Language of Rights January 08, 2021

When African Independence struck a chord in the US civil rights struggle

Akwe Amosu
The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights

In episode 3 of our podcast, veteran US civil rights organizer Charles Cobb Jr recalls an historic meeting in 1963 between an African anti-colonial leader and young black activists in a desegregated hotel in Atlanta, Georgia- and the freedom song to which it gave rise.  

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, soon to be the Vice-President of his newly independent country, Kenya, was on a tour of the US, courtesy of the State Department. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, got wind of Odinga’s presence and went down to the Peachtree Manor Hotel where he welcomed them up to his suite for an hour’s conversation.

I was so interested in the story of their meeting and the popular freedom song that resulted, I almost failed to ask what happened next. As Charlie remembers it, he and his comrades were pretty excited after their meeting and decided to go into the neighboring Toddle House Restaurant through an entrance in the hotel lobby to debrief over a cup of coffee. They sat down at a big table, and that’s when, recalls Charlie, “the waitress said, ‘you have to leave… we don’t serve y’all.’” This sat badly with the SNCC organizers: “We had just left this African Mau Mau! There was no way in hell we were gonna leave,” Charlie told me. “We remained seated. The restaurant called the police and we were arrested and taken to jail.”

They were released the next morning. With a grin, Charlie comments that the State Department probably helped get them out. “I think they were probably embarrassed. Here they were telling Odinga how the South had changed, and then you have these students thrown in jail just for wanting to have a cup of coffee and talk about their meeting with him! And Atlanta was really trying to project an image at the time. They had a little slogan: ‘Too busy to hate.’”

Charlie Cobb explains the genesis of one of the most popular songs in the civil rights movement in the Strength and Solidarity podcast Episode 3