Today the US, nay, the world remembers Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the inspirational African-American civil rights lead that was assassinated in April 1968. He would have turned 83 this year if he hadn’t been finished off.
I think it was in 2001. The Americans had just moved in their new embassy fortress in the outskirts of the Uganda capital, Kampala. I was invited together with one of the most sharp-tongued-and-penned female journalists in Uganda, the deceptively petit Lilliane Barenzi. Our task was to mark Martin Luther King essays, and pronounce the winner of the competition.
The question was whether by advocating for non-violent resistance to racial segregation and injustice, Martin Luther had done the right thing or not.
In Uganda at that time, many young people were still drunk on revolution. So there were many essays denouncing Martin Luther King as a sell-out, a wimp who didn’t have the stomach to meet the brutality and abuses of racists with fire, the only language bigots understood.
Some essayists argued that the fact that racism thrives in parts of America today is because King didn’t “confront its foundations”. Instead he became a stooge, who played along with non-violent revolution, and legitimised a racist order.
It was rousing and passionate, but not new.
I can’t remember the name of the writer, but I do remember the subject of the winning essay.
If I had to write the same essay, I would entitle it “Martin Luther and the case for enlightened cowardice”. The young man wrote that no entrenched power will respond and make changes without being challenged. So Martin Luther and the civil rights movement deserve credit for standing up.
Secondly, he argued that timing was important. By taking to protest when African-Americans were few, poor, shabbily educated, the threat level they posed to the racist establishment was low, so the authorities didn’t respond with the full firing power they had.
Because of that, the civil rights movement was not a fight to the death – and relatively few people died. Most lived to keep the struggle alive.
Furthermore, because of that and the low lethality, white liberals and other “good Christians” joined King because the risk was manageable, thus broadening the movement beyond America’s black tribes.
In all, King’s genius was knowing to win a little today, spare his troops for another fight tomorrow so they might win another piece, and still have men and women left to carry on the cause.
Not everyone has to die. If the enemy outnumbers you hopelessly, you don’t fight him on his terms. Not every war must be like “300”, where all the Spartans die.
Again, these points had been made in one way or another before. It’s just that it was rare to find a young man, who hadn’t been mellowed by the setbacks of life, embracing them.
When African-Americans finally started burning down cities in the Chicago riots, they were more of them than in King’s time. The civil rights movement had also partly contributed to a moral order in which, although the US state was more heavily armed, it could no longer kill as many protestors as it would have in past racist years and got away with it.
Also, the spread of TV meant that the protests and black grievances were amplified more.
These days rappers like 50 Cent sing about “get rich or die trying”. That goal is probably only possibly because 50 years ago African-Americans fought the small but definitive fight – for a seat in the front of the bus. If you can’t be allowed a seat on the bus, you can’t be allowed to become rich.
The anger and angst of inner city black America today can sometimes be frightening. Not just to America, but I guess to the rest of the world because its vehicles, like rap, have made it chic. Rap is the global anti-system and state anthem.
There is a part of me that thinks that it is this extremely radicalised black America that makes it possible for someone like Barack Obama to get elected president.
Maybe deep down, America feels that the only way to clip the anger is to show that there is another way to being a person of colour or minority and finding greatness – and Obama is proof of it.
Martin Luther King’s cowardice has been ennobled. You can’t argue against that. There is still no job like being President of America.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3