Reading List: Sheila Collins

American civil rights activist George Houser was also active in Africa’s anti-colonial struggle. To write his biography, Sheila Collins widely read 20th century African political history.

George Houser in Angola, 1962 (Photo: African Activist Archive, Michigan State University).

I was fairly conversant with the history of the US Civil Rights Movement when I decided to write Ubuntu: George M. Houser and the Struggle for Peace and Freedom on Two Continents as a post-retirement project. As the executive secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Houser pioneered civil rights organizing several years before the eruption of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s; but he was also the founder and executive director of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA)—the major US support base for the African anticolonial movements after the demise of the Council on African Affairs—and a pioneer in the US anti-apartheid movement.

To understand the African context in which Houser worked I had to juggle several sets of lenses: Africa’s colonial history; the African policies of various US administrations during the Cold War; the effect of Cold War rivalries on the anticolonial struggle in Africa; the relationship between African Americans and Africans in both the struggle against apartheid abroad and the struggle for equal rights in the US; some knowledge of the many liberation movements, their ideologies and their leaders; and the history of the multifaceted anti-apartheid movement. Since my book had to cover such a wide range of history, I have not included books I consulted on the Civil Rights Movement and have focused here on only a few of the works that were important for my understanding of the anticolonial and anti-apartheid movements.

As a professor of American politics and social movements I had little background in African history but some knowledge of conditions in apartheid South Africa as a participant in the anti-apartheid movement. But since so much of Houser’s life was involved with the epic struggle against colonialism in many parts of Africa, I had to give myself a crash course in 20th-century African political history. To get a sense of the great diversity of the continent I started with John Gunther’s classic Inside Africa, about his 40,000 mile journalistic trip through Africa in the early 1950s. Obviously dated, written just prior to the outbreak of the anticolonial struggle and seen from the perspective of a white outsider, Gunther’s work nevertheless gave me a global sense of the geography and ecology of this vast continent, the distribution and diversity of its peoples, and its differing colonial histories. Gunther’s fascinating interviews with more than 1,500 people, including colonial officials and ordinary Africans, also gave hints at the coming eruptions.

To help me understand the particular cruelty of Belgian control of the Congo, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost was a must read. In this now classic work, he details the atrocities of King Leopold II and his colonial underlings that underlie the roots of the chaos and bloodshed ravaging the Congo today as well as the origins of the first human rights campaign.

Two books were particularly useful in helping me to understand the effects of the Portuguese colonization of Mozambique and Angola that led to the complex and tragic 30-year war in Southern Africa. The first was John Marcum’s The Angolan Revolution Vols I and II. Marcum had traveled with Houser in Angola and wrote his book in the midst of the civil war, so it was somewhat dated, but helpful in demonstrating the colonial origins of the conflict and the ethnic and ideological differences that influenced the warring parties. William Minter’s Apartheid’s Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique, written at a much later date is a tour de force. Minter, a leading specialist on Southern Africa, provides a nuanced analysis of the interconnected roles of social structure, external interventions and the vulnerability and mistakes of the new Angolan and Mozambican states, thus avoiding easy generalizations. His meticulous analysis of the destabilization campaigns in Southern Africa lays the blame on both South Africa and the US in creating the conditions for one of the most horrific civil wars that left an estimated one million dead, untold wounded, and massive destruction of the country’s natural resources and its economy. One fascinating snippet of information Minter reveals is Unita’s hiring of the public relations firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, close allies of Donald Trump, would later be convicted for crimes committed in relation to Trump’s presidency.

For an understanding of the contradictions of US Africa policy, Alex Thomson’s U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Apartheid South Africa, 1948-1994, Robert Kinloch Massie’s Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years and Gerald Horne’s meticulously documented study White Supremacy Confronted: U.S. Imperialism and Anti-Communism vs. the Liberation of Southern Africa were important. While Thomson’s book concentrates on the diplomatic history, examining the conflictual interplay of strategic, economic, and human rights interests in the policies of presidents from Truman through Clinton, Massie’s book mainly concentrates on US policy from the Kennedy administration onward, demonstrating the continuing grip of corporate interests in the region and the changing stances of US administrations from Kennedy’s cautious pragmatism to Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with the apartheid state. But it also documents the rise and effects of the disinvestment campaign to isolate and weaken South Africa.

Horne’s monumental work starts from the early part of the 19th century, showing how US imperialism—beginning as early as 1906, fueled by racism, anti-communism, and industrial interests—laid the groundwork for apartheid in South Africa and how its embarrassment about race relations at home during the Cold War led it to concede to the demands of civil rights activists. While Horne’s work documents the many ties between African Americans and Africans, it also argues that the price of the US concession to civil rights activists was the muzzling of civil rights organizations in opposition to apartheid. Horne is particularly good on the role of anti-communism in shaping American policy toward Africa during the Cold War.

Another book documenting early US support for the apartheid regime isThomas Borstelmann’s Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle: The United States and Southern Africa in the Early Cold War. Borstelmann shows how the anti-communism of the Truman administration—fearing Soviet and left-wing influence in Southern Africa, and seeking to preserve its access to the South African uranium needed for its nuclear arsenal—sided with the colonial powers and the fiercely anticommunist South African National Party.

Cold War rivalries were particularly acute in shaping the violence in Southern Africa. Here again, Minter’s Apartheid’s Contras and Horne’s White Supremacy Confronted provide invaluable insight into this Cold War conflict. Minter is particularly good at showing how US active intervention against the MPLA in Angola, which it incorrectly viewed as a Soviet client, was fueled by its vulnerability in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal at home rather than by any Angolan or African realities.

Another book that provides deep insights into this period of history is Piero Gleijeses’s, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976. Based on unprecedented archival research and firsthand interviews in all the countries involved, Gleijeses’s work challenges conventional US beliefs about the influence of the Soviet Union in directing Cuba’s actions in Africa, demonstrating that Cuba had its own foreign policy goals as well as shedding light on CIA covert operations.

For perspectives on the liberation struggles in various countries, the resources provided by the American Committee on Africa’s (ACOA) vast archives in the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, articles in Africa Today, which was begun by the ACOA and is the longest continuously published journal on African Affairs, and George Houser’s own writings were invaluable. Houser was quick to point out that as a white outsider his knowledge of the inner workings of the various liberation movements could only be partial; nevertheless, from 1952 until his retirement in 1981, he was probably the most informed American about the liberation struggles. He gained this understanding first by befriending virtually the entire roster of emerging African leaders, helping to secure their international legitimacy and providing them with non-military support.

Second, he attended most of the pivotal political events associated with African independence, including all three of the All African Peoples’ Conferences, the founding conference of the OAU, several independence rallies, and he served as an observer of the first free elections in Zimbabwe and Namibia. The results of his more than 22 extended visits to Africa (some for as long as six months) and the conversations he had with people on all sides of the conflict are contained in his many writings: the journals he kept of his trips; reports to his board; congressional and UN testimony; articles and op-eds in various publications; his extensive correspondence with African leaders; and his own book, No One Can Stop the Rain: Glimpses of Africa’s Liberation Struggle. Published before Southern Africa was liberated, the book provides a fascinating en medias res look at the often-tangled relationships between liberation movements, and the responses of the US and the threatened colonial powers. Also fascinating is Houser’s own assessment of the various movement leaders he came to know.

Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena explores the relationship between the struggle of Africans for freedom and power abroad and the struggle for equality and dignity of African Americans at home, which helped to define the way in which both struggles evolved as well as the ways in which Cold War politics shaped this dynamic. Other books useful in exploring this same dynamic include: Mary I. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy; Francis Njubi Nesbitt’s Race for Sanctions: African Americans against Apartheid, 1946-1994; Thomas J. Noer’s Cold War and Black Liberation: The U.S. and White Rule in Africa, 1948-1968; Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1939-7-1957; Brenda Gayle Plummer’s In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974; and Carol Anderson’s Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960. Anderson takes issue with the argument laid out by Horne and supported by Nesbitt, Von Eschen, and Plummer that the granting of civil rights to African Americans muzzled the civil rights wing on South Africa.

The ACOA files and Houser’s writings were the most important sources of information on the role of the ACOA in the anti-apartheid struggle and the variety of strategies and tactics they employed. But several other books contributed to a broader understanding of the groups and NGOs involved in the anti-apartheid movement both in the US and abroad. One of the best books documenting the multitude of players in the US anti-apartheid movement was No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists Over Half a Century, 1950-2000, edited by William Minter, Gail Hovey and Charles Cobb, Jr. Based on interviews with key players in the movement, the book provides a window into the breadth of people and organizations that contributed to the movement’s success. Another important source on the US anti-apartheid movement in its international context is “Anti-Apartheid Solidarity in the United States-South Africa Relations: From the Margins to the Mainstream,” by Minter and Sylvia Hill, included in the five-volume work, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, which analyzes four decades in the struggle for freedom in South Africa and covers virtually every country that was in some way involved with that struggle. Rob Skinner’s The Foundations of Anti-Apartheid: Liberal Humanitarians and Transnational Activists in Britain and the United States, c. 1919-64 was also an important resource documenting the ties between human rights activists and organizations in both countries. Houser’s first extended trip to Africa with a stopover in London, for example, benefited from the ties to Africa and pan-Africanism that had developed in Britain.

One facet of the importance of international ties between anti-apartheid activists is found in a book that I am proud to say I had a small hand in helping to get published. One of the authors of Oilgate: The Sanctions Scandal was given a desk to work on this book in the ACOA offices. The authors, Martin Bailey and Bernard Rivers, won the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in Britain but were largely ignored in the US. The book is a riveting exposé of how Rhodesia, a landlocked country that had been slapped with comprehensive UN Security Council sanctions in December 1966, still managed to get oil to run its economy. The book tells the story of an elaborate chain of bogus companies contrived by the oil giants that secretly transported oil through South Africa into Rhodesia thus prolonging white rule for more than a decade. The issue was a highly explosive one because the British government at the time had representatives on the board of British Petroleum, one of the companies involved in the scandal, and yet had signed on to the sanctions and was covering up its complicity. There was also some indication that the US government, if not complicit in the scandal, at least chose to ignore the evidence that Mobil’s South African and Rhodesian subsidiaries were part of the scheme.

Further Reading

Panthers in Congo

The film ‘Congo Oyé,’ pulled from the archives of a New York City library a decade ago, explores different interpretations of revolution, Black sovereignty and liberation.

Madiba and Mali

There is a remarkable connection between Mali and South Africa, dating back to the liberation struggle, and actively encouraged by the author’s work.

Pioneers in Black Studies

Kwame Nkrumah’s ideas about pan-Africanism and African liberation inspired many young scholars to explore global linkages around race and power, to uncover historical connections and forge new ones.