Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Half a Century Later

August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 historic march on Washington at which the late Revered Martin Luther King, Jr. made his national transformational “I have a Dream" Speech.  That march, which was attended by a crowd of over 250,000, along with its famous speech, occurred in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a pivotal moment in a national grassroots social change movement whose overall goal was to transform the United States from a society that was legally based on a social doctrine of separate but equal to a de jure system of racial integration. An excerpt from that speech aptly encapsulates the state of affairs then for Americans of African descent:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition (
Globally-speaking, King’s speech was one of the most powerful oratories of the 20th century. Though a national holiday has been proclaimed in his honor and a national monument, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial,  has also been erected in Washington, D.C. in recognition of the greatness of the civil rights leader, Dr. King, jr. did not live for long on this earth after that speech of 1963 (on April 4, 1968, he lost his life to an assassin’s bullet). Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement proved not to be a fad. Through a set of legal reforms (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the now-Supreme Court-diluted Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Housing Act of 1968), the movement revolutionized the United States from a society where racial discrimination was legal and overt to one where it is supposed to be illegal. As the events of the past few days, which were meant to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington, must have conveyed, it’s of vital importance for us to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was not a one-day affair involving a single speech--though powerful in its content and oratory--that instantly changed everything and everybody. By 1963, when King delivered his now inter-generationally famous “I have a Dream" Speech, he had been playing a leadership role in the Civil Rights struggle for eight continuous years, dating back to 1955 when the young 26-year-old church minister was recruited to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association in the wake of Rosa Parks’ much-celebrated refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. And, long before the speech, the 1954 Brown judgment of the Supreme Court which enthroned racial desegregation of the school system of the United States—and, in effect, overthrew the earlier century’s 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson’s Supreme Court’s ruling that affirmed racial separatism in the social life of America—had emerged as an affirmation of a long, post-Reconstruction African American struggle to get America to live up to its ethos that “all men are created equal [and] they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights [, including] life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” (
In the context of world affairs, the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century was not an isolated event. It partly coincided with and was spurred on by an across-the-globe upsurge for freedom and for self-determination. The 1948 declaration of Universal Human Rights by the United Nations was a major impetus. So was Cold-War geo-politics. Specifically, as part of a global movement, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States flourished alongside continental mass struggles for freedom from colonial rule in Africa,  following India’s achievement of independence from British colonial rule in 1947. The legendary Mahatma Gandhi spear-headed that Indian independence movement through his tactical deployment of mass civil disobedience. Following in his footsteps years later, Dr. King championed America’s own Civil Rights struggle through his non-violence philosophy and tactics.  Thus, symbolically and ideologically, these trans-continental movements fed upon one another. As another example, while prominent leaders of the African movement for independence from colonial rule included personalities, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria (both of whom studied in the United States) and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, who studied in London, England, and in doing so, received inspiration from black protest and Pan-Africanist visions of the W.E.B Duboises, George Padmores, the Eric Williams, the C.L.R. James, and the Ralph Bunches of the African American world, the attainment of independence by a succession of African countries mostly in the 1960s (though Egypt became independent of Britain in 1953, followed by Ghana in 1957), in itself became a source of pride, inspiration  and affirmation of black humanity in a United States whose racial history includes an academically-valorized notion of black biological inferiority--in tandem with a similar posture of Western civilization as a whole. The emergent African independent nationhood was an asset that the leaderships of the Civil Rights Movement could show off to the cynical among their white compatriots about a black ability to take charge of black social, political and economic life without white tutelage.
Now, let’s fast-forward to the post-Civil Rights era and do some stock-taking. There is no question that the United States of King’s era is not the United States of today. Only someone who does not have knowledge of that era would find a basis—though one that’s obviously ill-informed--for contesting that fact. Though racial inequities persist, we live in an era of legal racial integration. Much like other multiracial and multicultural societies of the world, the United States still faces its share of racial and ethnic antagonism and bigotry. Be that as it may, and thanks to both Civil Rights Movement’s induced-transformational education and significant demographic shifts that brought about record changes in the people-of-colors’ share of the United States’ national population, the first decade of the 21st century witnessed the emergence of a black President of the United States. Though both in the first (2008) and second (2012) elections (check out a Pew Research Center’s analysis of the 2012 presidential election), President Barack Obama received a minority of the white vote, much in sync with modern trends in US politics whereby Republican presidential candidates attract more white votes than their Democratic counterparts--but the totality of the votes cast by people of color tipped the electoral scale in his favor--the United States, as a society, still deserves credit for those earth-shattering electoral triumphs of a US president who demographically comes from a segment of the nation that accounts for less than 14% of the national population.
Society must keep in mind that history repeats itself unless the people of the present generation make a conscious effort to learn from it. In order to learn from the mistakes of history, the present generation of America must be educated meaningfully and truthfully about its national history.  In guiding the education of the present generation about its past, the powers-that-be must resist temptation to sugar-coat that past. For such sugar-coating would inevitably become the equivalent of a medical doctor’s deliberate rosy but inaccurate diagnosis of a medical ailment, which, in turn, would lead to an under-estimation  or misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem. Such a misdiagnosis of the patient’s ailment could then give rise to an inadequate or incorrect prescription that, invariably, would fall short of what’s needed in order to make the patient wholesome again. If education must continue to serve as a basis for positively reforming humanity and for continually moving the world forward towards a just society--and not backwards--the leaders who are entrusted with its stewardship, must not lose sight of the moral lesson inherent in the preceding medical physician analogy. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington for freedom and for jobs, we should also use the occasion to recommit ourselves to the educational transformations brought about by the parent Civil Rights Movement of that era—transformations that, by and large, enabled the United States to achieve a deeper self-understanding necessary for social tranquility and progress.