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Bill Sutherland

Photo: Ken Dossar / AFSC

Building support for the African countries struggling for independence

By Ronna Bolante

For over 50 years, Bill Sutherland was an activist for African liberation struggles, building international support for ending apartheid and serving as a critical link for people in the U.S. to those movements. Born in New Jersey, Bill spent much of his life living in Ghana and Tanzania, dispatching frequent reports and speaking to crowds across the United States.

As a conscientious objector during World War II, Bill was sentenced to four years in prison for refusing military service. After his release, he traveled through Europe speaking out against war. His interest in the African liberation movement was sparked during this time, when he met young African students who were passionate about the cause.

As AFSC’s South African representative from 1975 to 1982, Bill shaped AFSC’s response to the needs of countries struggling to break free of colonial rule. His highly publicized speaking tours across the United States drew attention from across racial and ideological lines, fostering solidarity with South Africans working to end apartheid. He also connected AFSC to anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received the Nobel Peace Prize after being nominated by AFSC in 1984.

Bill presenting at an AFSC board meeting in 1976. Photo: AFSC/Terry Foss

Bill also served, in his own words, “as a bridge between the African American movements and the African movements.” He was instrumental in bringing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Ghana upon its independence and in encouraging key organizations in the African liberation movement to support the March on Washington, which was organized in large part by his friend and fellow conscientious objector Bayard Rustin.

In 2000, Bill authored the book “Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation.” In the book’s foreword, Desmond Tutu wrote: “Bill has distinguished himself as a vital ally to our cause, and as a friend. In his capacity as an expatriate, living all these years on the frontlines in Tanzania, Bill has provided hospitality, support, and encouragement for untold numbers of people the world over, demonstrating the truest of African spirits.”

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