African Traditional Thought and the Civil Rights Circle: Multi-Cultural Connections for Moving Justice from Classroom to Community

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

As a professor of philosophy at Bennett College, I applied to participate in Huston Smith’s multi-cultural NEH seminar on the Great Chain of Being held in the summer of 1988. I did so because I knew that within African Traditional Thought, dating from the pre-Colonial period, there was, indeed, a “Great Chain of Spiritual Connections” proceeding down in a hierarchical way from the High Creator God through all the vital and vibrant totality of creation (Parrinder, 1969, p. 27). In Smith’s seminar itself (a seminar that covered traditional spiritual beliefs of a hierarchical kind in a variety of the world’s religions), I turned my attention to a very spiritually important concept in African Traditional Thought—one which is found in Central and South African communities. This concept comes under the linguistic sub-category of Kuntu (characterized as “ways or activities of being”). It is, namely, the concept of Magara (often translated as “Soul Force“).This sub-category of modality (identified in print by Placide Temples originally, and affirmed later by philosopher and linguist Alexis Kagame [1971, p. 120]), is one of the four”categories of being” found in the African Traditional Cultures of the many peoples who speak what linguists call the Bantu/Muntu family of languages. The four categories are these: 1) Bantu/Muntu (people/person); 2) Kintu (animals and things); 3) Kuntu (modality); and 4) Hantu (space-time). These categories are found embedded in the grammatical structure of Bantu languages.

In such languages, the concept of Magara, or”Soul Force,” is the modality of mutual communal uplift; it is an active process—ust one of the many active processes that Bantu/Muntu Languages include under the category of Kuntu.

Surely Magara is a crucially important concept. As a sub-category of Kuntu, it is an active modality that is recognized in shared daily speech and is central to references to spiritual matters in many widely spoken African languages (e.g. Shona, Zulu, key-Rwandan). The sub-category’s activeness differs from the more fixed set of”concepts of spiritual uplift” found in the grammatical structures (e.g., the subject/verb structures) that are shared by languages in the Indo-European family of languages (e.g. English, French, German and Hindi)—languages that share features of a Hindi-based language structure.

After working on a film entitled Sisterhood in Action (2012) developed by my Interdisciplinary Perception and Aesthetics Class, which focused on the involvement of Bennett College students in the Civil Rights sit-in movement of Feb. 1, 1960, which occurred near Bennett at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was drawn to the way in which the concept of Magara seemed to be present in the expression of that historic event. For the film made clear that Bennett students had worked hard early on to follow the spirit of the suggestions given by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1958 address at Bennett College—an address that included the concepts of “morally up-lifting community protest” and respect for all community members (King, 1958).

The still enthusiastic narrative interviews conducted in 2012 with Bennett women who were participants in the February 1960 demonstrations, along with photographic artifacts from that time that they provided, seemed to reveal that what occurred in Greensboro in 1960 was akin to a spontaneous implementation of the earlier plans for alerting a press and legal defense network. The process of doing this, however, took on a totally new, expansive dimension the moment it was known that the four A&T students had actually sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s and asked to be served. For, in spite of the fact that the Bennett students had decided on a later (post-Spring Break) date for a sit-in demonstration, neither they nor any of the others intent on active demonstration against segregation hesitated to respond fully. Indeed, participants responded as if they were all part of one group, as they began in a totally dedicated way to insist on the need for the cessation of segregation as a change essential for the common good.

This kind of impassioned togetherness was evident as young people from Bennett, A&T State University, Greensboro College, and Guilford College linked hands in ways that enabled them to act in concert at the Woolworth’s site, and so together implement the previously arranged, rational plans. From the start, there was a rapidly growing and dynamic web of mutual support that prevailed through a kind of transcendent enthusiasm, even as the pre-planned connections with lawyers, newspapers, and the NAACP were put into play.

Thus it occurred to me that what was finally displayed on February 1, 1960, in and around the Woolworth’s venue in Greensboro, and in the weeks that followed, was akin to a community caught up in a life-changing event that fit the profile of Magara. For what emanated from the gathering at Woolworth’s was an amazingly positive spirit of selflessness, and dynamic enthusiasm even in the face of possible personal loss (e.g., injury, imprisonment, death). Indeed, as students moved from the classroom of four or more colleges and converged on the Woolworth’s site (scholars all), the center core of them, without hesitation, joined together across institutional lines to embrace, to participate in, and to implement previously planned support activities—and did so as if they were all of one mind.

Those activities were decisive and dramatic. They pulled in even distant newspaper communications and legal support that insured the security of all participants—including that of the four A&T students who had chosen February 1, 1960, as the day to spontaneously”sit in.”

Surely, this sweeping togetherness of collective student social action in Greensboro, on that memorable February 1 and beyond, happened in a window of time that had active spiritual dimensions; and, indeed, dimensions that emulated, and openly displayed, the content of the concept of”Soul Force” described above. Undoubtedly, it was that energetic carrying out of such a unified, active, protest by hundreds of students from multiple Greensboro institutions that, in a shared moment of history, caused historians to see the Woolworth’s event as the event that ignited the youthful 1960’s Civil Rights Movement across the whole of the United States of America—and significantly advanced the desegregation of the entire land.

What was particularly remarkable for that day, was that the students, in effect, seemed to be caught up in a kind of inspired social and psychological connectedness, and acted within a shared sense of mutual community—a shared sense that transcended all divisions, including institutional, cultural, and social differences. This inclusiveness was surely much in line with the”Magara vitality” that would have been displayed within a village community in Africa when members of that community confronted a mutual threat by acting in concert to achieve goals crucial to the well-being and survival of the whole. The Civil Rights history being explored by the film thus involved an amazing match up with the concept of”Magara” taken from the African context.

This identification struck a chord in my memory that moved me to think of an earlier civil rights success. That same togetherness of positive community was surely present in the civil rights movement led by Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa. Gandhi affirms this in his first-published autobiography, Satyagraha in South Africa, which was originally written in Gandhi’s mother tongue, Gujarati, and then later translated into English by Valhi Govindji Desai (Gandhi, 1928).

On the first page of the final chapter of this book—written by Gandhi while he was still working in South Africa to liberate Indian business persons from the oppressive actions of South African leaders—Gandhi describes the strength of his movement as one grounded not on passive resistance, not on collective behavior, and, specifically, not on civil disobedience. Instead, says Gandhi, the movement he led in South Africa was based on totally positive, non-violent”Soul Force.” It was”Soul Force” that he had been using, he says, in his attempt (over his 23-year sojourn in South Africa) to defeat the implementation of unjust laws that the South African government was trying to impose against the subcontinent Indian immigrant community.

This was a community of persons whose ancestors had immigrated to South Africa as commercial tradespersons. Community members had settled there over the centuries, and yet, even as citizens, were facing attacks on many of their crucially important civil rights. This oppression by the South African government, like the oppressive racial segregation in the American South, included a”race-based” rights-abrogating identity system and a presumed governmental right to domestic home invasion (to check ethnic identity pass cards), as well as discrimination that deprived individuals in this ethnically southern-Indian-immigrant-descended community of many other kinds of personal liberties. Perhaps the greatest of the discriminations (as in the American south) was the denial of full and equal voting rights.

The similarities between the active and passionate togetherness of Gandhi’s movement and the concept of Magara as Soul Force led me to wonder whether Gandhi (during his many post-law degree years of living and working to defend Civil Rights in South Africa—fighting, in effect, for minority citizens’ civil rights) had acquired the concept of Magara from indigenous cultures in South Africa, and then used that specific concept to explain his civil rights successes there. Did Gandhi, then, for use in India, translate the meaning of”Magara” into a made-up, single, Hindi-sounding word, which connected two Hindi words—namely the Hindi word for”grasp” and the Hindi word for”truth”—when he invented the term”Satyagraha”?

Coming fast upon this, my second point of inquiry, was a third: might the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have himself reached back both to Gandhi and to African Traditional Thought to take hold of the philosophical concept of Magara or Soul Force? And might he have done so in order to draw upon a source of spiritual power for the uplifting of total, inclusive, community; was it by doing so that King started the process of totally transforming the United States of American in permanently positive ways? And, then, did Nelson Mandela, too, reach back to both Gandhi’s and King’s visions to lead the South African civil rights movement full circle, finding a basis for the movement, once again, in the concept of Soul Force? Was it through doing so that Mandela was able to offer a civil rights revolution that peacefully seized the imagination of the world, while bringing about a comprehensive, nation-transforming, South African civil rights revolution?

If this view of history is in fact true, what made this circular application of the concept of Soul Force possible? I would suggest that the spread of a shared, imported, literacy tradition (namely, English—a language shared by scholars of all three”target” locations) had something to do with it. For it was through English that the Magara concept’s active use and modern applications could be explained across ethnic divisions, thus allowing the indigenous concept of Magara (Soul Force) to serve as a unifying principle of these above-mentioned, world-changing, civil rights movements.

This thesis, while still awaiting more development and supportive research, seems to be borne out, in a sense, by the very use of the term, concept, and process, of”Soul Force” by the civil rights movements of Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Through application, Soul Force was exhibited and expressed as a willingness of individuals to set aside their own immediate interests in order to act in concert, and to do this so that the just and positive needs and aspirations of the wider moral community could be met. If this is so, the outcome was that in three different contexts, namely Africa, India, and the United States of American, entire communities were united by vigorous mutual support, selfless courage, and steadfast goodwill—and thousands joined in advancing ardent requests for change so that true reform could prevail, and could thus usher in permanent changes that continue to inform our thinking today.

My rather ambitious claim (one for which I am still collecting evidence) is, then, that a profound, indigenous African Traditional Concept was carried full circle by three great moral leaders—leaders who all aimed to peacefully uplift the world’s vision, and aimed to do so in a way that is still valued—and is, moreover, valued cross-culturally by people of the kind that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., surely meant to refer to in his 1958 speech at Bennett College as”people of good will.”

I believe one of the most moving aspects of the concept of Magara is this: it is a concept that has, at its center, an African Traditional Concept of a possible circle of support for a Truth-connected modality for the uplifting of communal power. This is a concept that evokes, in an enduring way, a modality of social inclusiveness and social cohesion that requires each member of the human community to engage in active, committed, community-uplifting participation.

As laudable instances of moving social justice from the classroom to the community, these three civil rights movements (namely the above-mentioned movements in South Africa, India, and the United States of America) were likely strengthened by being based on the African Traditional Concept of Soul Force. Thus, this concept shines forth as a major ethical achievement for humanity, one that came to profoundly affect the modern world. Investigating and internalizing this possible legacy, which, at least in part, has probable roots in a concept of communal moral action found in and possibly drawn from the pre-colonial cultures of Central and Southern Africa, enables us all to be thankful for, and thus prone to attend more intently to, the important task of honoring the gifts to the world given to us by the indigenous peoples of Africa.

In teaching such information in the classroom, we who are scholars can surely inspire students (especially students who claim such cultural roots as their own) to think in socially centered ways. As instructors, we surely should convey the knowledge of such roots and possibilities to new scholars, so that they also may learn from the contemplative awareness of ethically focused action—action that supports community justice and mutual human uplift in public places, even in the most challenging of times.


Gandhi, M. (1928). Satyagraha in South Africa. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Press.

Kagame, A. (1971). La philosophe Bantu compare. Paris. (For an account of Kagame’s analysis in English, see: Lucier, R. [1989]. Dynamic of hierarchy in African thought. Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture, 24[1].)

King, M.L., Jr. (1958). A speech on civil rights. Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel, Bennett College. (Original recording available in Holgate Library, Bennett College, Greensboro, NC.)<

Parrinder, E.G. (1969). Religion in Africa. New York.

Seiler, M., & Smith, A. with Lucier, R. (Instructor). (2012). Sisterhood in Action [mov. file].

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