Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 89 years old on this King Holiday. 2018 also marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination. The ideals he stood for far outlasted his life and in an age of growing intolerance, it’s important to examine how far society has gone to implement his vision of social justice, respect, and human dignity.
A globalist, King saw the struggle against racism as global, and as part of a worldwide crusade against colonialism and exploitation. He considered racism as the “hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our generation.” Adding that “racism and its perennial ally — economic exploitation” were at the root of many of the world’s problems.
King paid attention to Africa, a continent besieged by colonialism, racism and exploitation. “Africa was one of the most exploited continents in the history of the world,” he wrote. He regularly pointed to parallels between Africa’s struggles against colonialism and the fight against racism in the United States.
Yet almost 60 years after independence, African leaders have betrayed the aspirations and hopes he espoused. In African countries, clientelism and ethnic violence are routine.
In Cameroon, for example, President Paul Biya’s 36 years in power has been one of dominance by his Beti/Bulu ethnic group. In Togo, where the political system has been dominated by one family for almost half a century, there have been repeated protests against the regime of President Faure Gnassingbé. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is wreaking havoc and taking its atrocities to neighboring countries, but the African Union remains ill-equipped to stop it. In Zimbabwe, there was jubilation after Robert Mugabe was ousted from power, but much uncertainty remains because the new leadership has not provided a clear path to reverse the country’s drift. In Kenya, the political process continuous to be marred by iolence and instability. In South Africa, each day the news gets worse: corruption, poverty, and racism. And the list goes on.
King’s first visit to Africa was to Ghana, where he participated in that country’s independence celebration. The trip was an awakening for him. After the trip, King provided an assessment of the lessons of Ghana in a speech, “The Birth of a New Nation.” It was much more than a reflection on the independence celebration. It was a lesson on Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, courage, Africa, colonialism, justice, and the evils of racism.
Ghana, he repeatedly stated, reminded him that “freedom never comes easy,” but justice eventually triumphs over evil. Three years later King was in Lagos, Nigeria, on the invitation of Nnamdi Azikiwe, where he attended his inauguration as Nigeria’s first governor general. He later became the country’s president. There again, he observed the power of agitation. In a 1961 article “The time for Freedom has Come,” King wrote: “the liberation in Africa has been the greatest single international influence on American Negro students.”
His view was that the anti-colonial struggle was moving faster than the fight for civil rights in the United States. At the end of World War II there were three independent nations (Ethiopian, Liberia and South Africa) in Africa, King stated and by 1963 they were more than 30. In a 1965 interview King called on leaders of the new African nations to use their influence to remind the global community that “the struggle of their brothers in the U.S. is part of a worldwide struggle” against racism, exploitation and oppression.
South Africa’s apartheid did not escape King’s attention. He grew impatient with the jailing of activists. King used his platform as the 1964 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to raise the stakes. He labeled South Africa’s actions against the likes of Chief Albert Luthuli as the most “brutal expression man’s inhumanity to man.” He warned the world of the consequences of inaction against racism and human-rights abuse.
The issues which dominate contemporary African societies represent a far cry from the ideals King postulated in his “Beloved Community” of social justice. The problems of the continent remain monumental and do not reflect the resilience and hope King saw in the people. It’s time that African leaders revisited King’s “I have a Dream” speech. Though delivered primarily to an American audience, it had universal implications for freedom and social justice. Portions of the speech need to be reread and implemented by African leaders: “Now is the time to make real promises of democracy. … Now is the time to make justice a reality for all. … It would be fatal … to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Perhaps, and just perhaps, with that shift the New Year and this King Holiday will mark the beginning of a new direction in Africa’s political, economic and social life.
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Julius A. Amin, Ph.D., is professor and alumni chair in Humanities in the Department of History at the University of Dayton.