Birmingham’s African Liberation Day

In 1977, as Britain marked the Queen's Silver Jubilee, black residents of Birmingham organised an act of solidarity with liberation movements the world over. For Black History Month, we remember African Liberation Day.

African Liberation Day, celebrated in Birmingham in summer 1977, photographed by Vanley Burke

On 4 and 5 June 1977, as Britain prepared for processions, street parties, and Union Jack decorations to celebrate the Queen’s upcoming Silver Jubilee, the African-Caribbean Self-Help Organisation (ACSHO), a group based in Handsworth, Birmingham and devoted to Pan-African intellectual debate and learning, decided to embark on a much-needed act of resistance. That act was the hosting of Birmingham’s first African Liberation Day, a symbolic nod to the continued political struggles and victories of African nations and diasporas across the globe.

African Liberation Day was initially mooted in 1958 by the former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in the first Conference of Independent States held in Accra, Ghana and attended by eight independent African states. 15 April was dubbed ‘African Freedom Day’ to mark the continuous progression each year of the African liberation movement and to spark willpower among those black people then fighting to liberate themselves from the direct chains of imperialism and domination.

Freedom was on the horizon. From 1958 onwards, the national and class struggles of native Africans and diasporas intensified across Africa and the Western world. Seventeen countries in Africa won their independence, stamping 1960 the ‘Year of Africa’. Seeing this, the light of hope flickered thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

In the United States, Black Power activist Owusu Sadaukai envisioned Black Liberation Day, drawing attention to the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa while also channeling focus towards wider collective efforts at rallying support across borders. Relying on a network of connections that included important Civil Rights groups, Sadaukai’s 1972 Liberation Day saw a mass demonstration in Washington attended by around thirty thousand people.

Five years later, in 1977, with Britain still healing from the aftershock of World War II, children of the Windrush generation were quickly recognising the depths of racism they faced and opening themselves up to the prospect of a much broader political agenda anchored in a new world of liberty and independence.

The African-Caribbean Self-Help Organisation shared the same vision as Sadaukai for a Liberation Day, inspired initially by the recent declarations of sovereignty in Mozambique and Angola. The ACSO centered its organising around these victories in the battle against colonialism abroad, and in its commitment to the dismantling of what was understood as domestic neo-colonialism in Britain.

On the Jubilee weekend, the theme of unison under one umbrella among those in the struggle saw thousands march out from a local school. The rally that followed incorporated drama, workshops, poetry readings, and music, including a performance from British reggae group Aswad.

The demonstration was believed to be Britain’s largest ever gathering of black people at the time, but today, barely any record of it remains: the mainstream media, whose archives survive today, rarely saw such events as worthy of coverage, preferring to prioritise stories about black people getting involved in crime. What has stopped this historical event from disappearing entirely from Black British history was the work of British Jamaican photographer Vanley Burke, whose photographs captured the unique moment.

What took place on African Liberation Day in Birmingham in 1977 helped to set a radical precedent for black unity and communal perseverance worldwide, enabling a series of similar events to take place in Manchester, in London, and in other cities across Britain. The ACSHO in Birmingham became the leading political driver heading up African Liberation Day in Britain.

On a larger scale, celebrations for African Liberation Day—also widely referred to as African Day and African Freedom Day—have become a worldwide Pan-African event, still celebrated on the African continent and elsewhere around the globe on 25 May each year. These celebrations consist of one- to two-day events featuring international speakers, marches, rallies, and cultural entertainment. The themes are set annually, with previous examples including Women’s Empowerment and development towards Africa’s agenda 2063.

What was marked by a coalition of black community groups, leaders, and activists in Birmingham under the banner of fighting global colonialism and imperialism has since become a source of celebration and strength for black people around the world. African Liberation Day was one element of a powerful and longstanding tradition of black political organising in Britain – one which movements like Black Lives Matter show isn’t going anywhere any time soon. During Black history month, the story of this day proves that only through collective efforts is it possible to build a lasting movement – one that will bear fruits of freedom for generations to come.