Birth of the New Afrikan Independence Movement: A Historical Overview

The following is an excerpt from Edward Onaci’s Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State.

On March 31, 1968, over 500 Black nationalists convened in Detroit to begin the process of securing independence from the United States. Many concluded that Black Americans’ best remaining hope for liberation was the creation of a sovereign nation-state, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). New Afrikan citizens traced boundaries that encompassed a large portion of the South–including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana–as part of their demand for reparation. As champions of these goals, they framed their struggle as one that would allow the descendants of enslaved people to choose freely whether they should be citizens of the United States. New Afrikans also argued for financial restitution for the enslavement and subsequent inhumane treatment of Black Americans. The struggle to “Free the Land” remains active to this day.

This book is the first to tell the full history of the RNA and the New Afrikan Independence Movement. Edward Onaci shows how New Afrikans remade their lifestyles and daily activities to create a self-consciously revolutionary culture, and argues that the RNA’s tactics and ideology were essential to the evolution of Black political struggles. Onaci expands the story of Black Power politics, shedding new light on the long-term legacies of mid-century Black Nationalism.

Onaci’s Free The Land was featured recently on our Black History Month 2022 Reading List: Biographies.

On March 29, 1969, New Afrikans assembled at New Bethel Baptist Church, Reverend C. L. Franklin’s ecumenical home, during a weekend-long celebration of the Republic of New Afrika’s first anniversary. Active in grassroots organizing, Reverend Franklin at times worked on civil rights campaigns with two Republic of New Afrika (RNA) cofounders, Milton and Richard Henry, including the 1963 “Freedom March” at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” sequence. Even though Reverend Franklin never claimed to support the creation of an independent black nation-state, he sometimes rented his church for black political activities.

As the day’s festivities were coming to a close, between forty and fifty police officers burst into the building. According to newspaper reports, they trained their weapons on the two hundred or so attending men, women, and children; and they may have exchanged shots with a rifleman in open view near the altar, as well as someone shooting from a semiconcealed location in the ceiling. The assault came moments after officers Michael Czapski and Richard Worobec observed armed guards from the Black Legion (the RNA military) outside the church building. Newspaper accounts claimed the guards shot the two officers—one fatally—as Czapski and Worobec approached to question the black men. Detroit police suggested the armed Legionnaires then ran into New Bethel, still shooting, as more officers arrived to rescue the dying Czapski and wounded Worobec. The onslaught left four attendees injured and resulted in 143 arrests. To the displeasure of local police and the Detroit News, black judge George Crockett released most of the arrestees the following morning.

The “New Bethel Incident” and its immediate aftermath drew national attention and sensationalistic media coverage to the year-old RNA Provisional Government (PG-RNA). Police-community relations were already tense, and the battle at New Bethel strained them severely. It seemed to confirm fears that Black Power was indeed going after Anglo America’s “mama,” as former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Julius Lester quipped. For some white Detroiters, the gun battle evidenced another violent clash between “black militants” and the police, and provided one more justification for their flight from the inner city to more guarded homes in the suburbs. For New Afrikans, the events of March 29 served as a reminder that the U.S. government would use its extensive resources to prevent RNA activists from bringing their version of Black Power, the attainment of New Afrikan independence, to fruition. Many New Afrikans also understood it as the first battle in what promised to be a long and drawn-out war for self-determination.

The PG-RNA and the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM) it initiated developed out of Detroit’s legacy of black struggle. The PG-RNA emerged specifically from the activism of the 1960s with the goal of independent statehood. Essential in this story were brothers Gaidi and Imari Obadele (also known as Milton and Richard Henry, respectively), leading figures in the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL) and the Malcolm X Society. Their activism and ideological evolution led to the call for the National Black Government Conference, later considered a convention, that birthed the PG-RNA. Following the convention, the PG-RNA weathered two major splits, two well-known shootouts, and other forms of overt and covert repression. Nevertheless, the PG-RNA and the movement survived.

The NAIM came into existence during an era that witnessed profound shifts in America’s political atmosphere that ended Black Power and ushered in a new, more conservative sociopolitical moment. The growing state oppression and conservatism of the years that followed would effectively end the Black Power movement. New Afrikans’ success in making it through this era set the context of the “New Afrikan Political Science” and the ways that participation in the NAIM was more than just a form of political activism—it came to shape activists’ whole lives.

Black Struggle in Detroit and the Prehistory of the RNA

Detroit’s story is one of migration, racial conflict, and black liberation struggle against a backdrop of industrial growth and decline. From the 1880s through World War II, the opening of new industries in Detroit prompted a migration that dramatically changed the city’s population density and demographic makeup. Detroit’s renown as the “Motor City” beckoned immigrants from all over the nation and world whose residency, in turn, helped the city become the fourth largest in the United States by 1920. In one period of tremendous growth between 1910 and 1920, black migrants increased the city’s African American population by 611.3 percent. This dramatic increase resulted partially from the expansion of the auto industry and the “relaxation” of discriminatory employment practices. Detroit met steady streams of black migrants originating from almost every state in the Deep South and several northern Atlantic states. With World War I and the anti-immigrant legislation that followed, black migrants found unprecedented success in Detroit’s labor market. Despite new work opportunities and growth in the African American population, black Detroiters had not overcome the major racial obstacles that characterized their quest for employment and decent housing in the wartime era and its aftermath. Companies hired black job seekers out of desperation and fired them at whim, and tensions between black workers and their white peers often led to violence.

Edward Onaci is associate professor of history at Ursinus College.