pieces of my life’s journey.[5] This exercise will continue beyond the November 20 event as will be sketched in a subsequent statement.

The word “solidarity” is taken from an impressive statement issued by Dartmouth faculty members in July 2020 entitled “Dartmouth Narratives of Solidarity”.[6]  There is a major effort underway at Dartmouth to enhance support and recognition of communities that have been underrepresented in the student body and faculty. Recently, in announcing the death of Mr. E.S. Reddy, a major campaigner against apartheid, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa “hailed Mr. Reddy’s commitment to human rights and his epitomizing of ‘social solidarity’”[7]

The term “Black” reflects a sense of commitment as well as an identity. I have lived in enough parts of the world to know that racial categories are historically and socially determined. In many African countries where I have lived and worked, for example, “Black” as a descriptor has little meaning. I was born in the Caribbean where ethnicities have blended over time. In recent tributes for my 75th birthday, Nigerian colleagues referred to me as “a Nigerian luminary”, or as “an eminent Nigerian scholar”, while calling attention to my Caribbean heritage.[8] My central commitment is to the upliftment of Black and African peoples. However, my views are best captured by the term “Afropolitanism” used by some African colleagues. It conveys openness to all peoples and cultures but centered on African pride and agency.

More difficult to determine are the sources of my deep sense of “social solidarity”. I remember the first time it was concretely manifested. In the autumn of 1963, at the start of my junior year, I entered Dartmouth’s Office of Admissions and asked to speak to one of its officers. I asked the person who came forward: “Why were there so few Negro students at Dartmouth?” The answer was short: “Dartmouth did not discriminate, but very few Negro students applied.”

I thanked him and went to see Rev. George H. Kalbfleisch, Director of Undergraduate Religious Life and supervisor of the Dartmouth Christian Union (DCU). I told George (as we called him) of the exchange and proposed an organized response which he promptly supported. Dartmouth students would be urged to visit high schools in their home areas during vacations and request to speak with minority students.[9] They would encourage them to apply to Dartmouth and other Ivy League schools.

It was a pleasure many years later having a Black alumnus come up after a speaking engagement. I had mentioned in my remarks the Negro Applications Encouragement Program which I had directed. He told me he distinctly remembered a Dartmouth student coming to speak to his high school and delivering this message (which inspired him to apply to the College).

My second early act of social solidarity concerns the “Valley Tutorial Program”, also administered under the aegis of the DCU. I do not recall the details of its creation but remember conducting tutorials with other students. I recently came across a letter from a high school student who had been tutored during a hospital stay. She was seeking to contact the Dartmouth students who helped her in order to obtain credit on her school transcript.

These slivers of information are being gathered in association with a group of former participants in the Dartmouth Christian Union (not all of whom were Christian or even religious). We had been brought together, and mentored, by the extraordinary Rev. George Kalbfleisch.[10] Social awakening and action - on issues of war, dictatorship, economic exploitation, and exclusion - under the guidance and inspiration of Rev. Kalbfleisch is one of the important but largely untold Dartmouth stories.[11]

 

 

 

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Rev. George Kalbfleisch

Academically, my attention shifted from pre-medical studies to political science and French literature. However, most of my attention during my junior and senior years was devoted to the Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty movements. Major anti-apartheid, anti-racism, and anti-poverty activists came through the DCU, along with resisters to dictatorial rule, especially in Brazil. One of the speakers with whom I established an enduring relationship was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.[12]

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Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer

Students involved in the DCU were encouraged to engage directly in the struggles of farm workers, civil rights workers, and human rights activists in the U.S. and overseas. Weekly meetings took place in the DCU lounge with faculty, students, and visitors from the frontlines - such as James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Progressive publications such as I.F. Stone Weekly, and the promotional literature of various social justice causes, were readily available. For active participants, the DCU was nested within a larger institution: mainstream Dartmouth which was seen as tolerant but not in sync with what we were doing.

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The Dartmouth Christian Union

A few personal episodes involving Rev. Kalbfleisch stand out. I once asked him why I was not allowed to travel to the South - as were other students - to take part in Civil Rights activities. He responded crisply: “Because I am afraid they will kill you.” A second exchange occurred when he encouraged me to give serious consideration to going abroad after graduation. He regretted that Black students in earlier years did not follow his advice. The third exchange was after - with the assistance of classmate Ahmed Osman of Sudan - Malcolm X was brought to campus to deliver a lecture on January 25, 1965.

In response to the pervasive hostility to the Black Leader, in the nation and on campus, I wrote a column for the College newspaper, The Dartmouth entitled, “Toward Self-Respect”, published on January 28, 1965.[13] I expressed support for much (but not all) of Malcolm X’s views and arguments. When Rev. Kalbfleisch encountered me on campus following its publication, he congratulated me. Yet, he added, there was something he didn’t like about the article: “It made him feel like a White man”. We never discussed what he meant.[14]

The final episode I will mention was a day in mid-May 1965, just weeks before Commencement Exercises, when Rev. Kalbfleisch invited me to join him at an outdoor ceremony. As various awards were announced, I heard my name mentioned. I was the recipient that year of the Milton Sims Kramer Award and a list was read of my social justice activities. Acknowledged that day was my role in promoting increased minority, and especially Black, enrollment, the Valley Tutorial program, and several Civil Rights and related activities.

I will add a few comments regarding the four episodes mentioned above. High anxiety regarding racist violence was experienced in Montgomery, Alabama, at the time of the Selma to Montgomery March, in mid-March 1965. In the inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial address I delivered at Dartmouth in January 15, 1980, I recalled watching the marchers with Rev. King at front and center.[15] Over the previous days, I had witnessed southern Whites cruising pass in pick-up trucks with rifles positioned behind the drivers’ cabin. In the 1980 talk, I referred to the palpable bravery of Rev. King. He would have been the principal target of an armed attack as the marchers strode through the heart of Montgomery.[16]

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James Bopp, Dartmouth Christian Union

I also remember the hall where Civil Rights activists gathered with local residents in the evening to dine and sing freedom songs. Anytime an approaching vehicle was heard, voices would grow quiet for a pause until the sound receded. The gruesome killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in June 1964, and of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo on March 25, 1965, had a profoundly chilling effect. However, persons committed to the Movement like my Dartmouth classmate, James Bopp ’66, and I would not be deterred from traveling to Selma or Montgomery. Nor do I remember fear being a factor when we set out each morning to encourage local residents to register and vote. Indeed, one of the points we made on many doorsteps was that the heavy presence of outsiders and the media meant that it would be safer for them to do so.

Mississippi, Alabama, and other deep southern states had experienced state-sanctioned terror for centuries. The form changed after the Civil War but not its essence. For some reason, which I have never really thought about, I never allowed this system to deter me.[17] During several weeks spent in Ruleville, Mississippi, the summer of 1967 – staying at the home of Mrs. Hamer’s friend, Mrs. Diggs and her grandson - I spent many evenings on Mrs. Hamer’s porch conversing with her. I also traveled into the rural backwoods with Perry Hamer, her husband.[18] When the topic of violence came up, it was usually in the context of hearing directly about beatings Mrs. Hamer and others had endured. In brief, I had become a “freedom worker” and the sense of personal risk did not penetrate the armor of determination.[19] By then, we were perhaps inured to the violence faced by the Freedom Bus Riders and other volunteers.[20]

I never understood why Rev. Kalbfleisch encouraged me to go abroad after graduation until I actually did so. The academic year 1965-66 spent in France as a Fulbright Scholar was transformative. I came to understand why France, and especially Paris, was a haven for Black artists, performers, and political activists. For the first time since I left Trinidad as a young boy, I was not living in a society in which racism was pervasive. The close friendships with French students, many hours spent conversing in cafés or in the Alps in ski cabins, and with my French roommate. André Lonsdorfer, were “cleansing experiences” from a racial perspective. I also achieved a high level of fluency in French, a language that would feature significantly in my future studies of Africa.

I have described the visit of Malcolm X to give a lecture in Spaulding Auditorium - arranged with my classmate Ahmed Osman - as the greatest experience of my undergraduate years. There was virtually no official recognition by, or involvement of, the College in the visit of the Black leader. For this reason, among others, there is minimal documentation available. His talk, which I moderated, was not recorded. [21] The deep anger that Malcolm X channeled drew on the greatest injustice in American history, matched only by the genocidal treatment of Indigenous Americans. The importance of this event is now dawning on Dartmouth. An indication of this shift is the profile written by Mr. C.J. Hughes in the most recent Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. In my talk at Dartmouth on May 14, 2014, I shared a few moments of that visit. [22]

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Malcolm X at Dartmouth, January 1965

For the purpose of this essay and talk, I will add a few further points about Malcolm X and his Dartmouth visit. Malcolm, as we knew him, was highly underestimated during his lifetime. Decades after the 1960s upheavals, it is being acknowledged that a large number of African-Americans continue to feel they are “second and third-class” citizens. The notion of “caste” has gained traction, a term normally associated with Asian countries like India.[23] Malcolm X spoke to fundamental issues of privilege, exclusion, and racial supremacy – and the need for a transformative phase of resurrecting what was crushed during centuries of slavery and racial discrimination.

In my January 28, 1965 article in The Dartmouth, I expressed my views regarding the Black Leader. All prominent Black leaders during the Civil Rights era had to deal with the prospect of violent, and likely painful, death. They had limited protection and had to appear regularly in public spaces. After the split with the leader of the Black Muslims, and his increased prominence internationally as a critic of American racism and its foreign wars, the risks to Malcolm escalated considerably. When he arrived in Hanover, those risks were at a height. Sitting alone with him on the stage of the Spaulding Auditorium, and standing next to him to field questions, I was acutely aware of his vulnerability. I had also decided how I would react if that threat materialized.

Why did I have this understanding of Malcolm X at age 19 when the greater majority of Americans, including the overwhelming number of Dartmouth students and others in the Hanover community, did not? While I shared the dream of Rev. King and other Civil Rights leaders for an America that had moved beyond racism and discrimination, that transition was not going to be achieved just by marches and legislation. I recognized that a people who had been systematically battered down and denigrated for centuries, based on their racial identify, had to reassert the latter in an untrammeled way. This point was clearly made in my statement published by The Dartmouth on January 28, 1965. Black Lives Matter is a vindication of the contentions of Malcolm X.

Scholarship and Social Solidarity

 1. Washington, DC: Summer, 1965

 

1965 was the annus mirabilis. In January arrangements for the first visit to Dartmouth by Malcolm X was underway. James Bopp and I headed to Montgomery in late March for the final stage of the Selma to Montgomery March. Dozens of other events were taking place at a quick tempo on social justice issues. Urgent work is needed to construct that chronology.

I was impatient to get to the frontlines. Whether it was anti-apartheid, Civil Rights, or anti-poverty, the DCU had become an outpost of struggles taking place in many sites distant from Hanover and the Upper Valley. Bill Higgs, a progressive White Mississippi lawyer, visited campus and Jim Bopp and I were recruited to participate in a start-up organization in Washington, DC. Its central aim was to provide research and lobbying for progressive Civil Rights groups such as the MFDP, an offshoot of SNCC. The latter’s office was headed by Michael Thelwell, a writer and subsequent literature professor originally from Jamaica. For several weeks, a group of approximately fifteen undergraduates and law school students worked in two rented houses. We came mainly from institutions in the northeast. Our close interactions with the SNCC Washington DC office, and frequent contact with SNCC militants, meant that we were basically an affiliate of the progressive wing of the Civil Rights Movement.

Of my various assignments, the one I remember most was the campaign against the appointment of James Plemon Coleman to be a justice on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. Coleman’s euphonious name contrasted with his unsavory record on racial justice. I remember walking through congressional corridors and trying to buttonhole congressional aides to ply our argument. We and others lost this challenge and Coleman was appointed to the federal bench. It is the kind of campaign familiar today, as the federal judicial system has been steadily stacked with jurists committed to reversing hard-won gains on equity, access, and inclusion. I experienced during that summer a deepened sense of solidarity from interacting closely with other young Americans committed to advancing social justice in the U.S. and globally.

Prior to that summer, the DCU office enabled me to transit regularly from mainstream, elitist, and predominantly White America to an enclave where social solidarity prevailed. As the summer of 1965 progressed, I became increasing conflicted about my future plans. The DCU was a crucible for a different kind of citizenship, one without borders of ethnicity and nationality. In my final terms at Dartmouth, I was awarded fellowships for overseas study, including a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in France. A friend from Smith College gently persuaded me to take up the offer to go to France rather than move deeper into “Freedom Work”.

2. Ruleville, Mississippi: Summer 1967

 

My journey to Mississippi essentially began in Hanover during the visits of Civil Rights leaders and activists including a thrilling talk by Mrs. Hamer. Two years after graduation, spent largely in Europe – France on a Fulbright and the first year of my Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford – did not curb my ardor for the Struggle at home. My Dartmouth classmate, Drew Newton, kept me amply supplied with relevant publications. In addition, I returned to the U.S. the summer of 1966 to work as an intern in the office of Mayor John Lindsay facilitated by Jim Bopp. He was similarly involved. Mrs. Hamer and I reconnected during the summer of 1965 at the program discussed above. At one point, Mrs. Hamer, still sizing me up, said: “It’s your struggle too”, much to the surprise of the other participants. They knew of my deep commitment.

Two years later, I was on a Greyhound bus traveling to Mississippi. I will quote remarks made about the Mississippi experience during my January 15, 1980 address at Dartmouth:

I never fully understood the tragedy of the Black Experience in the United States until I spent a few months in the Mississippi Delta. There, for a century before the Emancipation Proclamation, Black men, women, and children had produced the cotton that stood at the center of an economic complex, beginning with the slave ships along the west coast of Africa, to the plantations of the southern states, to the mills of northern England, which had generated the massive capital leading to the expansion of industrial power in the European and North American world. But what did I see in 1967? Wherever I looked for miles in any direction were large plantations owned by Whites, like Senator James Eastland. And the Blacks? Shacks, Shacks, wooden shacks along dirt roads with pictures of Jesus Christ and John Kennedy pinned on the walls.

Indeed, my focus shifted during that summer from the prevalent voter registration campaign to, first, practical relief like clothing drives. I then began sketching an economic cooperative aimed at expanding opportunities at the grassroots. Thanks to my Dartmouth classmate, Andrew (Drew) Newton, class of 1965, my letters to him from that period have been saved. In them I discussed a cooperative I hoped to establish in the Ruleville area, along with a preliminary sketch. All thoughts of returning to Oxford after the summer and resuming my studies evaporated. That is, until Jim Bopp had a telephone chat with Mrs. Hamer and inquired about my work. She learned from him for the first time about the Rhodes Scholarship and how few Blacks had achieved this honor.

With her gentle encouragement, I was again on a Greyhound bus heading back to Boston. There I worked for the anti-poverty program (ABCD) and earned my boat passage to England.[24] The vision of wearing my SNCC blue coveralls – as did my heroes Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, John Lewis, and Robert Moses - and helping consolidate the meager lands of former share-croppers into a cooperative, and contributing to the journey out of grim poverty, had ended.[25] Summer 1977 ended as had the two previous ones, as I left frontline social justice work for further intensive academic study in Europe.

3. France & Cameroon 1968

 

The autumn of 1967 saw me back in the hallowed halls and among the manicured gardens of Oxford University, a universe away from the Mississippi Delta. A meeting that October with Jennifer Chung, a 19-year Guyanese, who had come to Oxford to study occupational therapy - at a private school separate from the University - profoundly changed the course of my life and career. Prodded by her uncle, Stanley Shepherd, a longtime resident of Britain, I asked my supervisor, and lifelong friend and mentor, Dr. David Goldey, to arrange my tutorials in African politics.

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David and Patricia Goldey

By September 1968, I was married and traveling to Paris to conduct research on an independence movement that failed to wrest power from the French colonial administration. In addition to writing several articles and a major book on this movement, and the unusual armed struggle (in French tropical Africa) in which it became involved, I made two significant discoveries. First, the depiction of what had occurred in Cameroon during this era was erroneous.[26] Second, the vision of France as avatar of liberty, equality, and fraternity was, in part, a mask behind which the denial of self-determination of African peoples had been deliberately pursued.

Today, upheavals in France led by persons of African descent regarding the inhibition of cultural identities, have upended French integrationist/assimilationist ideologies. Black Lives Matter has provoked profound reconsiderations of the European imperial and colonial impact on Africa. In spring 2020, I began writing an essay connecting these developments to the Cameroon experience. It drew on several of my published articles on French colonial rule, dating to the end of World War I. This exercise, Bridges to the Past, will be resumed in 2021.

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Thomas Lionel Hodgkin

My ability to see below the mask of la francophonie, and show the under-belly of France’s Africa project, connects with other perceptions mentioned above: the indubitable message Malcolm X delivered to America before his slaying; and the continuities of “systemic racism”, from overt to covert, from blatant to guarded, throughout most of the United States for a century and half since the eruption of the Civil War.

4. Los Angeles: UCLA and Watts, 1970

 

After completing a B. Phil. degree in Politics at New College, Oxford, in 1969, I returned to the United States and began a senior lectureship at UCLA. It was a special arrangement that enabled me to work as a teaching assistant and join the doctoral program (although I was more advanced in my studies than fellow graduate students). I was uncertain whether to continue with academic studies. If I did so, the choices were an American university or Oxford University (where I had been awarded a Studentship at Nuffield College).[27]

My political and social awareness had deepened during four years of post-graduate studies in France and Britain. In the U.S., opposition to the Indochina wars was growing; and Black militancy was on the rise with calls for Black Power and the greater visibility of the Black Panthers. The latter combined social services in urban communities, the wearing of paramilitary outfits, and directly confronting racism and policy brutality.[28]

Several months into my stint at UCLA, an incident occurred that Rev. Kalbfleisch had feared. In light of the slaying of George Floyd in May 2020 – and other victims of police violence - this experience reflects a core feature of American life. Photographs from my archives depict an encounter in the aftermath of the killing of four students (and the shooting of thirteen) at Kent State University by members of the Ohio State National Guard on May 4, 1970. Students were demonstrating against the Vietnam War, now expanded across Indochina by President Richard Nixon and his associates. The Kent State tragedy ignited protests on many American campuses, including UCLA.

During the course of a seminar, shouting was heard through the windows. The class was suspended and I exited the building with other students. The sight of Los Angeles Police (LAPD) wearing riot gear spurred me to join the demonstrators. Here is the account provided in the Mary Donin interviews of 2003.

I was standing in a cluster of students watching the police push people back and beat them. I got caught up in the protests and was picked up by the police. I would assume the only reason they picked on me was because they looked around…and I was Black. They just pulled me out of the crowd. It was an ugly experience being dragged into the paddy wagon and all that stuff.

The officers twisted my fingers upward forcing me to walk on the balls of my feet. One or more of them slid thumbs into the handcuffs making them cut into my wrists. As I was frog-marched to the paddy wagon, they shouted racist taunts into my ear.

The LAPD inflicted as much physical and verbal violence as could be done without onlookers understanding why I was suddenly stumbling with my head thrust back. It took a few weeks before full sensation returned to my bruised wrists and hands.

In one part of a wide-angle photograph, fourteen policemen can be seen surrounding me. The immediate crowd scene is shown in the second half of the same photo. Another photograph, taken moments after I was seized, is placed below. A television reporter with a video-camera directly aimed at the encounter most likely prevented the cops from simply bashing me with their clubs. Once shielded in a phalanx, they could do whatever they chose. I had committed no act other than expressing outrage at the recent Kent State shootings and the presence of the LAPD - known for its brutality - on the UCLA campus.

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Subsequent to this episode, I told my wife, Jennifer, that she should return to England with our 18-month son (a second would arrive that October). She had many relatives and friends there. I intended to join the Struggle full-time. Her response was that if I stayed, she would. In the America of President Richard Nixon, and the California of Governor Ronald Reagan, a Black scholar-activist, with the knowledge and abilities to dissect and confront injustices in the U.S. and abroad, spelled risk. Alone, I would have moved to engage further. However, I was not willing to subject our young family to what that entailed.[29]

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Mrs. Betty Shabazz

Oxford University awaited my return with a multi-year fellowship at Nuffield College devoted to advanced studies. I had done very well in my examinations for the B.Phil. degree. A thesis on the radical nationalist movement in Cameroon could be readily expanded into a doctoral dissertation. I also had my great mentor, Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, although retired, prepared to supervise this dissertation. Once again, the departure from a polarized America to Europe, and the charms of intellectual and academic pursuits was a choice that tilted to the latter. I always felt, during these moments of conflicting pulls, that there was much more I could learn, and therefore much more I could contribute, in later years.[30]

Before returning to Oxford, my passion for social engagement could again be indulged. Watts, the largely Black and lower-income community in Los Angeles, beckoned. Here’s the fragment of an article on Stan Sanders of Watts and Whittier College, who was the third Black Rhodes Scholar from the United States.[31]

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I got to know Sanders during our brief stay in Los Angeles in 1969-70. What he says about his experiences in Watts, and the choices he made, resonates. I could have developed a similar relationship with Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where I attended high school, 1958-61. I also considered attending law school after giving up pre-medical studies at Dartmouth.  The option of political and social engagement in that New York City borough was foreclosed because of the fracturing of my family. The summer of 1970, I worked for an extraordinary grass-roots organization, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), led by the redoubtable Ted Watkins. WLCAC was an offshoot of the Labor Movement. Watkins was a bull-terrier of a man. I was assigned to work with a group of mid-teenagers. It involved teaching sessions in classrooms and cultural-enrichment visits to various venues. It was an inspiring and fulfilling experience, similar to the A Better Chance program at Dartmouth in which I was a tutor during the summer of 1964.

Inner-city youngsters were engaged daily with a 25-year Black scholar/teacher. Although, like them, he had lived in an inner city and attended a primarily Black high school, he had already had four years of an Ivy League education, and another four years of postgraduate study in France and Britain.

There is much that is remembered fondly, especially the chant one student started and the others adopted: “You’re a Trip Mister Trinidad!” It became a refrain that captured the delight at what was, in some regards, a cross-cultural experience for both the students and me. In one year, 1969-70, I had returned to the classrooms of an American university, and then to those of an inner-city organization devoted to social solidarity and justice. I had also experienced what awaits any Black citizen if someone in blue is motivated – via surreptitious thumb twisting, a choke-hold, a knee on the neck, or firing lethal bullets – to express the racial animosity and privilege which remain so deeply ingrained in American society and culture.

With my decision to resume post-graduate studies at Oxford in 1970, the College not only permitted me to tap a General Scholarship (awarded five years previously) that had not been taken up, but also made a $500 loan to help cover my travel expenses. A letter regarding that loan of July 1970, referencing my “difficulties with the police”, is appended. Notably, it was written by Professor William Slesnick, himself an Oxonian. At Oxford, while pursuing my academic interests, and particularly the study of African politics, I retained a profound sense of solidarity with the struggles underway in the U.S. Nevertheless, my family and I spent the following nine years in Europe and Africa without returning to the U.S.

5. Nigeria & Oxford, 1977

 

The summer of 1977 marked another major pivot in my life and career. After eighteen months as a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Ibadan, my family and I spent the academic recess in Oxford, England. By then I was fully engaged in the extraordinary renewal in Nigeria in many spheres – political, economic, cultural – several years after the Civil War catastrophe (1967-1970). Crude petroleum resources were abundant and there was substantial public wealth to be tapped.[32]

In the attic of a rented house, I spent several days making sense of Nigeria’s political economy. The outcome was an article published the following year, 1978 : “Affluence and Underdevelopment: The Nigerian Experience.”[33] This article could have been simply updated every year during the subsequent four decades. Indeed, the subtitle could be changed to “The African Experience”. Five years later, the analytical framework for understanding this predicament, entitled “prebendalism”, appeared in a published essay and subsequently in a book on Nigeria’s transition from military to civilian government.[34]

Whatever the outward form, the essence of how public resources are captured, shared, exploited, and substantial amounts laundered abroad as personal/family capital has become more intricate, more entrenched, and more ruinous for the wellbeing of African societies. Today, Nigerian and foreign students of Africa’s most populous - and highly endowed - nation acknowledge the significance of my foundational research and writing. Why was I able to produce an analysis that Nigerians themselves quickly grasped as indisputable.

The answer is the talent for political theory I first discovered as a student n Government 5, on Political Ideas, taught by Dartmouth Professor Charles McLane. Subsequent courses by Professors Arthur Wilson and Vincent Starzinger inspired me to connect theory to political and economic experiences. “There is nothing so practical as theory”, was a fond remark of Dartmouth’s Prof. Arthur Wilson. My subsequent studies at Oxford deepened this appreciation.[35]

My commitment to social solidarity and social justice meant that I viewed political and economic systems par le bas (“from below) as the French expression puts it. I had lived most of my life among low-income strivers. Communities I knew best in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New Hampshire and Vermont (where volunteer tutoring took place), and in Mississippi and Watts were poor or very poor. Rights to education, health, and other social services I saw as fundamental as the right to assemble, vote, and express grievances. I was conditioned, not only by education but life experiences, to examine systems, structures, and practices by how they impact the generality of citizens and especially those less favored by circumstances.

6. Jimmy Carter: warfare & democracy, 1988-1994

I met former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and his wife Rosalynn Carter, for the first time in February 1988. I had accepted an invitation to visit Emory University where I was being considered for a faculty appointment. President Carter, I was told, anticipated making Africa a major concern of his presidential library and center. After introductory exchanges, the former president asked me what was I interested in doing. I responded: Working on the most important issue in Africa. What was that, he inquired. “Governance”, I responded. He then asked me to explain what I meant by the term. I did so. He then said: “Why not come and do it here?”

I returned after that visit from Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal, where I had been working as a Program Officer - on Governance, Human Rights, and International Affairs -  for the Ford Foundation.[36] A few months later, I resigned this position and returned to the U.S. In the meantime, I had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to spend several months at the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

It was a very difficult decision leaving Dartmouth in the autumn of 1988. The offer of a joint position at Emory University and The Carter Center, plus residence in Atlanta – one of the most important sites in the struggle for racial justice – was too significant to pass up. I became a Carter Center Fellow and founding director of the Center’s African Governance Program and the Institute of African Studies at Emory.

Thus began perhaps my greatest opportunity to have a positive influence on African affairs. Many of my archival documents on Carter Center work in several African countries are not available anywhere else. Unlike my early years in “freedom work”, I had become a conscientious documentarian and also took many photographs. In summary, what are some of the ways in which “social solidarity” was reflected in the Carter Center experience?

  • Jimmy Carter was a man of the people. There are few Americans of his status who interact with the poor, deprived, and downtrodden of all nations and cultures in the ways he did. To be present with Carter as he spoke with simple villagers in Africa – concerning disease prevention, food crops, or voting procedures - was to experience unadorned humanitarianism. Carter sometimes seemed to share a greater identity with the “damnés de la terre” (the wretched of the earth) than he did with leading figures in their own countries.

  • I was given a wide scope to develop programs, and convene meetings, related to my core interests – governance, democratization, inclusive economic growth - while participating in those of great concern to Carter: conflict resolution, human rights, and electoral assistance. I did not share Carter’s predilection for working with autocratic leaders, dictators, warlords, and the like, but the experience of taking part in meetings with them – in his presence or independently – were insightful. Since I acted with wide authority in countries in which the Center was engaged – for example, Ghana, Liberia, and Zambia – my ability to influence the course of events in them was considerable.

  • In my capacity as a Fellow of the Carter Center, I traveled to many African countries during a period of great upheaval. They included South Africa, where Pres. Carter anticipated playing an important role in the transition from apartheid. I also participated in numerous policy meetings on behalf of the Center. Access to the media, and to policymakers in Washington, DC and elsewhere was as extensive as could be envisioned. Although a private institution, the Carter Center enjoyed the power and influence of a major policy center and a government entity. Many people overseas didn’t understand the difference.[37]

 
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  • In a variety of ways - and perhaps most significantly through the bulletin, Africa Demos, of which I was the founding editor - a small group of student-researchers and other associates analyzed and discussed political developments in Africa in a forthright manner. The information and analyses were greatly appreciated by democracy activists and, conversely, displeased those opposed to democratic progress.[38]
  • Social solidarity and social justice were the intersecting areas of President Carter’s priorities and my own. When the time came for me to step away from my position at the Center in December 1994, and assume full responsibilities as an Emory professor, I had achieved as much as possible as a scholar-activist in that unique institution. 

 

7. Obama: Kenya & Ghana, 2006/2009

 

I first met Barack Obama in 2004. He, Michelle, and their daughters were close friends of my eldest son Mark, his wife Me’lani, and their children.

Illnois State Senator Barack Obama.jpg

I had high hopes for Obama regarding Africa when he became a senator. I spoke with him briefly at the Northwestern Commencement in June 2006, ahead of his visit to Kenya that August.

His talk at the University of Nairobi on August 28, 2006 was entitled, “An Honest Government – A Hopeful Future”. It was one of the most important, in my estimation, of any American political leader on Africa. Mr. Obama spoke of the institutional corrosion from within and said that the struggle to reduce corruption was “The Fight of Our Time”. I thought he would lead “The Fight” as a U.S. senator. He did not and soon opted to contest for the U.S. presidency.

In July 2009, now President Obama made his first state visit to Africa, choosing Ghana to be the host instead of other likely destinations, especially Nigeria. Two close colleagues and I, Professors E. Gyimah-Boadi and Larry Diamond, arranged a visit with a senior adviser to President Obama on African affairs. We made a strong pitch for him to address the most critical challenge in Africa: democratic and developmental governance.

This wish was amply fulfilled when President Obama made a thrilling speech before an enactment of the Ghanaian parliament. The central theme was the need to improve governance in Africa. His pointed remarks echoed across Africa and the world. Thanks to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, I secured seats in the hall for three colleagues from the Center for Democracy and Development (Accra) and myself. For the four of us, it marked the summit of our efforts over many years to promote such objectives. Particularly delightful was a call-out to me from President Obama from the podium.

Ghana’s transition from military rule to constitutional democracy in 1992 was one of the great advances in the political transitions ignited by the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was deeply engaged in these processes on behalf of the Carter Center and interacted with many of the country’s political figures – in government, the opposition, and civil society.

Yet, the promise Barack Obama symbolized regarding misgovernance in Africa has not been fulfilled. A low point came in the aftermath of the Ethiopian parliamentary elections in 2015. That vote – in which the ruling party swept almost all the seats - marked a complete retreat from the democratic openings incrementally achieved over the previous two decades. President Obama could have made a bold statement regarding that setback during his state visit in July 2015, but he didn’t. The same is true of his visit to South Africa to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. On July 17, 2018 he delivered a typically eloquent speech in which he had much to say about global economic changes. It included pointed criticism of the “titans of industry and finance” whose decisions are made “without reference to notions of human solidarity – or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities”.

It was already obvious that South Africa was sinking into familiar kleptocratic patterns which pose the greatest threat to the welfare of its people. The African National Congress, which had valiantly fought to bring an end to apartheid, and the transition to a non-racial democracy, retained the support of a large majority of the voters. Meanwhile, however, it was morphing into an institution that secured outsized benefits to those in power, or were connected to them, while the socio-economic promises to the majority were subverted.

Mr. Obama remains a powerful symbol in Africa. His terms in national office, first as senator and then as president, and during his post-presidency - have not been path-setting as far as the continent is concerned. There has been more rhetoric and symbolism than substance. However, there is still time for him to help foster the governance advances in Africa that he often espoused.

8. Nigeria 2011/2020 [39]

 

In October 2011, a great honor was paid to me for my scholarly work by Nigerian colleagues. An international conference was convened in Lagos - with the support of state governments in the southwest - devoted to my 1987 book on that country[40] An edited volume of essays appeared in 2013, and the original publisher, Cambridge University Press, re-issued my book in 2014.

Sadly, the system I first described in the 1983 essay, and its deleterious consequences, have exacerbated. In December 2020, a second book on Nigeria by former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell will be published.[41] He acknowledges the continued significance of my analytical framework. On November 14, 2020, articles were published in The New York Times describing how systemic corruption in South Africa and Nigeria had transformed government into reverse Robin Hood contrivances: depriving the poor and enriching the powerful.[42]

A virtual uprising is now underway in Nigeria, and voices from many sectors of the population, including popular singers, are urging fundamental changes. The protests began with demonstrations against police violence, and particularly the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). It soon morphed into a broader upheaval against “bad governance”. The dire situation in many economic and social sectors, and the realization that the system of governance is most to blame, are fueling the unrest. Nigerians are increasingly aware that elections, regularly held since the return from military rule to constitutional government in 1999, have not yielded desired advances. The country is at an impasse. It cannot move forward without significant changes in its political and governing system, and perhaps even its national configuration. Fundamental transformations will not occur without continued pressure, internal and external, and the emergence of dynamic and responsive leadership.

South Africa is in a more fortunate position, as John Campbell argued in an earlier book.[43] It remains in many regards a constitutional democracy: the judiciary still plays a largely independent role; state prosecutors bring perpetrators of serious crimes to account for their misdeeds; and the press and media are substantially unhindered. [44] However, “state capture”, “tendocracy”, and other terms such as “kleptocracy” and “lootocracy”, reflect practices that have become entrenched.

Obama’s “Fight of Our Time” is for the fundamental means to a humane life – water, electricity, education, health, transport, a sanitary environment and gainful employment.[45] These objectives cannot be accomplished if a substantial portion of national wealth is systematically drained into private consumption. In country after country in Africa, constitutional arrangements to limit abuses of power, such as term limits for executive positions, are being eroded. The consequence is the entrenching of governmental systems that enjoy less legitimacy and are less efficacious. The post-colonial project in the continent has frayed in several key countries. It should be rethought.[46]

References

[1] Prof. Holloway was appointed President of Rutgers University in July 2020.

[2] Pierre-Antoine Louis, “Rising Voices of a New Generation,” The New York Times, November 8, 2020. Others refer to it as the Social Justice Movement.

[3] Kerry Hannon, “Retirement Isn’t Just Life past the Finish Line”, The New York Times, October 26, 2020.

[4] This document is largely created from memory. My voluminous archives are being consolidated. A repository for them will be arranged in 2021. A start to this exercise was made in 2003 when I traveled to Hanover for interviews conducted by Ms. Mary Donin for the Dartmouth Oral History Project. Comments made in earlier interviews by Professor Raymond Hall of the Sociology Department were incorporated by Ms. Donin in her transcripts. See https://www.dropbox.com/s/uynk4eyd3dzh8i2/doh-31_001_001_01.pdf?dl=0.

[5] One of the books I have contemplated writing is an autobiography. These narratives cover episodes that could be brought together and expanded into such a volume.

[6] I signed the petition.

[7] See the obituary in The New York Times, October 26, 2020.

[8] A longtime Nigerian friend, while introducing me several years ago, hesitated while describing me. She settled on “American Nigerian”. I said, let’s add “Caribbean”. I then added “and Cameroonian”. I stopped at that point since several other countries and regions could be included.

[9] The flyer for this initial event has been located.

[10] The current plan is to establish a repository at Dartmouth’s Rauner Library that could serve for research and teaching purposes on “Narratives of Social Solidarity: The Dartmouth Experience”.

[11] The William Jewett Foundation, better financed than the DCU, gradually assumed some of its social justice engagements. But there was a cutting-edge to the DCU that the Foundation did not seek to replicate. Rev. Kalbfleisch joined Dartmouth in the 1950s and served until his untimely death at age 56 in November 1966.

[12] The historical record of these events is very sketchy. Yet to be located, for example, are the DCU and Kalbfleisch archives. Very few photographs are available. We urgently need to retrieve and conserve materials in private collections. One of my great regrets about this period is that we were not made aware of the importance of recording, in voice, print, and photographs, what was transpiring. An addendum to this essay will be a proposal that includes the major archival work needed to reduce the vast lacunae in the historical record.

[13] The mild title does not reflect the bold, and perhaps provocative, arguments made. Text of this article is provided as an appendix.

[14] This is an experience that the Black Lives Movement and criticisms of racial privilege and supremacy is provoking among many Americans. Although aware of racial injustice in the United States, for some they are confronting for the first time their personal relationship with “structural’ or “systemic” racism and entrenched disparities. In the case of Rev. Kalbfleisch, his personal and active engagement in anti-racism goes back well before his tenure at Dartmouth. I received a letter informing me of his role in challenging the treatment of Black sailors during his service as a Chaplain in the Navy.  Composing the life history of this remarkable man is only now beginning.  

         

[15] An edited version of the talk was published by The Dartmouth on January 25, 1980 entitled “Joseph renews perspectives on Martin Luther King”.

[16] The connection between what occurred during Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960s and contemporary confrontations between right-wing extremists and Black Lives Matter supporters is evident. I did have a personal experience that conveyed Dr. King’s vulnerability at an encampment for the marchers outside Montgomery. It was described in a talk I gave for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) in St. Petersburg, Florida, on February 27, 2015. The text has been located and will be provided in the appendices of this essay.

[17] I recognize that my Trinidad background had immunized me to some extent to absurd presumptions of “white supremacy” in America. By the time I first arrived in New York City around my 13th birthday, I had lived in a country in which people of color constituted the overwhelming majority, and I was steeped in our proud cultural events, like calypso, steel band, the annual Carnival, and a high level of educational achievement. Moreover the independence movement was already underway for a few years under the leadership of the brilliant scholar-politician, Dr. Eric Williams. I had even been dressed to resemble Dr. Williams in a “Kiddie’s Carnival”, replete with his familiar sunglasses and hearing aid.

[18] I learned the places where grain liquor was privately made, for which Mr. Hamer had a fondness.

[19] This state-of-mind came up during a Q&A following a talk I gave during my years at The Carter Center. I had described traveling in Liberia for meetings at the stronghold of the warlord, Charles Taylor. I had been accompanied by a few associates and a driver in a private vehicle. We had to go through roadblocks manned by armed militants. We had no protection except for The Carter Center emblem on the car. Someone in the audience asked me if that wasn’t dangerous. I did not know how to respond. I hadn’t really thought of it.

[20] I can only hazard a guess at the co-existence of high potential for violence from state and private actors and the arenas of open speech and movement in the Mississippi Delta.

[21] An interview on the College radio station, WDCR, was conducted on January 26, 1965 where the gist of the points made during his talk was reprised.

[22] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Tx-emzRKpw&feature=youtu.be One of my proud possessions is a letter received from Malcolm X prior to his arrival. The original copy will be donated to the Rauner Library for Special Collections.

[23] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: A Brief History of Racism…(University Press, 2020).

[24] That job was arranged by Drew Newton’s parents. They had become virtually foster parents although my natural parents were alive but divorced.

[25] I did not keep a journal and only a few published essays, and the vital Drew Newton letters, document some of my experiences that summer. As part of the archival project mentioned earlier, oral interviews can tease from my memory recollections of this period. A few years ago, I learned for the first time from my sister, Angela, that my mother, Pearl Joseph, and Mrs. Hamer corresponded. Sadly, she didn’t save those letters. I assume my mother, as Jim Bopp, was seeking to understand what I was doing in the deep south, during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. One conversation I remember was with Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC/MFDP leader, and Mrs. Hamer. I explained my ideas for engaging with the challenges of the vast economic disparities. Such debates were staple feature of arguments, some heated, among SNCC activists. I had not moved to that level of engagement, but this was clearly the direction in which I was headed, in the summers of 1965 and 1967.

[26] There are several publications in which the true story is presented: “Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) in Cameroun Politics, 1948-55,” B. Phil thesis, New College, Oxford University, Trinity Term, 1969; “Ruben Um Nyobé and the ‘Kamerun’ Rebellion, African Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 293 (October, 1974); and Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the UPC Rebellion (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1977).

[27] I was also uncertain about my academic concentration. I thought of myself primarily as a political theorist, with an interest in comparative politics (largely reflecting my B. Phil. studies at Oxford). Despite my B. Phil. thesis on Cameroon political history, and study with the distinguished Africanist Thomas Hodgkin of Balliol College, my actual teaching of African politics did not occur until I joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1979. By then, I had had over a decade of immersion in Africa. The courses I taught at Dartmouth, 1979-1985, covered a spectrum but always included political theory or philosophy.

[28] The provocative declaration by one of the group’s leaders, Huey P. Newton – “Racism is as American as apple pie” – would be unremarkable if heard in a street demonstration today. Also remembered is an outdoor talk at UCLA by a Black panther (woman) who said to the assembled students: “A book can’t stop a bullet”. Not factually true, of course, depending on the bullet and the book, but her remarks were telling.

[29] This is a consideration that is perhaps seldom sufficiently noted. I never had a photograph taken with Malcolm X and Mrs. Hamer. It was a pleasure to get one with the former’s widow in Lusaka, Zambia, in January 1989.

[30] At UCLA, strongly influencing me to pursue an academic career was Professor Richard L. Sklar, a leading student of African politics including that of Nigeria. Fondly remembered is Professor Malcom H. Kerr, then the Head of the Political Science Department, who tried to persuade me to remain at UCLA. He was tragically killed in January 1984 while serving as President of the American University of Beirut. His son is the well-known professional basketball player, Steve Kerr, currently serving as the highly successful coach of the Golden State Warriors.

[31] I tried a few years ago, but failed, to get clarification on whether I was the fourth or fifth African-American Rhodes Scholar.

[32] S. Panter-Brick, ed., Soldiers and Oil: The Political Transformation of Nigeria (Routledge, 1978).

[33] Published in The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (1978).

[34] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria,” The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (November, 1983). This was a special issue edited by my Dartmouth colleague, Prof. Nelson M. Kasfir, of the Government Department. See also Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[35] See “Odyssey of an Engaged Scholar,” Inspires, Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University, 2016; and “Reflections of a Black Scholar-Activist”, New College Record, 2016.

[36] I had a two-year leave from my faculty position at Dartmouth.

[37] This will be a key issue to elaborate when I write the long-promised book on Carter Center engagements in Africa. I will be able to draw on specific episode in particular countries. The widest scope for the Center took place during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, 1988-1992. It became more restricted, and conflictual, during the Bill Clinton presidency.

[38] The entire series has been digitized and made available on Arch Library, the Open Access repository of Northwestern University.

[39] This section is being revised on November 17, 2020, not long after learning of the passing of a great scholar, Peter P. Ekeh earlier this day. Professor Ekeh was my colleague at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He left, as many top Nigerian scholars were obliged to do, to continue his career abroad. In Prof. Ekeh’s case, it was at the University of New York, Binghamton. He is particularly known for his 1975 article, “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement”. I devoted an appendix of my 1987 book on Nigeria to Prof’s Ekeh’s arguments. Coincidentally, before first arriving in that country in February 1976, my article, “The German Question in French Cameroun, 1919-1939”, had been published in the same issue of the journal that included his celebrated treatise: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January, 1975).

[40] A Nigerian edition had been published by Spectrum Books of Ibadan in 1991.

[41] Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield). My advance copy of this elegant volume arrived today, as I completed this essay: November 18.

[42] Monica Mark, “A.N.C. Leaders Faces Charges of Corruption in South Africa,” and Ruth Maclean, “Nigeria Goes on Offensive Against Youth Protesting Police Brutality”.

[43] Morning in South Africa (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

[44] This was the central argument in my keynote address to the inaugural conference of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, February 1-2, 2016:  https://africaplus.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/the-nigerian-prospect-democratic-resilience-amid-global-turmoil/. See also a talk delivered at the Department of Political Science of Northwestern University: “The Fight of Our Time: State, Governance, and Development in Nigeria” .

[46] Notable slippage, in addition to Nigeria, has occurred in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Most worrying is Ethiopia where major warfare is being conducted between the federal government and one of its provinces (and a redoubtable opponent), Tigray.