In order to fully understand the importance of Martin Luther King Day in Africa today, we need to acknowledge the significant influence that earlier leaders in the continent had in the making of the most important leader of black liberation in America.
Martin Luther King in Ghana
Retracing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s steps in Africa, it is documented that he visited Ghana in 1957 as a young Baptist preacher to witness the independence of this Gold Coast country from British colonial rule. This was 10 years before Dr. King would be assassinated on a balcony in a hotel in Tennessee, where he had been leading a non-violent demonstration of workers.
It is important to acknowledge that Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolent demonstrations to end the struggle for freedom for African Americans emerged out of his witnessing of Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah successfully bring independence to his people without violence. Dr. King is said to have been overcome with emotion upon witnessing the Union Jack fall as the new flag of Ghana was raised. He returned to America invigorated with a renewed conviction that it was indeed possible to attain freedom from political and racial oppression in a peaceful way.
“Free at last!”
A few years later, he uttered his most famous phrase, “Free at last!” which, as many scholars argue, signaled Dr. King’s linking of colonialism in Africa with the African American struggle against racial segregation. Indeed, even though this phrase was made famous on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C in 1963, it bears great significance to the liberation of Africa from colonial rule. This was also the year that Kenya, a former British colony, gained its independence. Various other African nations followed suit.
Many activists who joined forces with Dr. King saw Africa’s liberation from colonial rule as a universal fight for black dignity. One of them, John Lewis, was even quoted as saying, “One man, one vote is the African cry. It must be ours!” In the following years, Lewis would accompany other influential African American civil rights activists such as James Foreman and singer/actor Harry Belafonte to visit various African nations that had gained independence.
It was during these trips that the civil rights activists would reportedly be astonished to witness black people governing themselves and building their own nations independently. This is said to have influenced their thoughts about what blacks in America could also do for themselves, if only they were free.
Two Kinds of Freedom
Looking back to the history of my country Kenya, as a school-aged child, the independence of my country bore no linkage to the independence of the Africans who were shipped to the US as slaves. There is a general tendency to associate freedom in Africa with the end of colonialism only and yet, two kinds of freedom happened for black people concurrently on a global scale: freedom from British rule on the continent and freedom from political segregation in America. These freedoms were sought to fulfill one common objective: to end racism.
In his famous speech, “I have a dream”, Dr. King makes reference to this:
“We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, ‘for whites only’… No, no, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters.”
Those words echo most of what freedom fighters in Africa were aiming for: justice and racial equality, which would be signaled by the end of white colonial rule.
In South Africa, where colonial rule lasted longest on the continent, the effects of the white/black segregation can still be felt today. Nelson Mandela, who led his people to freedom from apartheid, is said to have admired Dr. King’s fight for freedom. When he was elected as the first black president in the country in 1994, nearly 3 decades after Dr. King’s assassination, he said the same famous phrase, “Free at last!”
Links between Two Worlds
These links between African and African-American leaders offer a basis upon which global educators present dialogical discussions with young children about their understanding of their own rights and freedoms.
While Dr. King and Nelson Mandela lived in two worlds that were
In a world where, sadly, racial tensions seem to be increasing, it is also far easier to communicate and witness the effects in real time by having free virtual access into other people’s lives, thus opening the windows through which these injustices can no longer be hidden.
Therefore, as we reflect on the significance of MLK Day this year, it is important to revisit Dr. King’s and Nelson Mandela’s message of humanism and what role emerging global citizens should collaboratively play in ensuring that equality and justice remain universal rights.
The civil rights movement may have been Dr. King’s American vision, but it was clearly also an African vision that has now evolved into a global ideal.
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