March on Washington and Us, 50 years later
Gabriel C Banda,
THURSDAY September 5, 2013, was chosen as a day for American citizens in Zambia to gather with local persons and appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr, and the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.
Actually, addressing various issues and organised by various persons, many marches on Washington have taken place before and after August 28, 1963. But it is the 1963 event that is widely engrained in the mind of the world.
The United States of America, with its previous system of open and harsh enslavement of African Americans by Euro Americans, was in 1963, while some societies of Africa had achieved political independence, living in racial apartheid which was even official in some places.
Because of enslavement, trade in human beings, and some apartheid, the American Constitution’s initial promise of “freedom” was only enjoyed by some groups of citizens but not others such as African Americans and Native Americans.
The social justice and anti-racism campaign by various civil rights groups, with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr emerging as a major symbol, drew huge support from society. At Washington DC, they walked together, singing together.
The dream they were taking steps to materialise was a better society with enjoyment of rights, respect, and basic needs by all. Martin Luther King was a personal friend of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda.
And fifty years later, the March on Washington reminds us about our constant pilgrimage towards justice and peaceful living of individuals and societies. It is a journey against oppression and suppression.
The March on Washington is example of effective action for change. It is about justice, human rights for all, and dignity. The March on Washington was not just about change, but the methods used in making change.
It was, like Mahatma Gandhi and colleagues in South Africa and India, about how non- violence approaches can be effective in bringing about social change, justice, and dignity. Human dignity is a universal condition.
The non-violence approach is not just the absence of using force and violence, but some organised active processes and systems leading to harmony and stability in groups and society. Non-violence is about healing individuals, groups, and societies. It also applies to conflict involving governments.
The opposite, use of force and violence to remove or keep oppression, has created many difficulties. Unleashed, violence and force are not easy for humans to control. Force and violence beget violence and long term disharmony and instability in societies.
The March of Washington contributed to great advances. Its effects live on in us. Singer Joan Baez, who in 1963 walked and sang with Martin Luther King, still supports non-violence. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has showed that change can happen through effective non-violence approaches.
Non violence has billions of supporters in various roles of life. Many of us believe in peace, human cooperation, and the integrity of life
Around 2003, I watched as school pupils in Boston, USA, demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq by the George W Bush administration. The invasion and occupation very negatively affected Iraq, neighbours, USA and allies, and the whole world.
Persons like France’s former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, against current plans by some Western governments to strike Syria, have been consistent against governments’ unilateral invasion of countries.
Recently, before being martyred, eight year old Martin William Richard, a victim of the Boston marathon bombings of April 2013, wrote the eternal words, “No more hurting people. Peace.”
Non-violence approach is anchored on confidence and hope. At the 1963 March on Washington, led by singer and pacifist Joan Baez, they were singing “We shall overcome.” “Deep in my heart,” the song goes, “I do believe, that we shall overcome…”
The journey is one with courage. “We are not afraid,” the song states. And also, “the truth shall set us free.” Truth is a force with a self protective mechanism.
Non-violent action for change thus has deep conviction, deep courage, and is driven by the belief that the activist person, based on truth and its power, will achieve.
And at the march in 1963, from deep in his heart, from the base of creation itself, came Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” words. He shared a future where persons were living at peace and harmony within them self and with others. It was about improving things just as it was about what is supposed to be the cooperative natural state of life and human relations.
There is no stranger in the world. Each is related to all others. None is inherently superior or inferior because of the group they are linked to.
Fifty years later, on August 28, 2013, US President Barack Obama, an African American, in a moving symbol of change, spoke at the same site as Martin Luther King.
King was in 1964 given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work while Barack Obama was awarded the Prize in 2009 for genuinely reaching out to deal with nuclear weapons and reaching out to governments previously stigmatised and isolated by US administrations.
But there, depending on what will happen in the next few days of September 2013 in the American government and legislature system over threats of attacking Syria, comparisons on Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama may show closeness or apartness in their manner and actions.
Martin Luther King was pacifist, opposed to the US forces involvement in wars like Vietnam. If Obama openly attacks Syria, the March on Washington will be a casualty. The example of 1963 and the dream of Martin Luther King and team may be diminished. But the world’s march for non-violence action advances, in various situations, eternally.
– Lusaka based, the writer is involved in writing and the arts, social development, and peace issues.
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GCB, August/September, 2013. LUSAKA.