When Kenneth David Kaunda died in Lusaka, Zambia on June 17, 2021, it marked the passing of the last of the great African nationalists who led the fight against racism and colonialism. Kaunda, known by all as “KK,” first emerged on the international stage in the 1950s as an organizer for the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress (NRANC). He rode around the vast northern province on his bicycle with his guitar in tow, giving speeches and singing freedom songs in scores of villages and thereby inspiring the locals to found NRANC branches. After serving time in prison for his activism, he emerged to take charge of the splinter United National Independence Party (UNIP) in 1960. He was chosen as the first African prime minister of Northern Rhodesia in early 1964, and when Zambia became independent on October 24 that year, he took the reins as the first president. He held that post until 1991. This story is familiar to many students of African history, but less well-known is Kaunda’s central role in relations between his nation and the United States. Indeed, for over 40 years beginning in 1960, KK did more than anyone else to build bridges between Zambia and the US.
Kaunda’s connections with the US started in 1960 when he participated in Africa Freedom Day festivities in New York City and encountered civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. Kaunda visited several places across the US, including Atlanta, where he reunited with King for an event at the Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King served as pastor). Their friendship personified the global nature of the fight against racism and initiated an important long-term connection between black Americans and Zambians. In 1961 KK returned for Africa Freedom Day, and although he was only a nationalist in a British colony, was invited to the White House for a meeting with John F. Kennedy. Kaunda impressed Kennedy, and vice versa. In 1963 after receiving an honorary doctorate from Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, KK revisited the White House and this time met with attorney general Robert Kennedy, the president’s fiery younger brother. The Kennedy brothers made a real impression on KK, and he was deeply saddened by their assassinations.
In early December 1964, shortly after independence, Kaunda returned to the White House for talks with President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). Johnson had done much to facilitate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and while vice president had taken a trip to Senegal. Although LBJ’s resume seemed to suggest good things for Kaunda and Zambia, the presidential summit started out positively but quickly devolved into disagreement. Kaunda’s criticism of a recent US intervention in the Congo to rescue hostages angered Johnson and the session ended on a sour note. Seeing that LBJ was no Kennedy reinforced Kaunda’s inclination to pursue a non-aligned foreign policy, and in 1965 he began working to establish ties with the governments in China and the Soviet Union. His efforts bore fruit when China agreed to build a railroad connecting the Copperbelt to the port of Dar Es Salaam. The US worried about Zambian friendliness with the Communist bloc, and high-ranking diplomats such as Vice President Hubert Humphrey maintained close ties with Kaunda until the end of the Johnson years.
For the only time between the presidencies of John Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, there would be no White House visit by Kaunda during the Richard Nixon era. Following a Nixon directive to keep Africa at the bottom of the foreign affairs agenda, his staff refused to arrange a meeting of the presidents when KK journeyed to the USA to speak at the United Nations in 1970. Displeased at this show of disrespect, Kaunda accused Nixon of racism. During the rest of Nixon’s tenure, members of Congress and State Department officials repeatedly urged the scheduling of a meeting between the presidents, but it was not to be. Impressive diplomats such as Representative Charles Diggs, secretary of state William Rogers, and ambassador to the United Nations, George H.W. Bush, all travelled to Lusaka for talks with Kaunda during the Nixon years, so it was not quite a case of Kaunda being ignored completely by US officials.
Although stymied at the highest political level, Kaunda succeeded in building cultural connections between Zambians and black Americans in the early 1970s. Shortly after the snub by Nixon, KK hosted the legendary African American singer James Brown at the State House in Lusaka. Brown, known as the Godfather of Soul, thrilled Zambian audiences with lively performances on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka, and KK had attended the Lusaka show. During their dinner at State House, Kaunda and Brown spoke at length about their shared love of music. By embracing Brown and his funky music, KK improved his popularity among Zambians and strengthened bonds with blacks in the USA. Other similar landmark events during the mid-1970s in Lusaka included a concert by Duke Ellington and a visit by Coretta King to open the Martin Luther King library for Zambian students.
With the overthrow of the dictator Marcello Caetano in Portugal (which caused the independence of Mozambique and Angola) and the replacement of the disgraced Nixon with Gerald Ford as US president, the year 1974 marked a turning point for KK’s role in US relations with southern Africa. Good diplomacy by Jean Wilkowski, the US ambassador in Lusaka, and Vernon Mwaanga, the Zambian foreign minister, laid the groundwork for a Kaunda state visit to the White House in April 1975. Ford was a gracious host, even when KK lambasted the US for not having a very admirable policy toward his region since the days of Kennedy. Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, met at length with Kaunda and his team and were treated to KK’s detailed analysis of the challenging situation in his part of the world, particularly in Angola which was descending into civil war. For the next ten years Kaunda occupied center stage when it came to US relations with southern Africa.
In April 1976, Kissinger delivered one of the most significant speeches in the history of US foreign relations in Lusaka, and his pledge to fight colonialism and racism brought KK to tears. Kaunda and Kissinger met multiple times for long talks throughout 1976 in hopes of facilitating a settlement that would bring peace, majority rule, and independence to neighboring Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). There was no question that Kissinger considered KK’s advice and mediation crucial to the undertaking. Their attempt came up short but not for lack of effort by either Kaunda or Kissinger, who left office when his boss Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in November.
Carter kept the diplomatic spotlight on Rhodesia and worked more closely with KK than any other US president. The highlight was a three-day state visit to Washington by Kaunda in May 1978, when the two presidents spent many hours in conversation. During a black-tie dinner at the White House, KK strummed his guitar and sang his most famous freedom song, “Tiyende Pamodzi” (let us go forward together), in Bemba. The Carter years also featured continued cooperation between Kaunda and African Americans, most notably the US ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. Young served as Carter’s point man on relations with southern Africa, and he met multiple times with KK and with other southern African leaders. Kaunda, ultimately, played a central role in influencing the decision by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to organize a conference in late 1979 at Lancaster House which eventually brought peace, majority rule, and the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Both Young and Kaunda attended the April 1980 independence ceremony in Harare and gleefully listened to Bob Marley perform “Zimbabwe.”
As the focus of regional diplomacy shifted first to Namibia and then South Africa, Kaunda maintained his place as Washington’s key contact in the region. Both Ronald Reagan and his successor Georg H.W. Bush hosted KK for White House visits, in 1983 and 1989, respectively. Kaunda’s commitment to fight racism and colonialism contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa and independence for Namibia. Defeated in 1991 in Zambia’s first multiparty election since 1972, Kaunda soon shifted his energy to the fight against HIV/AIDS. During a year-long residency for retired African heads of state at Boston University in 2002-03, he addressed audiences around the US and emphasized this cause. When George W. Bush signed the historic legislation pledging $15 billion to the struggle against HIV/AIDS in 2003, he acknowledged the tireless work on the issue by KK, who was in attendance. For over 40 years, Kenneth Kaunda cooperated with a wide range of people from the US in the fights against racism, colonialism, and disease. No one has done nearly as much as KK to improve between Zambia and the USA, and surely no one ever will.