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Historical Lessons in Celebration of Kwanzaa—The First Commitment is Umoja

This first day of Kwanzaa, December 26, is Umoja (Unity), and it is a crucial reminder of our commitment to “…the family, community, nation and race.” Rigid interpretations of past would suggest that the history of the world is comprised of two key dynamics: the ideal position of those people who were unified in their efforts and the unwelcomed consequences waiting for those who were not unified. The day of Umoja tells us that the story of African Americans is one of unity in the face of incredible social, political, and economic circumstances. Four decades after the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the constitution (December, 1865) which legally abolished slavery (and the 14th and 15 Amendments and Civil Rights Acts), African Americans were faced with the persistent realization that U.S. society was not prepared to accept them as full and equal citizens. Black freedoms were not protected and the thrust of White supremacy, especially through Jim Crow Laws, relegated them the lowest caste system in the country. However, African Americans of various backgrounds mounted many notable and courageous efforts to secure their rights and assert a cultural, social, religious, political, and economic autonomy. They did so largely through the development of organizations. According to Nina Mjagkij, editor of Organizing Black America, “Throughout American history, African Americans have established a multitude of religious, professional, business, political, recreational, educational, secret, social, cultural, and mutual aid associations. Frequently ignored by historians, these voluntary organizations served a variety of purposes and pursued diverse goals. Yet all of them provided important services to the black community and played a crucial role in the struggle for freedom, racial advancement, and equality.”[1] Meeting near the Niagara River in Canada in 1905 the Niagara Movement, led by W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, John Hope, and Frederick McGee, demanded that African Americans assert their civil rights for such pressing issues as better education and housing. The 1905 Niagara conferees, in their “Declaration of Principles” rejected the accommodationist position advocated by Booker T. Washington and aggressively called for an end of racial discrimination in the United States. The group displayed the importance of courage and agency in denouncing the “…monstrous doctrine” of racism. While the Niagara Movement was short-lived (it effectively ended in 1909), key leaders including W.E.B. DuBois, continued their diversified organization-building efforts (while maintaining similar goals) by supporting the development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Left: Niagara Movement leaders W.E.B. Du Bois ...

We have a wealth of examples of Blacks in the United States expressing the theme of Umoja in their organizational efforts. African American women from many states created and founded benevolent and social clubs that spoke directly to their interests. Among the earliest groups was the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which began in 1895. [2] One hundred women came together to address several significant issues, including the negative images of Black women being presented in the print media. A year later, the National Federation of Afro-American Women joined forces with the National Association of Colored Women. The unified organization attracted thousands of members and expanded its work and influence, especially in the larger cities. When these two groups came together, Mary Church Terrell advanced the organization as its first president. NACW’s promoted the vision-reflecting motto “Lifting as We Climb.” This expression, which is still used today as an empowering catchphrase, was a testament to the desire to ensure that all members of Black society be the beneficiaries of the organization’s labors. “Lifting as We Climb” spoke to a high level of African American group cohesion as each member knew that the success of one individual had no credible value without the concurrent achievement of the group.

Mary Church Terrell

When the OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity) was founded in June 1964, it had great plans for the future. The organization’s founder, Malcolm X, had a vision to unite people of African descent globally. He had been an important organizer, leader and spokesperson of the Nation of Islam under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and he used the lessons learned from this experience (along with his Black Nationalist upbringing) to launch the OAAU. The OAAU would demand that human rights be afforded to Blacks in the United States and wherever they lived in the world. From the very beginning the OAAU sought to distinguish itself as an African nationalist organization which transcended boundaries of religion, class, gender, and as a group receptive to the “good will” support of “multiethnic associations.” The OAAU also intended to solidify the bonds between Africans born on the continent of Africa with those born in the United States. The political activism of the OAAU would address voting rights, self-defense, economic development, and establish schools aimed at educating blacks in subjects not offered to blacks (consumer rights, African American history, and political empowerment). In doing so the OAAU proposed two main organizational aims for Black people: self-determination and national unity. Less than a year after the OAAU was formally established, Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in New York City.

Malcolm X at Queens Court

Image via Wikipedia

There are a number of straightforward lessons that may be analyzed from the brief notation of these three unity efforts. First, the Niagara meeting represented a significant and vigorous form of unity necessary to challenge racial violence and discrimination in all areas of Black life. The Niagara Movement also demonstrated that unified efforts were not necessarily embraced by all members of the group. For example, Booker T. Washington’s assembly was ardently opposed to Niagara and the group’s rhetoric denouncing his influence and his efforts. Second, today’s incarnation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, while not nearly as large as it was at its height in the 1940s, is still an example of one of the oldest women’s organizations in the United States. This organization gives us an illustration of selective amalgamation efforts, a unification strategy which expands the ranks of those committed to the same goals and objectives. Third, while the OAAU was also fleeting, there are a number of important points to consider about the organization’s efforts to unify Blacks. The OAAU continued to affirm that Black life the world over is inextricably intertwined by ancestry, experience, and primary aims. In addition, the OAAU outlined the circumstances of how people thrust into the media’s spotlight either use the attention for their personal aggrandizement or for the improvement of people. The OAAU inspired subsequent African nationalist groups who refined and reinterpreted the organization’s purpose in the development of similar goals. Also, the OAAU model emphasized an important principal in the history of organizational development—that when the leader or figure-head is removed the organization will cease to exist if a strong core has not been developed to safeguard a seamless transition in leadership.

William Monroe Trotter

Today it is common for social historians to research and analyze the history of American organizational systems. Too often, as Mjagkij has noted, Black organizations and institution-building efforts have been overlooked. This dismissal is because their development was not parallel to that of white organizations; and because Black organizations tend to develop primarily from the grassroots and out of the view of thoughtful and pervasive media. However, from the Prince Hall Masons (1775), to the Nat Turner Revolt (1831), and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (1964), African Americans have demonstrated remarkable features of organizational development in support of the cause of liberty and equal rights. Members of organizations, and especially the leaders, were tasked to engage in planning, management, assessment (of strengths and challenges), process guidance/actualization, motivation, problem-solving, and the integration of the various talents and areas of expertise of all involved. Most of all, organizations were able to effectively communicate. Communication is critical because authentic unity of action requires that appreciable numbers of people operate as either supporters or sympathizers. These are people who share the same core sense of mission and are willing to work amicably, systematically, and most importantly, consistently, on the work that binds them. An effective organization can have a relatively small membership (worker) base with vast numbers of supporters. Equally, a large and steadily growing membership base indicates solid support, implying that organizational empathy extends well beyond the membership, seeking to embed the mission.

As Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator and founder of Kwanzaa has outlined, Umoja is the first commitment as we celebrate Kwanzaa and the principles of the Nguzo Saba throughout the year. In many ways Kwanzaa is an annual touchstone, a Black call anticipating a Black response. Kwanzaa is our time to recommit to our values which involve the constant study, reflection, grasp and practice of Umoja. The structure of the organization is not the only expression of unity, but organizations are necessary to the success of communities. Unity is fundamentally articulated through organization/ institution-building and the conscious will of the people in support the mission, vision, and membership. The history of African American organizations tells us, among other things, that groups must be willing to harmonize change in addition to providing the charge, framework, resources, skill and promise in order to advance the community.

By Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina


[1] Nina Mjagkij (ed.) Organizing Black America, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001, “Introduction” p. vii.

[2] See Dorothy Salem, “National Association of Colored Women.” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark-Hine et al. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993; and Stephanie Shaw, “Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Association of Colored Women” In ‘We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible’: A Reader in Black Women’s History ed. Darlene Clark-Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1995


Maulana Karenga, The Message And Meaning Of Kwanzaa: Bringing Good Into The World: The Founder’s Annual Statements 1994-2006, Los Angeles: University Of Sankore Press, 2007.

Maulana Karenga, The African American Holiday Of Kwanzaa: A Celebration Of Family, Community And Culture, Los Angeles: University Of Sankore Press, 1988.

Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice, Los Angeles:  Kawaida Publications 1977.

Haki Madhubuti, Kwanzaa: An African-American Holiday That Is Progressive And Uplifting, Chicago:  Third World Press, 1972.