August 28, 2013 marks 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. News about this very important anniversary has been all over the media in the US making it difficult to miss. The 1963 march was an interracial rally focusing on the socio- economic plight African Americans, demanding jobs and equal treatment under the law. The March has special significance for America, especially African Americans at many levels. It is at this rally that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) gave his now famous “I have a dream speech” This rally marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, from it came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting right Acts of 1965 laws that brought desegregation of public institutions and outlawed discriminatory voting practices. It was while listening to King’s speech that I saw similarities in thought process with South African activist Steve Biko in this interview;
Purpose driven lives
Separated by an ocean and a 17 year age difference Steve Biko and Martin Luther King’s adult lives were not-too un-similar life. Dr. King was a clergyman turned activist. He advocated for equal rights for all men through non-violent means. His activism was based on Christian teachings to treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated. King went on to win the 1964 Nobel Peace prize for these efforts. Steve Biko was a charismatic anti-apartheid activist, who sought equality for all in South Africa. While Biko never lived long enough nor gained enough exposure to get a Nobel nomination, he was equally driven to the cause of equality among all South Africans. His activism centered on black consciousness, a philosophy based on idea that black should be proud of their blackness and should work together to overcome suppression and achieve equality. Both Martin Luther King and Biko beliefs transcended partisan politics, neither identified with any political party in existence at the time, choosing instead to focus their energies on their commitment to the struggle for equality.
Their modus operandi was that of civil disobedience with the aim to empower black people. Their ability to draw people into the cause lay in their charismatic personalities. King’s leadership began in the church, and would evolve into organizing on the national stage with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. The boycotts were in protest of segregation laws (also referred to as Jim Crow laws) and the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Dr. King would go on to lead many more acts of civil disobedience and would be arrested multiple times. Dr. King created enough brouhaha to attract the FBI who kept him under surveillance till his death.
Biko began his activism as a student, founding and leading various student organizations. His involvement in the political movement saw him jailed multiple times finally leading to his expulsion from college and banishment to his home town in the Cape Province. So profound was his influence and abilities to organize at grassroots level, that restrictions on movement did not diminish the power of the black consciousness movement. Even after his death the black consciousness movement c continued organizing protests leading to the Soweto Uprising of June 16 1976 in which students protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction for math related subjects while the local languages were used in music, religion and physical education.
Reverend Martin Luther King was only 39 when he was gunned down in 1964 after attending a protest in support of striking workers. Steve Biko’s death at 30 in 1977 while in police custody was equally violent. He was savagely beaten, chained to an iron pole in the nude, denied treatment and suffered a brain hemorrhage that resulted in his death. The untimely deaths at the height of their respective movements ultimately turned King and Biko into martyrs of the civil rights movement in their respective countries. Their young, promising lives were snuffed too soon but their legacies still live on.
50 years later Dr. Martin Luther King would have been happy to know that African Americans no longer have to sit in the back of the bus, pay a poll tax for the right to vote, use separate bathrooms and lunch counters. And most of all he would have loved that America finally elected an African American president, not once but twice. Similarly, 38 years after his death, Steve Biko’s South Africa is no longer under apartheid rule, and is a thriving multi-racial nation. In this context Dr. Martin Luther King and Steve Biko’s lives were not lost in vain. However, in spite of the progress made by both nations, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve broader equality among the citizens. Biko and King would have been saddened by the inequality gaps within their countries. The iron shackles of yesterday have been replaced with economic chains of today. These chains are institutionalized and less visible, but no less oppressive. They require an even more determined and sophisticated form of protest to overcome. The strong resolve found in King and Biko’s generation appears to be less pronounced in today’s iPad generation which seems content with the status quo. If Dr. King and Steve Biko were alive today; they would still be leading the March for equality as the dream is far from fulfillment.