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‘We are determined to be free’ – remembering the Pan-African Congress of 1945

Submitted by on September 23, 2013 – 12:01 pmNo Comment

The fifth Pan-African Congress, held in October 1945, was a major event in the 20th century. Decisions taken at this conference led to the independence of African countries – and it was held right here in Manchester, in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall.   A red plaque on the All Saints building marks the occasion.

The 1945 Congress is seen as being the most significant politically of the seven which have been held in total, coming as it did just months after the end of the Second World War. The war had been fought in the name of freedom, yet around the globe hundreds of millions of people lived in colonies run by Britain, France, Holland and other European powers.  The Manchester Congress brought together a number of intellectuals and activists who would go on to become influential leaders in various African independence movements and the American civil rights movement, including the Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, American academic W. E. B. Du Bois, and Kwame Nkrumah who became President of independent Ghana.

Also in attendance were a number of black activists living in Manchester including Len Johnson, the former boxer.

Len Johnson 2Why was the Congress held in Manchester?  It has been said that Manchester was ‘the least prejudiced city in the UK’, though everything is relative – this was after all an era when Len Johnson had given up boxing because of the “colour bar” he faced.  Manchester was also the home of various activists who had good links with the wider black community, and one of whom owned a number of restaurants in the area.  Lodgings and catering for the delegates were therefore not a problem – a major factor at a time when most British hotels would not accommodate black people…

Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall was decorated with the flags of the Republics of Haiti, Ethiopia and Liberia, the only three nominally independent black countries in 1945.  In these days of instant access to live news, it’s hard to imagine how extraordinary it must have been for the 90 delegates to hear and share for the first time stories of the struggles going on in their different countries.

From 14 to 22 October there was a wide range of debates with many resolutions passed, including one calling for racial discrimination to be made a criminal offence.  And the Congress’s ‘Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ makes stirring, even lyrical reading: ‘We are determined to be free.  We want education. We want the right to earn a decent living; the right to express our thoughts and emotions, to adopt and create forms of beauty’.

The Congress scarcely got a mention in the British press at the time but history has shown it to be a crucial occasion which inspired many to action, and gave ‘a voice to the voiceless’.

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Marika Sherwood, on whose writings the above is based, will be speaking at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library on Friday 4 October at 2pm. Her free talk, ‘Struggles in Manchester before and after 1945′s Pan-African Congress’, marks Black History Month, and a relaunched reprint of her booklet will be available to purchase.
You can find out more about the 1945 Congress at the Library, which holds some fascinating items including a delegate ribbon and a delegate handbook.   The Library is open Tuesdays to Fridays 10am to 5pm at 51 Crescent, Salford M5 4WX.

 

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