Newspaper Coverage of the Mau Mau Movement: A Constructivist Argument

By Esme Trahair
2018, Vol. 10 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

On February 14th, 1965, just one week before he was assassinated, Malcolm X delivered a speech in Detroit. He spoke about his beliefs concerning segregation and civil rights, and made a point of contextualizing the civil rights movement globally. Toward the beginning of the speech, he mentioned the Mau Mau in Kenya, and stated that they had "played a major role in bringing about freedom for Kenya, and not only for Kenya but other African countries," adding that "what [they] did frightened the white man."1 He was not the only civil rights leader to speak of this movement,2 and in fact, it was something of a hot topic among all Americans at the time. Deep fascination touched people from different regions, of different races, and with different politics. The perception of Mau Mau and its influence in the United States can be traced through literature, television, and notably, newspapers.

My goal in this investigation is to follow how the Mau Mau were depicted in two different newspapers over more than twenty years. After deep analysis of articles and editorials in The Montgomery Advertiser and The Chicago Defender, I believe that each newspaper actively constructed a perception of Mau Mau and its relevance to the United States in a way that reaffirmed the racialized views of their respective readers. Articles in The Montgomery Advertiser project a standard narrative of linear development to negatively characterize Mau Mau, and then subsequently associate them with African Americans and Civil Rights efforts. The Advertiser characterizes, extends, and finally naturalizes the term ‘Mau Mau’. On the other hand, The Chicago Defender engages in a dialectical process in order to ultimately reject archetypal and negative perceptions of the movement, and reinterpret their activities in a way that benefited the struggle for equality, recognition and rights that African Americans faced in the US. The Defender characterizes, negates, and finally naturalizes the term ‘Mau Mau’, and the meanings and connotations of the final naturalized phrase do not match the ones presented by the Advertiser. The different ways that these two newspapers presented the Kenyan movement to their readership indicate that Mau Mau was not only reported on, it was made by these newspapers in the American consciousness.


It is difficult to recount the details of Mau Mau without stumbling into debates about its nature, significance, and legacy. Nonetheless, the movement took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960, and is generally understood to have had some (if not a crucial) impact on Kenya’s subsequent independence. The British first colonized in Kenya in 1885, and over the next six decades tension between the settlers and the indigenous population grew.3 Racial tensions, treatment of black Kenyans, and land disputes (among other colonial factors) all fueled extreme discontent, particularly among the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya.4 The Mau Mau movement erupted in the early 1950s, as an effort to rid Kenya of white influence permanently, and in 1952 Britain declared a state of emergency in the region. 5 The movement captured the Western world’s attention due to its violent tactics against both white settlers and native Kenyans who were hesitant or unwilling to join its cause.6 This provoked a British military response as well as clandestine domestic torture efforts, and until 1956 a brutal conflict ensued.7 In 1956 the British had all but eradicated the threat of Mau Mau, but it was not until 1960 that the first of three Lancaster House conferences took place in order to negotiate Kenya’s future independence with a native Kenyan-majority delegation representing the interests of the country.8

Almost every aspect of Mau Mau is contested and debated, and it is very much, as historian Wunyarabi Maloba termed it, ‘an elusive revolution.’9 Some scholars portray the movement as a savage and unwarranted attack that crippled Kenya’s native population, while others argue it was an all but inevitable result of decades of British cruelty and colonization.10 For years, the violence enacted by Mau Mau was discussed and theorized at length in the Western world without mention of the atrocities committed by the British to target fighters throughout the conflict, yet even accounts that reveal these war crimes conflict with one other regarding how justifiable they were.11 Even the very nature of Mau Mau is not agreed upon; E. S. Atieno-Odhiambo asks: ‘was it a nationalist movement…a tribal civil war, or…a revolution?’12

The Mau Mau movement had a tangible and undeniable impact on black communities in the US, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that it was the first-time Kenyan affairs had been relevant to African Americans. Rather, discussions about the the Mau Mau in black American communities represented in some ways a culmination of a long tradition of exchange between African Americans and Kenyans, dating back to before World War I. Originally, black Americans were actively prohibited from traveling to Kenya, because ‘the white people in Africa do not want educated Negroes traveling around seeing how their brothers live,’ as African American scholar and activist Eslanda Robeson explained.13 However, increased pressure on the United Kingdom for a variety of political reasons at the end of World War I forced colonial authorities to ‘begrudgingly provide visas to African Americans, whose stunned reports about the abysmal conditions in [Kenya]…only brought closer the day when the Union Jack was lowered permanently in Nairobi.’14 Communication between Kenyans and African Americans spiked during World War II, when 75,000 Kenyans fought alongside more than 125,000 African Americans and traded stories of Jim Crow, colonialism, and global oppression.15 Thus, by the time the Mau Mau movement came to fruition, African American communities were already keenly interested in Kenyan affairs. Moreover, since it came at a time when the black American experience was entering into the consciousness of white Americans, everyone had reason to pay attention to Mau Mau.


The construction of Mau Mau in the United States can be well-traced through archives of newspaper articles and editorials, particularly because of the quality and preservation of newspapers throughout the time period. To assess this process, I investigated articles written between 1952 and 1975 in The Chicago Defender and The Montgomery Advertiser that contained the phrase ‘Mau Mau.’ I chose these two newspapers because they provide good points of comparison; while both are respected news organizations, the Defender is a historically black, Northern newspaper, while the Advertiser is a white, Southern one.

I defined the scope of this investigation as 1952 to 1975. I started my analysis in 1952 because that was the year that the movement began in Kenya, and was also the year that the term ‘Mau Mau’ was first mentioned in both the Defender and Advertiser. I had planned on analyzing articles for the following two decades in order to develop a full picture of the phenomena I was trying to assess, but ultimately extended the scope by three years to 1975 in order to follow a developing story about Mau Mau-related violence in Chicago. Within this 23-year date range, there were 409 articles and editorials published in The Chicago Defender that specifically mention ‘Mau Mau’, and 603 in The Montgomery Advertiser. While it would have been infeasible to critically analyze all of these articles, I wanted to choose a sample representative of the full catalogue. I chose to perform a close reading of the first article published each month between 1952 and 1975 that mentioned Mau Mau in each newspaper. This totaled 131 articles in the Defender, and 120 in the Advertiser.

The Montgomery Advertiser Analysis


Those who would presume that The Montgomery Advertiser has the history and track record of any stereotypical paper from the Deep South would find themselves sorely mistaken. The Advertiser published its first issue in 1829 under the name The Planter’s Gazette, and it asserts that by 1861 it was ‘the leading newspaper of the new Confederate states.’16 Indeed, the newspaper was at one time staunchly pro-slavery and pro-secession. However, by the time of Mau Mau, the leadership of the Advertiser and its tone had changed dramatically. During the 1920s and 30s, under the direction of Grover C. Hall, the Advertiser ‘waged war on the…Ku Klux Klan.’17 In 1947, his son Grover C. Hall Jr., took over leadership of the paper, and Martin Luther King once said of one of his editorials, ‘As I read Hall's strong statement I could [not] help admiring this brilliant but, complex man who claimed to be a supportar [sic] of segregation but could not stomach the excesses perfortned [sic] in its name.’18 Today, the paper claims three Pulitzer Prizes over the course of its 188-year history, and in 2008 it endorsed the presidential candidacy of then-Senator Barack Obama.19 This complex and nuanced political history is the reason that the Advertiser is a valuable newspaper to analyze during the time period of Mau Mau and the Civil Rights Era.


The Advertiser portrays Mau Mau as violent, archetypal savages. One of the very first articles in the paper to reference the movement explains that ‘the Mau-Mau terrorists have been on a rampage for months against the white population,’20 and another one describes Kenya during the time periods as the ‘scene of the bloody Mau Mau uprising.’ 21 An article published towards the end of the conflict in 1959 even goes so far as to explain that because Kenyans ‘could not speak their grievances in the white man’s language, Mau Mau was just another expression of nationalism.’22 Other articles use words like ‘slaying’23, ‘hacked’24, ‘insurgents’25, ‘decapitated’26, and ‘terrorist’27 to describe the activities of Mau Mau and the fighters themselves, all of which characterize them as violent by their very nature.28 The paper also projects British innocence as a way of negatively characterizing Mau Mau. An article titled ‘Rough Stuff’ speaks to the ‘barbarous treatment by the Mau Mau of British colonists,’29 and another one similarly clears colonialists of any blame by characterizing their military response as ‘efficient, tough British repression’ in the face of ‘terror’.30 This contrast implicitly labels the Mau Mau as instigators of violence, and the British as vulnerable victims.

The Advertiser also displays a fascination with oathing that is often present in Western accounts of Mau Mau. Men and women who joined the movement had to take an oath of loyalty, which sometimes involved practices like drinking blood or acts of homicide in order to strengthen the bond of the oath. They were taken both willingly and forcibly, and were a way of securing unwavering devotion from followers.31 However, these articles assert that the oaths were so powerful that they were the most important factor that tied Mau Mau to its mission. One article states that ‘many natives who have joined [Mau Mau] have done so unwillingly…yet such is the hold of the dreaded…oath.’ Another article explains alleges that a ‘Kikuyu…took a[n]…oath two days ago which called on him to behead a European.’32 After reading Advertiser coverage of Mau Mau, one would be excused for coming to the conclusion that the Kenyan conflict was nothing more than the result of occult oathing practices that had spiraled out of control. Oaths were seen to have ‘transcending power’33 that aligned with the images reminiscent of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ trope and of witchcraft that were pervasively associated with Africans and African cultures in the US at the time.34 These tropes would have been particularly appealing in the deep South, where (white) Christian values were perceived to be under siege by other (often black) impious and cult-like religions.35

It seems likely that the Advertiser placed such an undue emphasis on oathing practices and chose to construe them in such a supernatural and evil way because it chose not to recognize the most salient and deep-seated motivations behind the Mau Mau movement. Over the 23-year period that this newspaper reported on Mau Mau, it did not publish a single article that convincingly argued that one of the key motivations behind the Mau Mau ideology was the unfair treatment of native Kenyans at the hands of British colonialists over the preceding decades. In the face of this omission, it makes sense that the paper was compelled to provide alternative explanations for why the anti-colonial efforts were fueled for so long at such a large human cost. One explanation, as I have already mentioned, was oathing. Another is land claims.

The Advertiser repeatedly reported that the Mau Mau mission was to recover land that was claimed by British colonialists. One article explains that ‘the main cause of discontent was the land hunger of the Kikuyu,’ and even repeats the term later in the article when it describes the Kikuyu as ‘land hungry, poor, and resentful.’36 Another one concludes that, ‘therein lay the roots of Mau Mau – the land problem,’37 implying that the core and primary motivation for the movement relates to land. While I do not think that land claims are irrelevant to Mau Mau’s motivations,38 I would like to suggest that it is reductive to imply that land was the sole focus of their mission and that it is not a sufficient explanation on its own for the rise of the movement. In fact, if we understand the movement to be, at its core, an effort against colonialism, then land confiscation is only one (albeit important) part of the damage done to Kenya by the British Empire.


Extension, in this context, explains how The Montgomery Advertiser constructed an understanding of Mau Mau, and then applied it to other people – namely, African Americans. The groundwork for extension is laid as early as 1952, when an article states that the Mau Mau were ‘pledged to drive the white man from Kenya.’39 Subsequent articles reinforce the idea that the Mau Mau were fundamentally anti-white; one article describes the Mau Mau as ‘a secret society pledged to drive the whites from Kenya,’40 while another one explains how in Masai country, men and women were being forced ‘to take the antiwhite Mau Mau oath.’41 These examples, along with other phrases including ‘anti-white’42, ‘vowed to drive the white man out’43, and ‘campaign against the whites’44 characterize both the nature of the movement as well as its aims, and establish the movement as highly racialized. Given that the readership of The Montgomery Advertiser at the time was predominantly white, this repetition would have seemed immediately alienating and hostile, and it designated the Mau Mau as distinctly other.

However, the paper then takes another step, not only to distance itself from the Mau Mau, but to draw parallels between the Kenyan movement and African Americans. In one article that specifies that the Mau Mau were composed predominantly of Kikuyu, it deliberately mentions that ‘a portion of the American Negroes is descended from the blood stream of the Kikuyu tribe,’45 presumably in an effort to alert the reader that savage, violent Mau Mau tendencies could be alive and thriving in their African-American neighbors. In another explicit reference to the parallels between Mau Mau and African Americans, an article states that ‘nations with color problems...could profit from [considering] Kenya’s terrifying experience,’46 making a clear implication about the entwined nature of Mau Mau and African American communities. The paper also frequently refers to the Mau Mau fighters as ‘Negroes’ and uses other racialized language to describe them, such as ‘gangs’ and ‘gangsters’47. This marks their race as significant and draws a tie between them and only other group of ‘Negroes’ frequently referenced by American newspapers – African-Americans.

These techniques are purposefully meant to distance Mau Mau from those writing about them (white Americans) and align them with African American communities. The Kenyan movement quickly became a well-known phenomenon, and started to take on cultural meaning aside from the actual events of the conflict. As ‘Mau Mau’ became a colloquial term, it’s meaning and connotations were very much shaped in the Advertiser by the fact that Mau Mau was characterized not only as anti-white, but distinctly black (and, it follows, related to African Americans). Therefore, the processes of characterization followed by extension were responsible for the iconic power of the Mau Mau. This power is directly responsible for the entry of the term ‘Mau Mau’ into the popular discourse of the white South, or in other words, naturalization.


The Kenyan movement quickly became a well-known phenomenon in the US, and started to take on cultural meaning aside from the actual events of the conflict. ‘Mau Mau’ became a colloquial term, and thus naturalization in this context refers to the extrapolation of the words or related terms to refer to other phenomena or events that are not necessarily related to the Kenyan conflict. The first article in the Advertiser that uses the term ‘Mau Mau’ as an American concept, rather than with explicit reference to the conflict in Kenya, was published in 1953. The article reported how during a discussion of violence in Kenya at a literary tea, Jean-Paul Sartre pointed to two writers (André Maurois and François Mauriac) and stated, ‘They’re our Mau Mau.’48 Maurois and Mauriac were proponents of literary ideas and theories that largely opposed those of Sartre, and thus, the phrase is meant to characterize their ideas as threatening and other, and the writers themselves as dangerous and radical. The term is used frequently over the next 23 years, and draws on the negative connotations of Mau Mau previously established by the Advertiser. In particular, the term is used most frequently to refer to African Americans, particularly those actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, who were perceived to be dangerous, radical, and violent.

A phrase used in multiple Advertiser articles is ‘NAACP Mau Mau’. In October 1955, the paper published an article titled ‘J Has a Right To Be Sore With Soapsuds’, which (among other topics) details the efforts of E. D. Nixon to buy a ticket to the Democratic Lincoln Day Dinner in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a prominent NAACP member and Civil Rights leader, and is described in this article as ‘the NAACP Mau Mau chief’ and his attempt to purchase a ticket to an all-white dinner is described as an act of ‘spear hurling’.49 This deliberate language strongly associates Nixon with primitive, backwards African behavior, and the Mau Mau-related terms used to describe him are clearly derogatory. Another article titled ‘A Study in Southerners’ is an editorial response to an article originally published in The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, and states that ‘a Klan leader would have no more chance of election to public office [in Alabama] than one of the NAACP Mau Maus.’50

Mau Mau was also a label given to black American Muslims by the Advertiser. In an article titled ‘Confusing Subversion with Lunacy’, the paper describes black Muslims as ‘a grotesque cross between the Shriners and the Mau Mau.’ The article argues that black Muslims should not be considered a subversive political organization, but instead a lawless and deranged group of individuals – a ‘psychopathic group.’51 These quotations mirror the fascination with oathing practices in other articles, in that they associated African cultural practices with madness, psychopathy, and the profane in order to delegitimize them and depoliticize them. Similarly, an article published later that year heavily critiques a black Muslim service taking place at the Washington Lorton Reformatory, and explains that the sermon ‘might as well be [given] by Mau Mau assassins.’52 In all of these articles, these phrases are meant to connote extreme and dangerous black radicalism, and associate black politics with deadly violence.

‘Mau Mau’ was also used in this paper to describe attacks perpetrated by African Americans. In the case of a Korean student who was killed by young African American men, the paper said he was beaten ‘to death with a blackjack and pop bottles in what reads more like a Mau Mau attack.’53 In different account of violence in 1968, the paper describes one of the perpetrators as ‘a Negro wielding a lead-weighted club and wearing a Mau Mau necklace popular with black power advocates,’54 as if in some way the man’s African bodily adornment could have driven him to murderous irrationalities. In both of these examples, Mau Mau is heavily associated with examples of exclusively black violence, and in the second the violence is characterized as occult. There are also multiple examples of the Advertiser reporting on violence they characterized as ‘Mau-Mau-like’55, particularly Poqo in South Africa.

The Chicago Defender Analysis


The Chicago Defender was founded on May 5th, 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, and less than two decades later was considered the most influential African-American weekly newspaper. While it was founded as a local publication, its circulation quickly broadened and it was soon distributed across the country. At its height, the paper’s readership numbered over 500,000 people each week.56 In 1956 the paper started publishing on a daily basis, and at the time more than two-thirds of its readership was located outside of Chicago. The same year, it became the largest black-owned daily newspaper in the world.57 The Defender was (and is) a politically progressive publication, and during the Civil Rights Era it shed light on racially-motivated attacks, brutalities, and injustices directed at African Americans.58


The first article that referenced Mau Mau published in The Chicago Defender was titled ‘African Chief Slain by Mau Mau’, and was published on October 18th, 1952. This depicted the movement as intensely violent and savage, and set the tone for subsequent articles. The word ‘slain’ is repeated throughout the article in order to characterize the extreme violence that Mau Mau enacted on a ‘Senior Chief Waruhio of the Kikuyu tribe’, and the fighters are described as ‘fanatics’.59 Articles that follow over the next few years use similar language to describe the violence that Mau Mau performed. Language such as ‘hacked’60, ‘barbarism’, ‘murder and pillage’61, ‘orgy of burning and killing’62, and ‘guerrilla warfare zones’63 all contribute to constructing a deeply violent representation.

The Mau Mau are presented as directly opposed to both white settlers and native Kenyans who are not part of the group. For example, an article published on November 1st, 1952 explains that ‘in past weeks Africans have been afraid to leave their huts at night and British families have been eating dinner with revolvers next to their plates,’64 showing the unification between Africans and British alike. This is directly linked to the characterization of the aims and motivations behind Mau Mau. The same article published on November 1st, 1952 reports Mau Mau’s ‘murderous pledge to rid Africa of white men’65, and indeed this sentiment is repeated frequently across different articles. Another article titled ‘Turmoil in Africa’ published on January 31st, 1953 reports that Mau Mau is ‘dedicated to forcing all whites from Kenya, or killing them’66. Repeatedly, the Mau Mau violence is characterized as an anti-white effort, and the Mau Mau are portrayed as the only violent actors in this conflict. It is also important to note that this violence was depicted as distinctly negative and entirely removed from the black Americans who were writing about it for the Defender. Returning to the terms used to characterize the violence that I described previously, an active effort was made by these journalists to describe the deeds of Mau Mau in a way that would be not only highly negative, but also completely distant and unfamiliar.

However, even as these early articles painted a seemingly clear-cut and static picture of Mau Mau fighters and their motivations, there are indications that there is more to be known about Mau Mau than originally meets the eye. Specifically, the multitude of ways in which these articles refer to Mau Mau speaks to the confusion that journalists felt while struggling to portray Mau Mau accurately. The Mau Mau fighters are referred to interchangeably across articles as ‘fanatics’67, a ‘society’68, ‘an army’69, ‘terrorists’70, a ‘campaign’71, ‘cultists’72, and more. These terms have wildly different connotations – the word ‘society’ draws on ideas of refinement, legality, and possibly secrecy, whereas the term ‘cultists’ contains implications of religion, persuasion, and worship. The fact that Defender journalists were unable to commit to standardized terms for the Mau Mau indicates an initial lack of understanding.


In this context, negation is used in a dialectical sense to signify a shift towards a more constructive, sympathetic image of the Mau Mau movement. A notable shift in coverage of the Mau Mau conflict comes more than a year after the conflict started. In October 1953, the Defender published an article called ‘Short Resume of News Events Both at Home and Abroad’. This article discusses, among other things, the state of Kenya and its news coverage in the US. The article explains that in recent press coverage of Mau Mau, ‘no mention…was made of the cruel treatment and exploitation which…[has] been inflicted on them for past generations by European whites.’73 This is the first time that any sort of defensible justification has been attributed to the ‘terrorist campaign’74 that was the Mau Mau movement. This marks a distinct change in the Defender’s coverage of Mau Mau, and in the following years more and more articles were published that referenced concrete and respectable justifications for Mau Mau’s aims. In November 1954, an article titled ‘No Sign of Peace as Mau Mau in Kenya War’ specifically refers to Kenya as ‘the black man’s country’75, and another article published a year later defines the Mau Mau struggle as an effort ‘to wrestle rule in their own country from white colonists.’76 Thus, the racial tensions that journalists originally attributed to the conflict are still present, but they are contextualized and the Mau Mau conflict is presented as more rational and justified.

The articles also begin to present white colonizers as violent, which is a big difference from early coverage where all violence was attributed to the Mau Mau alone. Numbers and comparisons are utilized heavily. An article published in February 1955 titled ‘7,811 Mau Mau Slain in Kenya’ states that ‘Mau Mau…have lost 260 times as many men as whites.’77 Another article published in November 1955 states that 9,802 Mau Mau were killed over a three-year period.78 Mau Mau are no longer simply the agents of violence, but also victims of violence themselves, lending more credibility to their position.

The Mau Mau struggle also shifts from a local to a more globalized conflict. While early coverage of Mau Mau reported it purely within the borders of Kenya, towards the mid and late 1950s there are more and more articles that include Mau Mau as an example of a pan-African struggle for freedom. Mentions of Mau Mau appear in articles like ‘Colored Peoples in World News Last Year’79 and ‘Our Opinion: The Colonial Scandal’80. An article published in March 1956 states that, ‘All Africa is thundering for independence from the prejudicial rule of the white settler. It was this yearning for freedom that gave rise to the Mau Mau in Kenya, East Africa.’81


On December 1st, 1962, The Chicago Defender published a creative editorial called ‘Jim Crow’s Epitaph’. In the article, the author states that ‘Jim Crow is sick in the head…them peoples in Asia has got him worried almost as much as I got him worried. In a little while the Mau Mau is going to worry him some more.’82 This association between Jim Crow and Mau Mau is powerful. It implies that Mau Mau has the power to upset and disrupt Jim Crow order in the US, and establishes a strong relationship between the Mau Mau conflict and the Civil Rights Movement. The article represents the beginning of a shift in the way that The Chicago Defender began to portray the way that African Americans related to and interacted with the Mau Mau conflict.

Suddenly, journalists no longer made efforts to distance the American black community from the Mau Mau fighters and their aims. In April 1964, the Defender reported that Malcolm X thought that the US needed ‘an organization like the Mau Mau terrorists of Kenya.’83 Journalists started reporting on discussions among the African American community about the place of Mau Mau in the Civil Rights Movement. Mau Mau was no longer defined as simply an historical campaign or event; it represented ideas of global blackness and it stood for equality and freedom. Audrey Weaver wrote a regular column for the Defender, and she frequently drew on Mau Mau in order to explain her opinions regarding the Civil Rights Movement and the African American struggle. In April 1971, she stated that ‘those Mau Mau started something which no one expected them to win, but look at Kenya now. There is always hope.’84

The transition of Mau Mau from an event to a concept is marked distinctly in the Defender. There are a diverse range of articles that use the term ‘Mau Mau’ to refer to some extractable theme from the conflict, instead of the literal conflict itself. In December 1971, the Defender published an article that quoted Missouri Congressman William Clay as saying ‘now that the Blacks have taken over the district, there is still corruption, but it is controlled. That’s what you call the mau mau philosophy.’85 In a similar vein, ‘How to bug whitey’ was published in 1973 and referenced Mau Mau satirically as a way for black Americans to aggravate white ones.86 In these articles, Mau Mau is a term that encodes ideas of violence, struggle, freedom, valiance, and blackness.


I found through analysis of each newspaper that The Chicago Defender and The Montgomery Advertiser had fundamentally different approaches to their creation of ‘Mau Mau’ and what it would come to mean. While the Advertiser created a linear process through which the term is negatively characterized, extended to another population (African Americans), and naturalized in American vocabulary, the Defender negative characterizes the term, then negates its own original portrayal in order to naturalize Mau Mau in an entirely different way. In both the Advertiser and the Defender, early articles used deliberate language in order to stereotype, discredit, and alienate Mau Mau to the point where they were reduced to completely savage archetypes. The articles in both publications aimed to establish the Mau Mau as radically other from those writing and reading about them.

Then, the two newspapers diverged completely. The Advertiser, having purposefully distanced the Mau Mau from white Americans, aligned them with African Americans by drawing implicit parallels and using extremely racialized language to describe the movement and its ideology. The Defender, on the other hand, revised its earlier assessment of Mau Mau and presented a more nuanced perspective on their activities – the violence that it reported on shifts from purely negative and barbaric to warranted and understandable in the face of colonialism and oppression. The movement transformed from a somewhat undefined, savage, terrorist group, to a noble campaign for recognition and equality. Each of these techniques served a purpose for its respective publication. The Kenyan movement was quickly becoming a well-known phenomenon, and was starting to take on cultural meaning aside from the actual events of the conflict. As ‘Mau Mau’ became a colloquial term, it’s meaning and connotations were very much shaped in each paper by the way it had been actively constructed and the different, racialized readership of the papers. In the Advertiser, Mau Mau was portrayed not only anti-white, but distinctly black, while in the Defender they were an African group whose tribulations aligned with Africans across the continent and the world, and warranted action.

Finally, each newspaper presented its own understanding and set of meanings for the naturalized, American term ‘Mau Mau’. In the Advertiser, it largely carried connotations of extreme violence and irrational black radicalism. This is markedly different than the iconized term that came to be used in the Defender, which still carried implications of violence, but was used to suggest violence which was justified, and ultimately it became a way to represent significant aspects of the African American experience. The movement was emblematic of struggles for black liberation across the globe, and the term in American vocabulary was actively used to align African Americans and the quest for civil rights with Mau Mau.

These two papers reported on the same events, thus it follows that the difference in their ultimate understandings and usages of ‘Mau Mau’ lay in their active, politically inflected and motivated constructions of the movement. The journalists who wrote these articles were engaged in dynamic negotiations between race and racism, the Civil Rights Movement, pan-Africanism, black violence, and the experiences of both African Americans and white Americans when they chose how to portray the Mau Mau and their activities. The malleability of the movement is yet another example of its contested and controversial nature, and it is clear that Mau Mau occupied a significant and complex space in American consciousness during this time period.


Murray Edelman remarks in his book Constructing the Political Spectacle that while we consume news and media, we assume that we are ‘observers of “facts” whose meanings can be accurately ascertained by those who are properly trained and motivated.’87 I agree with Edelman that this positivist representation of news reporting and consumption is reductive, and instead, believe that news is just as constructed as it is reported. The two newspapers I compared reported on the same events, with a similar frequency, over the same period of time, and came up with entirely different understandings of the movement in question, and its significance within American culture. The leadership, location, political leadings, and audience of each publication undoubtedly contributed to the processes that the Defender and Advertiser embarked on in trying to represent who the Mau Mau were and what they should mean to Americans over more than twenty years. I mean to not suggest that Mau Mau was an entirely constructed idea or term in American discourse – there are basic elements of the movement (including violence, blackness, and colonialism) that lent themselves to the definitions and connotations that each newspaper ultimately propagated. However, I hope that this analysis of Defender and Advertiser coverage will add to the constructivist critiques of how events and phenomena around the world are represented in the media, and function as a case study for Beverly Hawk’s assertion that ‘political events are largely creations of the language we use to describe them.’88

I would like to acknowledge some limitations in my methods beginning with the most obvious one – the fact that I did not read every article published concerning Mau Mau in both papers between 1952 and 1975. I endeavored to perform a close reading of a representative sample (the first newspaper article published in each paper each month containing the phrase ‘Mau Mau’), but ultimately my analysis would have been more comprehensive had I read all of the articles. There was also room for growth in my investigation outside of the confines of the singular term I chose to focus on. Supplementary analysis of other relevant contemporaneous movements in other African colonies would have informed my findings and allowed me to situate my arguments within larger pan-African trends.

The issues discussed in this paper are relevant today more than ever. ‘Fake news’ has existed as a phenomenon for centuries, but the 2016 US Presidential Election catapulted the term into the vocabularies of people around the world. The true impact of ‘fake’ or otherwise misleading news on the results of this election and others has yet to be comprehensively assessed, but regardless, the theoretical grounding of the term is troublesome. A category titled ‘fake news’ implies that its binary reciprocal is true, objective, correct news. This entirely discounts the agency and incentives that news organizations exercise when reporting on events, and moreover implies that the news should be composed entirely of true and verifiable facts – to the degree such things exist. In fact, revision of coverage of a contested phenomenon, such as Mau Mau, reveals the opposite – that articles are not composed of pure facts so much as they are constructed from a broad variety of opinions, motivations, truths, and perceptions attributable to the organization.


“7,811 Mau Mau Slain in Kenya.” The Chicago Defender. February 12, 1955. Proquest.

“50 Die in New Mau Mau Raids.” The Chicago Defender. March 7, 1953. Proquest.

“200 Africans Killed by Mau Mau Raiders.” The Chicago Defender. April 4, 1953. Proquest.

“A Study of Southerners.” The Montgomery Advertiser, May 9, 1957.

“About | Montgomery Advertiser.” Accessed November 23, 2017.

“‘Africa For Africans’ Predicted By Writer.” The Chicago Defender. November 7, 1953. Proquest.

“African Chief Slain by Mau Mau.” The Chicago Defender. October 18, 1952. Proquest.

“Africans Get Death in Slaying Whites.” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 11, 1963.

“Africans in Bloody Revolt Against Whites.” The Chicago Defender. November 1, 1952. Proquest.

“An Englishman in Montgomery.” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 24, 1956.

“Another Troubled Area.” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 9, 1954.

Atieno-Odhiambo, E. S. “The Production of History in Kenya: The Mau Mau Debate.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 25, no. 2 (1991): 300–307.

Barnett, Albert. “Short Resume Of News Events Both At Home And Abroad.” The Chicago Defender. October 3, 1953. Proquest.

Bennett, Georg. Kenya, a Political History: The Colonial Period. Oxford University Press, 1963.

Beverly G. Hawk, ed. Africa’s Media Image. New York: Praeger, 1992.

“British Removes Bugandan King as He Insists on Independence.” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 1, 1953.

“British Troops Kill 16 Mau Mau Members.” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 5, 1955.

Caroline Elkins. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Owl Books, 2005.

“Confusing Subversion with Lunacy.” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 18, 1962.

“Curfew Ordered in Carolina Town.” The Montgomery Advertiser, February 11, 1968.

Daniels, George. “Britain, France on Decline as Empires.” The Chicago Defender. March 17, 1956. Proquest.

David Anderson. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2005.

Donnie Mossberg. Malcolm X - The Last Speech - February 14, 1965. Accessed October 25, 2017.

“Era of Unrest.” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 19, 1953.

“Gal, Gun Open Mau Mau Trial.” The Chicago Defender. September 12, 1953. Proquest.

Gary Wasserman. Politics of Decolonization: Kenya Europeans and the Land Issue. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

“Grover Hall Jr., Editor in South.” The New York Times, September 25, 1971, sec. Archives.

“History of the Chicago Defender.” The Chicago Defender (blog), April 18, 2017.

Horne, Gerald. Mau Mau in Harlem?: The U.S. and the Liberation of Kenya. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

“How to Bug Whitey.” The Chicago Defender. March 10, 1973. Proquest.

Hughes, Langston. “Colored Peoples in World News Last Year.” The Chicago Defender. January 19, 1957. Proquest.

“Jim Crow’s Epitaph.” The Chicago Defender. December 1, 1962. Proquest.

“J Has a Right To Be Sore With Soapsuds.” The Montgomery Advertiser, October 2, 1955.

“Jimmy Fidler in Hollywood.” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 8, 1952.

Johnson, Malcolm. “Turmoil in Africa.” The Chicago Defender. January 31, 1953. Proquest.

“Kenya Spearmen Kill 5 of Terrorist Gang.” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 2, 1954.

“Kill 9,802 Mau Mau in 3 Years.” The Chicago Defender. November 5, 1955. Proquest.

Leonard Lyons. “The Lyons Den.” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 6, 1953.

“Make Mau Mau Land ‘Closed Area.’” The Chicago Defender. June 13, 1953. Proquest.

“Mau Mau Band Foiled By Priest.” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 8, 1953.

Montgomery Advertiser Editorial. “Obama Better Candidate to Lead America.” The Montgomery Advertiser, October 26, 2008, sec. Voices.

“Move Kenyatta From Desert Detention Camp.” The Chicago Defender. December 6, 1952. Proquest.

Murray Edelman. Constructing the Political Spectacle. United States of America: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

“Muslim Leader Off to Africa.” The Chicago Defender. April 15, 1964. Proquest.

“No Sign of Peace As Mau Mau War in Kenya.” The Chicago Defender. November 13, 1954. Proquest.

“Our Opinion: The Colonial Scandal in Kenya.” The Chicago Defender. June 13, 1959. Proquest.

Payne, Ethel. “Solons Talk to Black Politics in the ’70s.” The Chicago Defender. December 6, 1971. Proquest.

“Police Seize 50 Mau Maus.” The Montgomery Advertiser, November 4, 1952.

“Prosperous Kenyans Ready for Coming Independence.” The Montgomery Advertiser, November 21, 1963.

Ray Jenkins. “Mau Mau Lesson.” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 2, 1959.

“Rehabilitation, Washington Style.” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 11, 1962.

“Rough Stuff.” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 6, 1957.

“Sinister Domination.” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 1, 1953.

“Sir George Erskine Plans Mau Mau Wipeout.” The Chicago Defender. July 4, 1953. Proquest.

“Son of British Airman Murdered by Terrorist.” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 4, 1954.

“The Chicago Defender.” Accessed October 25, 2017.

Weaver, Audrey. “From the Weaver.” The Chicago Defender. April 17, 1971. Proquest.

“Well Meant But Mistaken.” The Montgomery Advertiser, May 10, 1958.

“White Family Hacked to Death by Negro Gang.” The Montgomery Advertiser, January 26, 1953.

Wunyabari Maloba. Mau Mau and Kenya: An Anaylysis of a Peasant Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.


  1. Donnie Mossberg, Malcolm X - The Last Speech - February 14, 1965, accessed October 19, 2017,
  2. Throughout this essay I will refer to this period in time as the ‘Mau Mau movement’. Other authors use a variety of words to describe the movement, including uprising, revolt, conflict, war. ‘Movement’ seems to me like the most neutral and accurate term.
  3. Georg Bennett, Kenya, a Political History: The Colonial Period (Oxford University Press, 1963), 9.
  4. Ibid, 20, 99.
  5. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2005), 41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Owl Books, 2005), 234-235.
  8. Gary Wasserman, Politics of Decolonization: Kenya Europeans and the Land Issue (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1.
  9. Wunyabari Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya: An Anaylysis of a Peasant Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), ix.
  10. E. S. Atieno-Odhiambo, “The Production of History in Kenya: The Mau Mau Debate,” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 25, no. 2 (1991): 300–307,
  11. See Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins and Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson for more on this subject.
  12. Atieno-Odhiambo, “The Production of History in Kenya.”
  13. Gerald Horne, Mau Mau in Harlem?: The U.S. and the Liberation of Kenya (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 58.
  14. Horne, 56.
  15. Horne, 67.
  16. “About | Montgomery Advertiser,” accessed November 23, 2017,
  17. Ibid.
  18. “Grover Hall Jr., Editor in South,” The New York Times, September 25, 1971, sec. Archives,
  19. Montgomery Advertiser Editorial, “Obama Better Candidate to Lead America,” The Montgomery Advertiser, October 26, 2008, sec. Voices.
  20. “Jimmy Fidler in Hollywood,” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 8, 1952.
  21. “Another Troubled Area,” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 9, 1954.
  22. Ray Jenkins, “Mau Mau Lesson,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 2, 1959.
  23. “White Family Hacked to Death by Negro Gang,” The Montgomery Advertiser, January 26, 1953.
  24. Ibid.
  25. “Era of Unrest,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 19, 1953.
  26. “Son of British Airman Murdered by Terrorist,” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 4, 1954.
  27. “British Troops Kill 16 Mau Mau Members,” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 5, 1955.
  28. This is a common theme around the Western world at the time – characterizing Africans and those of African descent as fundamentally and inherently violent beings. For a fundamental example, see Through the Dark Continent by Henry Morton Stanley.
  29. “Rough Stuff,” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 6, 1957.
  30. “Prosperous Kenyans Ready for Coming Independence,” The Montgomery Advertiser, November 21, 1963.
  31. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 44-46.
  32. “Son of British Airman Murdered by Terrorist.”
  33. Ray Jenkins, “Mau Mau Lesson.”
  34. For more on the Heart of Darkness trope, see Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. For more on the history of Western representations of African witchcraft, see Perspectives of African Witchcraft edited by Mariano Pavenello.
  35. For more on this, see Politics and Religion in the White South by Glenn Feldman.
  36. “An Englishman in Montgomery,” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 24, 1956.
  37. Ray Jenkins, “Mau Mau Lesson.”
  38. As has been acknowledged by many notable scholars (include names).
  39. “Police Seize 50 Mau Maus,” The Montgomery Advertiser, November 4, 1952.
  40. “Mau Mau Band Foiled By Priest,” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 8, 1953.
  41. “Kenya Spearmen Kill 5 of Terrorist Gang,” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 2, 1954.
  42. “Sinister Domination,” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 1, 1953.
  43. “British Removes Bugandan King as He Insists on Independence,” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 1, 1953.
  44. “An Englishman in Montgomery.”
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ray Jenkins, “Mau Mau Lesson.”
  47. “Kenya Spearmen Kill 5 of Terrorist Gang.”
  48. Leonard Lyons, “The Lyons Den,” The Montgomery Advertiser, June 6, 1953.
  49. “J Has a Right To Be Sore With Soapsuds,” The Montgomery Advertiser, October 2, 1955.
  50. “A Study of Southerners,” The Montgomery Advertiser, May 9, 1957.
  51. “Confusing Subversion with Lunacy,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 18, 1962.
  52. “Rehabilitation, Washington Style,” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 11, 1962.
  53. “Well Meant But Mistaken,” The Montgomery Advertiser, May 10, 1958.
  54. “Curfew Ordered in Carolina Town,” The Montgomery Advertiser, February 11, 1968.
  55. “Africans Get Death in Slaying Whites,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 11, 1963.
  56. “The Chicago Defender,” accessed October 25, 2017,
  57. “History of the Chicago Defender,” The Chicago Defender (blog), April 18, 2017,
  58. Ibid.
  59. “African Chief Slain by Mau Mau,” The Chicago Defender, October 18, 1952, Proquest.
  60. “Africans in Bloody Revolt Against Whites,” The Chicago Defender, November 1, 1952, Proquest.
  61. Malcolm Johnson, “Turmoil in Africa,” The Chicago Defender, January 31, 1953, Proquest.
  62. “200 Africans Killed by Mau Mau Raiders,” The Chicago Defender, April 4, 1953, Proquest.
  63. “Make Mau Mau Land ‘Closed Area,’” The Chicago Defender, June 13, 1953, Proquest.
  64. “Africans in Bloody Revolt Against Whites.”
  65. Ibid.
  66. Johnson, “Turmoil in Africa.”
  67. “African Chief Slain by Mau Mau.”
  68. “Africans in Bloody Revolt Against Whites.”
  69. “Move Kenyatta From Desert Detention Camp,” The Chicago Defender, December 6, 1952, Proquest.
  70. “50 Die in New Mau Mau Raids,” The Chicago Defender, March 7, 1953, Proquest.
  71. “Sir George Erskine Plans Mau Mau Wipeout,” The Chicago Defender, July 4, 1953, Proquest.
  72. “Gal, Gun Open Mau Mau Trial,” The Chicago Defender, September 12, 1953, Proquest.
  73. Albert Barnett, “Short Resume Of News Events Both At Home And Abroad,” The Chicago Defender, October 3, 1953, Proquest.
  74. “‘Africa For Africans’ Predicted By Writer,” The Chicago Defender, November 7, 1953, Proquest.
  75. “No Sign of Peace As Mau Mau War in Kenya,” The Chicago Defender, November 13, 1954, Proquest.
  76. “Kill 9,802 Mau Mau in 3 Years,” The Chicago Defender, November 5, 1955, Proquest.
  77. “7,811 Mau Mau Slain in Kenya,” The Chicago Defender, February 12, 1955, Proquest.
  78. “Kill 9,802 Mau Mau in 3 Years.”
  79. Langston Hughes, “Colored Peoples in World News Last Year,” The Chicago Defender, January 19, 1957, Proquest.
  80. “Our Opinion: The Colonial Scandal in Kenya,” The Chicago Defender, June 13, 1959, Proquest.
  81. George Daniels, “Britain, France on Decline as Empires,” The Chicago Defender, March 17, 1956, Proquest.
  82. Langston Hughes, “Jim Crow’s Epitaph,” The Chicago Defender, December 1, 1962, Proquest.
  83. “Muslim Leader Off to Africa,” The Chicago Defender, April 15, 1964, Proquest.
  84. Audrey Weaver, “From the Weaver,” The Chicago Defender, April 17, 1971, Proquest.
  85. Ethel Payne, “Solons Talk to Black Politics in the ’70s,” The Chicago Defender, December 6, 1971, Proquest.
  86. “How to Bug Whitey,” The Chicago Defender, March 10, 1973, Proquest.
  87. Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (United States of America: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 1.
  88. Beverly G. Hawk, ed., Africa’s Media Image (New York: Praeger, 1992), 5.

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