War: The speech, 50 years later

Everywhere is war

Following his visit to Washington DC, Haile Selassie travelled to New York, arriving to a ticker tape parade through the city. On 4 October, he made his way to the United Nations to deliver a speech on the consequences of the first summit of the Organisation of African Unity. At the United Nations, Selassie presented miniature versions of the obelisks of Axum, but it was his speech that was keenly awaited. Selassie had first come to international prominence following his oration at the League of Nations in 1936, when he warned that aggression against Ethiopia, unchecked, would only lead to further aggression.

Following the wave of de-colonisation in Africa, Selassie looked hopefully to the future in his United Nations speech:

Last May, in Addis Ababa, I convened a meeting of Heads of African States and Governments. In three days, the thirty-two nations represented at that Conference demonstrated to the world that when the will and the determination exist, nations and peoples of diverse backgrounds can and will work together. In unity, to the achievement of common goals and the assurance of that equality and brotherhood which we desire. On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson:

“That until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior
is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned:
That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation;
That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes;
That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race;
That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained;
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed;
Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will;
Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven;
Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.
We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil…”

That these words are so well-known is due mostly to Bob Marley, who put the speech to music in 1975 while recording the Wailer’s fourth album Rastaman Vibration. It was no easy task either. The speech had been translated from Amharic into English in an official Ethiopian publication, Important Utterances of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I 1963-1972, which was published in 1972 and made its way to Jamaica. Though the speech has a cadence of its own, the lines don’t rhyme and the philosophical tone of the language forces the listener to consider the idea behind the speech in its totality. It was the type of song a producer would try to talk an artist out of recording – about as far from a pop song as one could imagine. The topic of the song, covering the efforts of the AOU to overcome the internal differences in Africa, wasn’t so far from the fierce ideological and political battles being played out in Kingston and Jamaica.

Marley and the Wailers band were reaching an artistic level where they were defining a new international style of roots reggae, and nothing would stop them from taking on such a task: indeed they seemed to go an extra length to give the song its own distinctive atmosphere. Wailers’ drummer Carlton Barrett picked out an unusual pattern and Aston Barrett laid down a slinky bassline. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Wailers’ percussionist Seeco Patterson beating the bass drum on the first beat. The I-Three’s chant of ‘War’ pervades the song adding to the hypnotic atmosphere.

Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie with world leaders at the funeral of John F Kennedy on 25 November 1963.

Selassie’s speech is often referred to as ‘impassioned’ but it was rather more measured than that. The appeal against racial discrimination was as relevant in the United States as in Africa. According to military historian Edward Newman, the next morning, 5 Oct, acting on McNamara’s recommendation, President Kennedy made his formal decision to withdraw the military advisors from Vietnam, and formally approved that decision in a secret but since declassified memorandum on 11 October. Within six weeks, Kennedy was dead, assassinated in Dallas. Selassie, who had no doubt hoped to return to Washington to reason with the young president, instead returned to Washington DC for Kennedy’s funeral.

Comments are closed.