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One Early Guide to Africa

January 7, 2010

Bill Sutherland, a pacifist who helped draw untold numbers of people into supporting African struggles for liberation, passed away in early January. He was one of the most important figures helping to build bridges between African and the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.

I first met Bill later in his life when he was on one of his frequent trips back from Africa. This was sometime in the 1980s and Bill drew me into his narrative about how nonviolent activists in the 1950s first got connected with African struggles for liberation. Allafrica has posted a good snapshot of his life compiled by family and friends. I was fascinated by Bill’s ability to understand the importance of supporting African struggles for liberation.

Bill was one of several nonviolent activists and World War II COs featured in the PBS documentary The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight.

Bill meets with Nelson Mandela in 1992

My good friend George Houser, who is also featured in the Good War, told me that it was Bill who first introduced George to the Defiance Campaign in South Africa in the early 1950s. George, then working with CORE, began a correspondence with Walter Sisulu that led George and other U.S. civil rights movement veterans to found the American Committee on Africa.

Bill worked on nuclear disarmament issues and helped to found Peace Brigades International, but his lifelong dedication to Pan Africanism led him to become one of a small group of African Americans that moved to Ghana. He also spent time in East Africa and other parts of the world and he was always committed to trying to help the rest of us understand more about progressive movements in Africa.

Bill’s longest association may have been with the War Resisters League. He also worked with the American Friends Service Committee and his life work led to the creation of many different initiatives including AFSC’s Bill Sutherland Institute. You can read more about his life in the excellent book Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle, and Liberation that was organized, written and put together by Bill and the long time nonviolent activist Matt Meyer.

Bill leads an AFSC delegation that met with Tanzania's Julius Nyerere in the 1970s

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