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The Unknown Relationship between Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X

Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah at the Harlem Rally honoring Nkrumah in in July, 1958.

February 21, 2021 marked the 56th commemoration of the assassination of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz aka Malcolm X in Harlem, New York.  The 24th marked the 50th commemoration of the CIA (Criminals In Action) sponsored coup that overthrew Kwame Nkrumah’s democratically elected government in Ghana.  The close historical proximity of the downfall of these Pan-African giants is not coincidental although the history of the relationship between these two men is largely ignored and/or unknown.

March 6, 1957, marked the celebration of Ghana becoming the first colonized country in Africa to claim its independence from Europe. During his independence day speech, Nkrumah made it abundantly clear that Ghana’s independence was nothing more than a paper declaration without the independence of the entire African continent. From that day forward, a significant focus of Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party was making Ghana the base of the African revolution. Liberation forces from all over the continent set up bases in Ghana and were provided resources to train and prepare for their liberation work. Since Nkrumah’s vision was a Pan-African one, meaning he understood that all people of African descent are Africans and belong to the African nation, an important aspect of this period included inviting Africans from all over the world to come to Ghana to help in establishing it as the revolutionary Pan-African base.  

Many people heeded this call. W.E.B. DuBois and his wife Shirley Graham DuBois moved to Ghana. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong came. Academic Julian Mayfield moved there. Poet Maya Angelou responded to the call. Revolutionary organizer George Padmore, who remains probably the most unknown and significant contributor to African forward progress in the 20th century, came to Ghana and became an advisor to Nkrumah’s government. Ghana became the shining star for the hopes of Africans everywhere and Nkrumah became an inspiration and symbol of a greater future for African people. In July 1958, Nkrumah came to the U.S. and a major rally was organized in Harlem to receive him. Malcolm X was invited to participate in that rally and it was there that he was introduced to Kwame Nkrumah. According to Nkrumah’s letters published in 1990 in the book The Conakry Years, Nkrumah and Malcolm developed a relationship that they maintained until Malcolm’s assassination in 1965.  Although he didn’t provide much detail, according to Nkrumah’s letters, the two of them stayed in contact during this period with Nkrumah advising Malcolm on an analysis of evolving political events. Serious study of Malcolm’s legacy reveals that he had a penchant for building relationships with revolutionary leaders/activists who’s radical politics landed far outside the realm of the theology of the Nation of Islam. 

Another example of this was Malcolm’s invitation to meet Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s visit to Harlem in 1960. As he did with Nkrumah, Malcolm begged Elijah Muhammad for permission to meet both men. Although Muhammad was not overly enthusiastic about these meetings, Malcolm was able to negotiate space to make these connections. These political ambitions that Malcolm possessed speak to his evolving political consciousness and his growing radical beliefs which really explain his path towards leaving the Nation of Islam much better than the commonly held narrative that he left because of Muhammad’s fathering of several children with secretaries within the Nation. Malcolm was inspired by the radical Pan-Africanist ideals of Kwame Nkrumah and according to Nkrumah, they spoke about those ideals in that period between 1958 and 1964.  

After Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam, he made his much publicized trip to Africa. Much has been written and screened about his trip to the Middle East and his Muslim Hajj to Mecca.  The story of his letter detailing his evolution in his understanding of Islam has been repeated significantly for the last 50 years, but not much has been discussed about his trips to Africa.  Spike Lee’s unfortunate 1992 film “Malcolm X” barely dealt with Malcolm’s travels to Africa.  This is interesting because between Nkrumah’s letters, FBI and CIA files made public, and Malcolm’s own diary, there is a lot to decipher about Malcolm’s experiences in Africa in general, and Ghana in particular. 

By the time Malcolm made it Ghana in 1964, his work to expose the racist hypocrisy of  the U.S. government was receiving significant press around the world. Nkrumah, forced to balance a government system that possessed a strong grassroots desire for independence and liberation while being totally dependent upon the skills and resources of Britain and the U.S. to function, was torn between negotiating with the Johnson Administration for much needed material support and making a public connection with Malcolm. So while Malcolm was provided all the respect of a visiting diplomat in Ghana, there was no initial invite or promise of a meeting with Nkrumah. It should be noted that while Malcolm was in Ghana, the American government made it clear to Nkrumah’s Administration that they were very displeased at the favorable treatment Malcolm was receiving in Ghana and they would be very upset were Nkrumah to “disrespect them” by giving Malcolm any type of meeting or other official recognition. Eventually, it was Mrs. DuBois, who at that time was the National Director for Ghanaian Television, who urged Nkrumah to ignore the threats of the U.S. and British governments and do the right thing, have a meeting with Brother Malcolm. So Nkrumah took the still extremely unusual step of agreeing as a president to have a meeting with a visiting dissident from another country, the most powerful country on the planet. The meeting took place. 

Malcolm, even in his diary, never revealed much about what was discussed. There was another meeting when Malcolm returned to Ghana months later and Malcolm still wrote little about what took place. He did make note in his diary of how much of an issue it was for Nkrumah, and Sekou Ture in Guinea, to decide to meet with him. In fact, he talks about how when eating dinner at the Vila Syli in Conakry with Sekou Ture, he was able to ask the President of Guinea about the pressures involved in inviting him there.  Malcolm wrote that Ture, who he said was constantly adding food to Malcolm’s plate while he talked to him, told him that “African people need dignity more than money.”  Malcolm inferred that he took Ture’s statement to mean that true African revolutionaries like Ture and Nkrumah were more concerned about principle than consequences.  

Despite never revealing much about their meetings, Malcolm was clearly impressed with what he experienced with Nkrumah. Although his autobiography is full of references to his earlier association with Elijah Muhammad and his 1964 meetings with Prince Faisal in Saudi Arabia and Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, it was his meetings with Nkrumah that Malcolm calls “the highest honor of my life.” It was also Ghana that Malcolm labeled the “fountainhead of Pan-Africanism.” 

Its no mystery that Malcolm’s speeches, even before he left the Nation of Islam, started sounding more and more like that of a revolutionary Pan-Africanist. His famous “chickens coming home to roost” statement days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated is a clear example. Malcolm skillfully used the analogy of Kennedy’s support for the illegal destabilization and overthrow of the Lumumba government in the Congo and the subsequent murder of Lumumba as a case of the violence Kennedy supported coming back around to hit him. Patrice Lumumba was one of those youthful liberation movement persons who took up base in Ghana, heeding Nkrumah’s call. Lumumba considered himself a student of Nkrumah and he took counsel from Nkrumah during the crisis in the Congo in 1960. If Malcolm and Nkrumah maintained a relationship, doesn’t it seem logical that Malcolm’s words on December 1, 1963, about Kennedy— words that many people credit with expediting the break between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad— were influenced by the radical Pan-African analysis of Kwame Nkrumah? The book entitled The Final Speeches of Malcolm X which represents – chronologically – the very last speeches Malcolm made in the two weeks leading up to his assassination, all have a decided focus on Africa and it’s role in the liberation of people of African descent everywhere. This reality coupled with the fact Malcolm decided to name his new organization the Organization of Afro-American Unity – after the Organization of African Unity that Nkrumah had helped found the year before, say more about how much Malcolm was being influenced by Nkrumah’s politics than anything Malcolm or Nkrumah needed to say about their relationship themselves.  

For his part, Nkrumah wasn’t revealing much either, but he did speak to one chilling aspect of their relationship in his letter to Julia Wright, the daughter of author Richard Wright. In that letter, written a couple of years after Malcolm’s assassination and the overthrow of his government in Ghana, Nkrumah, writing from Guinea-Conakry, tells Ms. Wright that his intelligence officers in Ghana had alerted him during the time Malcolm was in Ghana that they had intercepted “reliable” information that Malcolm would be assassinated once he returned to the U.S. Nkrumah writes that he passed this information along to Malcolm during one of their meetings and that Malcolm responded with dignity and resignation to the news. Nkrumah’s reason for revealing this to Ms. Wright was that he wanted Malcolm to stay in Ghana and help to build the work Nkrumah was engaging in. Work we now know consisted of his recognition that the Organization of African Unity, now known as the African Union, was a top down organization that would forever be controlled by neo-colonialism and imperialism. Once Nkrumah was in Conakry, he saw that what was needed was a grassroots revolutionary Pan-African formation which he calls for in his 1968 work Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare. That grassroots formation is the All African Committee for Political Coordination which consists of all the on the ground Pan-African liberation parties and movements. Once consolidated, this formation would make up the All African People’s Revolutionary Party. Clearly, Nkrumah wanted Malcolm to participate in this work. Three years after Malcolm was murdered another African leader who made a name for himself engaging in militant struggle against the racist system in the U.S. would come to Africa and meet with Nkrumah.That man was the young Stokely Carmichael who, unlike Malcolm, would decide to stay and become Nkrumah’s political secretary in Guinea.This young man would later change his name to Kwame Ture to honor Nkrumah and Sekou Ture and he would spend the last 30 years of his life working to bring Nkrumah’s vision of the All African Committee for Political Coordination into existence. In a telling revelation, Nkrumah revealed some of his early frustration with the immaturity of the young Carmichael and possibly the depths of the discussions and intentions he had with Malcolm when he expressed in one letter that “Stokely talks too much. He’s not nearly as mature as Malcolm was.”

There is enough evidence available today to confirm that Nkrumah wanted Malcolm to move beyond the bickering with Elijah Muhammad so he could work directly with him to build Pan-African capacity. What they actually discussed, planned, agreed upon, we may never know, but one thing is clear, they were working together, at least on some level. On this 56th commemoration of Malcolm’s assassination, we are secure in the knowledge that Malcolm was no more interested in returning to the Nation of Islam than a disillusioned lover would be in returning to a relationship where they had been wronged. He may have been unsure and without complete confidence in what he could do, but from an ideological perspective Malcolm had clearly moved on. And given more time and space, without the intense harassment that was instigated by the U.S. government, Malcolm probably would have moved to a higher level of revolutionary Pan-African work with a clear emphasis on the unity of Africa under scientific socialism. And, with this week being the 56th commemoration of the overthrow of Nkrumah’s government in Ghana by reactionary neo-colonialist thugs, we know that Nkrumah learned from the events of the Congo in 1960/61, and the overthrow of his own government, that neo-colonialism is the biggest threat to African unity. He knew that imperialism can only be destroyed by the masses of African people. His work to produce an analysis that captured that was probably his greatest contribution to our forward struggle and progress.  Malcolm and Nkrumah played their part and made their contributions. This week, I’m thinking about what we can do to build on the legacy they gave us.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.

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