This April marked the 50th anniversary of the death of slain civil rights stalwart, Martin Luther King, jr (MLK), a commemoration that has remarkably gone unnoticed in much of Africa. This July also celebrates the centenary of King’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, Nelson Mandela’s birth.
Both the civil rights and anti-apartheid struggles were symbolically linked when Mandela – in a 1994 speech to the US Congress – echoed King’s words from the 1963 March On Washington, borrowed from an old Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!” Both of these liberation struggles focused on combating racial injustice and social inequality. The black ghettos of the American civil rights struggle mirrored the black townships of the anti-apartheid Struggle.
King and his fellow Nobel peace laureate, Albert Luthuli, issued a joint declaration condemning apartheid in 1962, and during his Nobel prize speech two years later, MLK honoured Luthuli “whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man”. King also championed decolonisation efforts in Africa, attending Kwame Nkrumah’s independence celebration in Accra in 1957. As he noted: “The liberation struggle in Africa has been the greatest single international influence on American Negro students. Frequently I hear them say that if their African brothers can break the bonds of colonialism, surely the American Negro can break Jim Crow.”
King became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35. He was a prophetic troubadour, and a religious griot who tirelessly preached the gospel of black liberation across the vast expanse of the American colossus. MLK came from a solidly middle-class background: his father, grandfather, and great-grandfathers had all been preachers. He thus followed in a long line of proselytising ancestors. His faith in the ministry was bolstered at Atlanta’s all-black Morehouse College, before he went on to earn a doctorate in theology from Boston University.
King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers. His martyrdom at the age of 39 was tragic. A day before his death, during his famous “Mountaintop” speech, King had, like a black Moses, warned his disciples that he had seen the Promised Land, but might not get there with them. He marched towards his painful destiny with the grace and dignity of a Christ-like figure.
Through the dog days of countless demonstrations, bus boycotts, and freedom rides that marked one of the most violent epochs in American history, King demonstrated a resilience and fearlessness that was almost unnerving, arguing that “The only way we can really achieve freedom is to somehow conquer the fear of death. For if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” MLK’s home was firebombed and he was stabbed – nearly fatally – in a New York department store. Handsome, charismatic, and always impeccably dressed, he remains one of the greatest orators of all time.
India’s Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 where he developed the satyagraha non-violent methods to fight discrimination against the Indian community.
King viewed “passive resistance” as a “philosophy of life”, arguing: “I’m committed to non-violence absolutely.” He argued against violent riots, noting that they would lead to a more brutal backlash against black communities, and relieve whites of their guilt while intensifying their fears. MLK instead sought to “transmute the inchoate rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative channel”. Like a post-1990 Mandela, he consistently preached racial reconciliation. As with the early Mandela, King’s radicalism has often been erased from history. King was, however, heavily criticised for his pacifist stance by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and countless black youth groups.
Though MLK is now often portrayed in the popular imagination solely as a civil rights icon, he waged a lonely “Poor People’s Campaign” in the last three years of his life. Tackling these sensitive issues made him widely unpopular. He was a disciple of both Jesus and Marx, criticising a capitalist system and calling instead for decent jobs, housing, education, and the redistribution of wealth. Having achieved civil and voting rights legislation by 1965, King saw economic equality as the next phase of the struggle.
Unlike Nkrumah, he argued that achieving the political kingdom was not enough, America also had to embark on a further quest for an elusive economic kingdom.
MLK’s economic battles led him logically to oppose America’s brutal imperial war in Vietnam on the basis that the country needed more butter than guns. He condemned the terrible triplets of racism, poverty, and war, arguing that the grotesque military expenditure in Asia was better spent on vanquishing poverty at home. As King put it: “When the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.”
The civil rights establishment opposed King’s anti-Vietnam stance, which they felt would harm their cause. Their criticisms and distancing themselves from King must have been one of the most painful moments in his life. But MLK characteristically demonstrated the courage of his conviction.
Across from the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta in which MLK had delivered some of his most searing sermons is his aquatic crypt, where he lies buried next to a museum honouring his legacy.
It was the torch of liberation that Gandhi handed to King that made it possible for Barack Obama to serve as the first black president of the US (2009-2016). Obama’s career had been inspired by his fellow Nobel laureate’s civil rights struggle, and his pursuit of universal health care was a struggle that King had waged four decades earlier.
King was, however, not a saint, as evidenced by his adulterous affairs. His militant activism has been somewhat downplayed by some contemporary writers. As African-American scholar Cornel West noted: “A radical man deeply hated and held in contempt is recast as if he was a universally loved moderate.”
More recent American civic struggles such as Black Lives Matter and the Living Wage campaign owe a great debt to King.
Perhaps the greatest recent tribute to MLK’s legacy was the 2014 film, Selma, which captured the struggle to achieve voting rights for blacks in apartheid America. Underlining continuing Pan-African connections, the Nigerian-British actor, David Oyelowo, gave a scintillating performance as King. MLK’s wife, Coretta Scott, is played with great poise by another Nigerian-Briton, Carmen Ejogo. It is perhaps through such cultural collaborations that the Pan-African bridges forged by King, Luthuli, and Nkrumah can be rebuilt.
* Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.
The Sunday Independent