Martin Luther King Day and the challenge of advocacy 

Dr Martin Luther King Jr

The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, from Atlanta, Georgia, was a fierce warrior and celebrated fighter for the abolition of racial discrimination, the desegregation of all public institutions and facilities and the granting of full voting rights to all citizens of the USA.

Photo credit: Pool

Monday, January 16th, is this year’s Martin Luther King Day. It is a national holiday throughout the USA, honouring the civil rights leader and the causes he espoused.

The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, from Atlanta, Georgia, was a fierce warrior and celebrated fighter for the abolition of racial discrimination, the desegregation of all public institutions and facilities and the granting of full voting rights to all citizens of the USA.

I keep reminding you, whenever I talk about non-Kenyan or non-East African affairs, that in today’s world, there is no “out there”. We are all one village, with relatives on every corner. For Kenyans, I only need to point at Barack Obama to clinch the point that many of us are as American as apple pie, often with the nearest and dearest of our families, like mine, physically and firmly grounded in the USA. On a related note, whatever happens in any part of the world can affect us significantly, as we are learning, through our pockets, from the recent tragic disturbances in Europe.

Today, however, I want us to consider the broader and deeper relevance of Martin Luther King to us. This African American freedom fighter, born in 1939 and assassinated in 1968, uniquely inspired and influenced his country and the world in his brief life and beyond. Knowledgeable commentators rank him among the greatest liberators of all time, alongside such greats as the biblical Moses, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

His leadership in the non-violent protest and advocacy movement against systemic and racist American injustices, especially in the so-called American South, earned him worldwide recognition and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. His activism also led to his martyrdom, as he was mowed down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. 

Glory and fame were to follow “MLK” way beyond the grave, with posthumous honours piled upon him. These include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the erection of a Martin Luther King Memorial, alongside those of giants like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, in Washington, DC.

Icon of American history

The proclamation, in 1983, and first nationwide observation, in 2000, of a Martin Luther King national holiday, comparable to other American national observations, recognised Dr King as a veritable icon of American history.

The simple purpose of “MLK Day” was to celebrate his birthday, which falls on January 15. But it was decided that the official day would be invariably observed on the first Monday after January 15, or simply the third Monday in that month. That is why in 2023 we will be celebrating it on Monday 16th. 

Why, however, should the day matter to you and me? After all, I doubt if the American Embassy will be sending “MLK” birthday cakes to every corner of Korogocho in Nairobi, Kisenyi in Kampala or Manzese in Dar es Salaam.

Or will they? It would be lovely. Anyway, cake or no cake, Martin Luther King’s legacy is worth celebrating across the world, and especially in Africa, because of his historical significance and his inspiring personal qualities, especially faith, articulateness and courage.

From the historical angle, Dr King’s story reinforces the strong hypothesis that the fortunes of Africa and those of the Black Diaspora are inextricably intertwined. The American (largely Black) Civil Rights Movement, of which Dr King was the brightest leading light, flourished mostly in the period between the mid-1950s and early 1970s.

This period also saw the highest point of the African liberation struggle, under the leadership of stalwarts like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere. It is thus probable that African independence and the American Civil Rights Movement influenced each other.

Rise of dictatorships

Conversely, the rise of dictatorships and the spread of corruption in Africa may have weakened the confidence of the Diaspora in Black leadership. Our failures may even have eroded the gains of Martin Luther King’s struggle down to the point where the supremacist behemoth has to be reminded that “black lives matter”.

This is where we need Africans with the faith, articulateness and courage of Martin Luther King, to remind our leaders, and all of us, that we should not turn our independence into “a bad cheque”, as King called America’s Emancipation of the Black slaves without economic and civil empowerment.

The mission requires faith, belief and trust that you and your demoralised people will learn to believe in themselves enough to want to wage the struggle for their betterment.

You also need a belief that the privileged powers-that-be will listen to you and be moved to concede to you the rights that you demand. That is the faith, in Dr King and his colleagues, that moved hundreds of thousands of people to march on Washington, DC, in August 1963, and demand their share in the American dream.

But faith alone, without eloquence or articulateness, cannot achieve such feats. Dr King’s legendary oratorical prowess is as much a part of his legacy as his faith and courage. Even apart from his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, which remains a classic of rhetorical history, Dr King is one of the most quoted and quotable users of English. Who are our great orators? 

As for Dr King’s courage, little needs to be said. It is always a challenge to speak truth to power. In a society steeped in centuries of racist violence, with histories of lynching and KKK shenanigans, Dr King knew that leading protests against the evil systems of his times was lethally dangerous. He and his supporters were subjected to varieties of violent attacks, by both law enforcement agencies and criminal bigots. 

Indeed, the surprise was not that Dr King was assassinated, but that he survived as long as he did. Challenging power and attacking injustice is a dangerous pursuit, and we need inspiration from heroes and martyrs like Dr Martin Luther King to embark on it.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]