Nkechi Taifa-Courtesy of Nkechi Taifa
One of the most pivotal and prolific lectures I heard while a student at Howard University during the early 1970’s did not come from a professor or PhD but from a speaker in a room on the first floor of Frederick Douglas Hall. The speaker was tall, dark-skinned, and sported a bald head. He was talking history—my major—and my ears were on fire. He ran down the specifics of the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution: “The 13th amendment freed you, but the 14th amendment could not have made you a citizen. You had to have been asked if you wanted to be a citizen. And we were never asked.”
My eyes were wide with amazement.
Wow, I never looked at it that way before, I mused to myself incredulously. You mean we’re not legally citizens of the United States?
Several months later, I saw a flyer announcing an organizing meeting for something called the Republic of New Afrika and its National Black Elections. The meeting was to be held at D.C.’s All Souls Unitarian Church. When I got to the meeting and heard what I heard, I had an “aha” moment as I remembered the brother’s speech from Douglas Hall that had so intrigued me. We were not citizens; we had never been asked, and as such, we were entitled to the international right to self-determination. I knew that this was the movement I had been seeking, but little did I know that it would become the movement that would occupy the elephant’s share of my time and energy for many years.
The Early History of the RNA
As I worked with the RNA’s Washington, D.C. unit to build the first National Black Elections that would be held in 1975, I studied and learned that the Republic of New Afrika had been founded at a convention of Black nationalists in Detroit, Mich., on March 31, 1968. At that convention, the nation was named the Republic of New Afrika. A provisional or temporary “pre-independence” government was formed to carry on the political life of the government. Five states in the deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—were identified as the subjugated national territory of the nation. A Constitution was written called the Code of Umoja, and a Declaration of Independence from the United States was adopted, all under a mandate to “Free the Land!”
Needless to say, as a young college student with aspirations of one day becoming a lawyer, I was mesmerized by the concept of an independent nation with formal laws and a constitution, all buttressed by international law.
I delved deeper. The creation of the Republic of New Afrika was the direct work of the Malcolm X Society, founded in 1967, an outgrowth of the Detroit-based civil rights organization, Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), founded in 1961. Led by the Henry brothers, more popularly known as Gaidi Obadele and Imari Abubakari Obadele, the Malcolm X Society was designed to carry on and accelerate the teachings of Malcolm X after his 1965 assassination. The Society summoned hundreds to Detroit to introduce what it deemed to be the next logical step in Malcolm’s political evolution—control of Black communities through the establishment of an independent nation-state governed by Black people. A small treatise originally authored by Imari Obadele in 1966, “War in America: The Malcolm X Doctrine,” embodied this concept of Black self-government. This doctrine—along with the themes of independent land, internationalization, and self-defense – constituted the main philosophy behind the formation of the Republic of New Afrika.
Prominent movement leaders were elected for the new Black government at the founding convention on March 31, 1968. Robert Williams, admired for his 1961 stance on armed self-defense in North Carolina and exiled in China at the time, was elected President. Gaidi Obadele, a distinguished attorney and confidante of Malcolm X, was named First Vice President. The widow of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, was named Second Vice President. Imari Obabele, a former technical writer for the military, was elected Minister of Information. Herman Ferguson, an assistant principal in New York’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school system, was designated as Minister of Education. Longstanding reparationist icon and activist Queen Mother Audley Moore was named Minister of Health and Welfare; H. Rap Brown was chosen as Minister of Defense. The Co-Ministers of Culture were Amiri Baraka, Maulana Ron Karenga, and Oseijeman Adefunmi.
RNA Teachings and Philosophy
The year was 1968 and it appeared as if everyone wanted to be a part of this dynamic new movement. Some of these early leaders were involved in name only; others never served, while some stayed active until their deaths. Whatever their level of involvement, the clear message being delivered was that this was the birth of a new era, and a new movement of nationalism—what would come to be known as the New Afrikan Independence Movement.
The Republic of New Afrika taught that Black people in the U.S., descendants of enslaved people in North America, were citizens of the RNA by birth, as the result of having been kidnapped from Africa and molded by a common history of oppression into a New Afrikan nation in the world. The RNA nation-state, although geographically separated from the continent of Africa, was nevertheless a new branch of the African family tree on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the repression of language, religion, and history, the essence of African cultures from different regions in Africa had survived these experiences in America and fused into a new culture—a new nation—a New Afrikan nation. The RNA taught that Blacks may choose to give up their New Afrikan citizenship, may choose dual RNA/USA citizenship, or may opt for exclusive RNA or USA citizenship. However, the right of choice was key and at the crux of the international right to self-determination.
The RNA taught that after the passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there were four options that pertained to the political future of the newly freed persons: (1) the right to return to Africa, as they were the victims of warfare and illegal kidnapping; (2) the right to general emigration, as families had been fragmented and scattered throughout the Diaspora; (3) the right to seek admission as citizens into the United States and strive for a multi-racial democracy; and (4) the right to remain on this land, negotiate with the Native Americans, and establish an independent Black nation on this soil, as the ties to our African homeland had been severed. In varying degrees over time, each of these options would be exercised by various sectors of the Black nation.
At no time, however, was a plebiscite or people’s vote held to inform Blacks of these options so that an informed and collective determination could be made with regard to a political future. Instead, the RNA taught that U.S. citizenship was a unilateral decision that had been thrust upon citizens of the Black nation, and as such, was not legally binding on those who may choose otherwise.
The RNA Targeted for Government Repression
The RNA claimed rights that belong to human beings throughout the world, including the right to damages, in the form of reparations, due as the result of the enslavement era and beyond, and for social, psychological, and economic damages that had been inflicted for centuries. The RNA also believed in the right to self-defense, and successfully confronted (1) an attack during its first anniversary celebration, (2) a potential assault on a southern highway, and (3) an assassination attempt as I will explain below.
In 1969, during the first anniversary celebration of the RNA’s founding, police officers indiscriminately fired over 800 rounds into Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. This occurred after an unknown assailant shot two police officers outside the church. There were no casualties inside the church due to the quick thinking of Imari Obadele and the RNA security force who shielded the people from the barrage of police bullets and led them to safety in the church basement. All persons inside Rev. C. L. Franklin’s church—over 150 men, women, and children—were arrested. Three RNA citizens were ultimately tried, successfully defended in court, and subsequently acquitted of the shooting of the officers.
Following the 1970 election of Imari Obadele as President of the new nation, the center of the struggle for a Black land base in North America was moved to the RNA’s national territory in Mississippi. Again, repression ensued. At an historic RNA land celebration in Hinds County, Miss., the Ku Klux Klan vowed they would not allow the event to take place, and law enforcement erected a barricade in an attempt to prevent the consecration of the RNA’s national capital, named El Malik. After Chokwe Lumumba, consul from Detroit at the time, asserted to the authorities that “if there’s going to be bloodshed, it’s going to be on both sides,” the road lined with police and Klan opened up, the RNA caravan of nation-builders passed through, and the celebration continued.
On August 18, 1971, during a pre-dawn, unprovoked raid ostensibly to serve a warrant on a fugitive who was not present, federal and state law enforcement officials physically attacked the RNA official residence in Jackson, Miss., using Jackson’s infamous Thompson Tank. After officials shot lethal rockets with gas charges through the back bedrooms, some of the occupants who had been asleep roused and exercised their right to self-defense and returned the fire, while others retreated to a bunker under the house. When the gunfire stopped, the RNA citizens had suffered no casualties, but a police officer lost his life and another officer and FBI agent were wounded. Seven RNA citizens were arrested at the scene as well as RNA President Imari Obadele and three others who were not at the scene of the shooting but were sleeping at the RNA headquarters several blocks away. However, all eleven were charged with either murder or conspiracy, as well as waging war against the state of Mississippi, a scurrilous charge that was later dropped. They were convicted and sentenced to various terms. Obadele was sentenced to 12 years in prison and served five years in Mississippi state and federal prisons.
It was not until March 31, 1977, after all his appeals had been exhausted, that the FBI admitted that Imari Obadele in particular, and the Republic of New Afrika in general, were targets of its counterintelligence program, code-named COINTELPRO. The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (i.e., the Church Committee, named after its chair, Senator Frank Church) described the COINTELPRO as an illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power by the government. The goal of the COINTELPRO against the Black movement was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist … organizations and groupings and their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.”
My Work with RNA (1973-74 until the late ‘90s)
It’s hard to believe now that all this history had transpired a mere 3-5 years before I was introduced to RNA as a Howard undergrad student. I was so inspired and enthused by this movement that was very new to me that I decided to write a letter to the President of this New Afrikan nation in North America while he was in prison. It read:
Dear President Imari, I am sorry that you are imprisoned. I work with the Republic of New Afrika in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Brother Tyehimba. I hope to go to law school one day. Please let me know if there is anything I can ever do to help you. Free the Land! Sister Nkechi
I didn’t know it then, but I quickly learned that one does not write Brother Imari and ask what you can do without being fully committed. I received a ten-foot-long list detailing step-by-step, point-by-point, what was needed.
One of the specific responses from Brother Imari’s prison cell to my innocent offer of assistance was that I chair the National Committee to Free the RNA-11. It would become quite an illustrious Committee. Under Brother Imari’s direction, I sent letters to Congresspersons Charles Diggs, John Conyers, and Ronald Dellums. I reached out to Rev. David Eaton of D.C.’s All Souls Unitarian Church; Rev. Ishakamusa Barashango of D.C.’s Temple of the Black Messiah; and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. I contacted Professors James Turner of Cornell, Attorney Derrick Bell of Harvard, and Dr. Ronald Walters of Howard. Also included on my list of people to contact to join the National Committee to Free the RNA-11 were esteemed poets Haki Madhubuti, Kalamu Ya Salaam, and Sonia Sanchez. Community leaders such as Baba El Senzengakulu Zulu, former SNCC Field Secretary and founder of Ujamaa School and Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and Julian Richardson of Marcus Books in Oakland, Calif., also were invited to participate. When I made the follow-up calls, everyone responded immediately, “Yes, I will lend my name. Anything for Brother Imari.”
I found myself doing things I had never done before—contacting lawyers, sending letters to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim of the U.N.’s Special Committee on Decolonization, calling the FBI and Justice Department, and writing letters all over the country to influential Black professionals. I was a mere college student. I was definitely not a diplomat, used to talking to Amnesty International or telephoning the United Church of Christ and other huge groups, requesting large sums of money.
Our Committee’s letterhead reflected the struggle of RNA, thanks to the skillful work of Rev. Barashango, who in addition to being a Black nationalist preacher, was also a printer by trade. The letterhead featured the infamous image of the brothers and sisters of the RNA-11 being paraded down a Mississippi street half-dressed, barefoot, and in chains. The dehumanizing spectacle was reminiscent of captured runaway slaves being unceremoniously marched to the town square for execution.
The RNA and COINTELPRO
After Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits resulted in the release of once-secret documents, I discovered that the FBI had arranged for highly prejudicial stories against the RNA to appear in the press and had also forged inflammatory letters to spouses, friends, cadres, and supporters of the Republic of New Afrika. I was absolutely livid. I read evidence from the FBI’s own files that they had even tried to inspire violence between the Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) and Black numbers runners in Detroit who were thought to be supporting the Black nationalist movement. I was irate. The nerve!
I examined pages of shocking text in between the copious redacted, blacked-out blocks unmasking FBI tactics to promote violence between RNA personnel and the Black Panther Party. I inspected letters on fake RNA letterhead addressed to the Black Panther Party over Brother President Imari Obadele’s forged signature. One letter suggested that the Republic of New Afrika was “a better group” to join than the Black Panthers. What type of reaction would have been generated when the Black Panthers received such a letter? FBI agents were incentivized to be ever “creative” in devising new and innovative ways to “disrupt and destroy” the Black movement in general and the Republic of New Afrika in particular.
Another document revealed that the FBI sought to provoke the Jewish Defense League into acts of violence against the RNA and interviewed White people in Mississippi sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan to gauge their willingness to join in any Klan action against the RNA. As I read page after page of notorious FBI documents revealing scurrilous lies to defame the reputation of Brother Imari and other Black freedom fighters, I knew that I could not rest until he and the other defendants of the RNA-11 were free.
And ultimately, they all were freed; Obadele was released in 1980, after serving five years on federal conspiracy charges arising from the Mississippi attack on the RNA residence. He then moved to Washington, D.C. for several years, where he worked closely with the D.C. unit before he earned a PhD in political science from Temple University and went on to become a professor. The D.C. unit of the Republic of New Afrika was one of the most active RNA chapters, particularly during the time Brother Imari was unjustly incarcerated and after his release while he lived in D.C.
RNA’s Washington, D.C. Unit
Beginning in 1975, the RNA held National Black Elections every three years to elect representatives to the RNA Congress, called the People’s Center Council, along with judges to RNA’s People’s Court (analogous to the U.S. Supreme Court) to lead the Black Government. Elected judges from D.C. over the years have included Baba Zulu; Rev. Barashango; Sister Dorothy Lewis, founder of the Black Reparations Commission; former civil rights activist Mama Marilyn Killingham; elder Nia Kuumba; and local activist Brother Kalonji Olusegun (formerly known as Vince Godwin) among others. After serving for years as President, Brothers Kwame Afoh (formerly known as Edell Lydia) and Kalonji Olusegun were later voted in as RNA President and Vice President.
During the 1980’s Brother Thomas Stanley served as Minister of Information, and yours truly served as Minister of Justice. Others who worked diligently as part of the D.C. unit included Sister Njeri, Sister Tuere Marshall, Brother Imamu Kuumba, who later founded D.C.’s African Freedom Fund Treasury; Brother Bomani Sekou, who was part of The People’s Organization; former Black Panther Patrice Toure; Brother Imani Mahdi; Sister Sala Damali; Brother Fati; Sister Johnetta; and others. We all worked very diligently to free Brother Imari Obadele and the RNA-11, and to carry out the mandates of the Republic of New Afrika and its Provisional Government.
There was, however, much dissension and unrest within the Republic of New Afrika nationally, primarily around the feasibility of holding popular elections as a pre-independence government. A split resulted, with the D.C. cadre lining up solidly in support of President Imari and his vision of a popularly elected, albeit provisional government. There was much internal discussion and debate spanning years, culminating in the formation of a reconciliation government in 1984, reuniting the two sides. Although tensions were still high, there was a mutual desire to move forward with operational unity and not succumb to COINTELPRO machinations.
Independent Black Schools
During the mid-1970’s, D.C. was a stronghold for Independent Black Schools, and I was teaching at Nation House Watoto School at the time. As such, D.C.’s RNA unit held many of its public events at either Watoto, Ujamaa, or Roots schools, or at All Souls Church, RAP, Inc., and other community centers. In addition to working to free the RNA-11, our steadfast cadre organized Kwanzaa programs, which we held annually on the holiday’s Kujichagulia (self-determination) night. We educated the community around issues of political prisoners, highlighted FBI abuses that were part of COINTELPRO, and advocated in support of reparations for the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States. Indeed, Imari Obadele and the Republic of New Afrika were the primary catalysts behind the later formation of N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, founded on September 26, 1987, in Washington, D.C. N’COBRA became the organization that hoisted the concept of reparations from the fringe corners of Black nationalism toward more universal acceptance. And our D.C. unit supported the Imari Obadele New Afrikan Shule, a Saturday school for children that I founded, which existed from 1973 – 1980.
Catalyst for Other Formations
In conclusion, the founding of the Republic of New Afrika, coming three years after the assassination of Malcolm X and four days prior to the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr., signaled a new stage in the evolution of the Black Nation in North America. Although destabilized almost from its inception as the result of external repression and internal strife fueled by that repression, the D.C. chapter of the RNA sought diligently to inform Black people of their rights under international law to self-determination and to struggle for the rights of Black political prisoners and prisoners of war. As I and other local D.C. RNA leaders became less involved in day-to-day RNA organizing, we put the elephant’s share of our energies into mobilizing for reparations through N’COBRA.
Today, the RNA still exists nationally, albeit smaller and absent well-known leaders, but it became the catalyst for newer movements such as the New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, under the leadership of Chokwe Lumumba, to pick up the baton and advance the liberation struggle in North America.
Nkechi Taifa is a Washington, D.C.-based community organizer and legal justice advocate. She founded the Justice Roundtable, worked for the Open Society Institute, and co-hosts the “Crossroads” radio show on WPFW with Roach Brown. Taifa is the author of a forthcoming book, titled Black Power, Black Lawyer.
Copyright © 2020 Nkechi Taifa. All rights reserved.
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