A white Columbia University graduate student, Matt Mayer, announces his plans to resist President Jimmy Carter’s new Selective Service registration program in 1980. After significant media attention including an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, he finds himself at a War Resisters International convocation in 1982, hoping to meet resisters from every spot on the globe.
But no comrades are present from Africa, Latin America, or Asia. The American resister becomes convinced that racism divides those who proclaim a devotion to peace even at the cost of incarceration. He looks for a mentor from the communities of color. He finds one. With forty years in the pacifist trenches.
Bill Sutherland is an African American who refused military service in World War II-when many blacks saw the war as a coveted opportunity to assert their claims to full citizenship.
Influenced as a youth by the strategies of Mahatma Gandhi, Sutherland worked after graduation from Bates College in Maine for the Quaker affiliated American Friends Service Committee. In 1942, Sutherland joined noted activist(and Chicago 7 defendant) Dave Dellinger in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary as a war resister.
After his release from prison in 1945, Sutherland pedaled around Europe on a bicycle trip. He met African students in London and Paris whose enthusiasm for the possibility of liberation on the African continent sparked an unyielding commitment in Sutherland that he shared with his revolutionary compatriots on “the Dark Continent”..
Matt Mayer and Bill Sutherland have collaborated on a remarkable book, Guns and Gandhi in Africa, which probes the dilemma of advocating nonviolence in the face of a brutality that held people in thrall with pistols, whips, barbed wire, identity passes, and unspeakable horrors.
This work by Mayer and Sutherland is not a biography. Sutherland’s selflessness required that the pages reflect the experiences, philosophies, strategies, and tactics employed by African leaders who shared confidences with the two authors.
A remarkable man, Mr. Sutherland. How many people, living or dead, had prolonged tete-a-tetes with Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Tom Mboya(who was representing an imprisoned Jomo Kenyatta), and Bayard Rustin-at the same meeting?
Ghana was the first African country where Sutherland settled-it was after all the first to achieve independence after World War II. Sutherland observed Nkrumah’s efforts to a build a state via a mass movement and the creation of institutions responsive to the needs of the people.
Mayer and Sutherland returned to Ghana in 1992 . Sutherland’s oldest daughter has remained there since her birth and has become that country’s Deputy Minister in charge of Higher Education. She helps them meet leaders who review Nkrumah’s successes and failures to implement a strategy called Positive Action-an offshoot of the Gandhian movement featuring sit-down strikes, boycotts and noncooperation which lead to Ghana’s independence in 1957.
These civil rights techniques had usefulness after independence-the Ghanaian Minister of Finance provoked President Eisenhower to invest U.S. dollars in the Volta River development project after he was refused a glass of orange juice in then Jim Crow Maryland!
Meyer and Sutherland review Nkrumah’s commitment to Pan-African solidarity. This quest was shared by Sutherland during his over thirty year residence in Tanzania where he discussed Africa’s hope often with Julius Nyerere who was president from 1962 to 1985.
Committed to African liberation, Nyerere offered sanctuary in Tanzania to members of the African National Congress and numerous other rebel groups from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and Uganda. In 1978, under Nyerere’s leadership, Tanzanian troops entered Uganda, deposing dictator Idi Amin.
Nyerere explained these actions by saying: “when you win, the morale of the African freedom fighters will go up and the morale of their opponents throughout southern Africa will go down. I said that’s what we should do-demonstrate success-which we did.”
The most graphic test of the authors’ nonviolent creed is challenged in their discussions with South African leaders. Interviews with a variety of freedom fighters stress their life long commitment to struggle and social transformation. Yet the choice of violence by some freedom fighters hangs heavy over the discussions and cannot be fully dismissed as futile in the strife that eventually won enfranchisement for the black majority.
Insightful interviews with Kenneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia and Graca Machel, the widow of the assassinated head of Mozambique(and Nelson Mandela’s present wife) further flesh out the frustrating attempts of Africa’s leaders to find nonviolent solutions to current problems of globalization and debt relief.
Despite a continuing, almost strident insistence on pushing a nonviolent commitment, this book offers a world of privileged conversations with Malcolm X, Gandhi’s granddaughter who remained in South Africa to organize, President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and a host of other African and Afro-American leaders. Sutherland still sees the world through non-violent eyes. Let us hope his vision is fulfilled.
For information about Guns and Gandhi in Africa, please contact African World Press at www.africanworld.com or call 609-844-9583.