Last Wednesday, America stood still as the nation marked the fiftieth anniversary of the epochal “I have a Dream” speech by the late civil rights leader and orator extraordinaire, Martin Luther King. From Presidents Carter, to Clinton and Obama, they all spoke of the slow but steady progress that America has made in race relations, economic empowerment, civil rights and the narrowing of lines of discrimination and segregation which Martin Luther so eloquently spoke against and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Fifty years ago, America was still enmeshed in racial discrimination and segregation. The Deep South - the ground zero of the struggles for racial equality - was a cesspool of violence against the blacks, where the rampaging goons and killer squads of the Ku Klux Klan ran amok, a land deeply divided according to race, social standing, and pedigree and skin pigmentation. Schools were segregated and backs could not sit in the front seats of public transportation, neither could they go to non-colored restaurants and expected to be served. The landmark 1896 Plessey v Ferguson had legalized and institutionalized discriminations.
The rights of citizenship as enshrined in the 15th Amendment was flagrantly abused as sleek and sly machinations were employed by several states in the south to ensure that the central role of citizenship- the right to vote was denied blacks while the morally revolting trade in humans which Lincoln abolished through the landmark Emancipation Proclamation was skirted around through sleek legal processes and laws passed by the state legislatures form the south
It was in an effort to create a more inclusive society, an economic level playing field and a sense of dignity to the blacks that Martin Luther King took upon himself the task of rousing the nation’s conscience to this inhumane manner the blacks were treated. Employing the instrument of non- violence, Martin Luther brought the issue of discrimination and segregation to the front burner of national discourse and eventually succeeded in forcing a change to civil and voting rights for the blacks. The historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 45 respectively changed the texture of American politics and helped usher in the redeeming provision of the 15th Amendment.
Martin Luther King played a pivotal role in awakening the nation’s conscience to the ills of racism. His “I Have a Dream Speech” which was given at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 27 1963, and whose 50th Anniversary was marked this week, helped to soften the hardened concrete of America towards racial equality. While other civil right movements employed and openly advocated the use of violence to achieve their aims, Martin Luther took the path of non-violence, fully conscious of the belief that violence begets more violence.
He wanted America where blacks would not be judged by pre-conceived notions based on race, but by the appreciation of God’s un-ending gift of freedom which is colour blind. He wanted a nation that would celebrate its diversity and use it as a source of strength and not as an optically repellent condition.
Even though he, as rightly predicted may not get to the Promised Land, as he was senselessly cut down at the prime of his life in 1968, his prophetic, message today has come to pass. Little black boys and girls from Mississippi down to New York, Alaska, etc today are holding hands in a symphony of love and oneness, schools that hitherto were closed to black kids on account of colour have now been de-segregated, enabling my daughter, Uduak, now a senior in high school, that is 98 percent white to have friends who, a mere fifty years ago, would have been barred from fraternizing with her.
As President Obama stated, because of Martin Luther king, American political process has been made better and saw changes from city councils, the mayoral chambers, the state legislatures, the governors chambers and finally the White House. Fifty years ago, President Obama with all his Ivy League education and political skills would have been judged purely from his skin pigmentation as opposed to his God’s given talents.
Today, thanks to Mr. Luther King, the rough plains of American politics have been strengthened, the goons of KKK have been reduced to the fringes, and the loud voices of racial irredentists have been silenced while the orchestra of inclusion and tolerance now rent the air. The gulf of discrimination based on race has been bridged and young people of all races can now look to America where though the vestiges of discrimination still exists, now has been made better by the rainbow of diversity that defines the nation.
Though elements that are opposed to change still speak in frightening tones, their voices have been drummed out by the loud proclamation of oneness of our essence. Today, a black man with an exotic name and heritage sits in the world’s most powerful office-The White House. Today, African Americans are no longer spectators in the field of political relevance, economic empowerment or social and cultural awakening; they are major players, key members of the boardroom. An African American is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, an African American is the engine room of efforts to keep America safe - the National Security Adviser, Dr. Rice; African Americans have ruled states such as the bastion of the Old Confederacy, Virginia - Douglas Wilder; African American had ruled the nation’s economic and power house, New York - David Patterson an African American I today rules one of the most white states in America, Massachusetts - Deval Patrick.
All over the nation, because of the efforts of one man, Martin Luther, the political, cultural and economic landscape of a nation was changed; it repudiated a culture of discrimination and segregation and saw the folly in judging fellow humans based on the colour of their skin and not by the content of its character.
Reflecting on the speech, I couldn’t help but wonder when our Martin Luther King moment would occur; when we would begin to see ourselves as one people drawn and inextricably bound by the pursuit of things that unite us, as opposed to those that divide us; when we would speak as Nigerians and not as northerners, or easterners or south westerners, but as Nigerians. When will the Martin Luther moment occur in Nigeria? When politics would no longer be seen as a zero sum game, when the interests of the people would be paramount in the grand schemes of our leaders, when our leaders would realize that success in public service is not measured by how many mansions you built, how fat your bank account is, how many cars you have in your garage, but by what efforts you made to impact and touch lives profoundly.
I yearn and pray for that moment when a galvanizing voice would appear on the horizon and lift every soul and propel us to build a nation that would apply the vast resources at our disposal for the common good and not common greed; a galvanizing voice who would tell us that politics of inclusion is more ennobling than the politics of exclusion and that east, south, north and west, we are all one. Hopefully, that moment will come in or lifetime.