By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis? What will it profit him to be able to send his children to an integrated school if the family income is insufficient to buy them school clothes? What will he gain by being permitted to move into an integrated neighborhood if he cannot afford to do so because he is unemployed or has a low-paying job with no future?
In asking for something special, the Negro is not seeking charity. He does not want to languish on welfare rolls any more than the next man. He does not want to be given a job he cannot handle. Neither, however, does he want to be told that there is no place where he can be trained to handle it. Few people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all those years, robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages.”
From “Why We Can’t Wait” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., published 1964.
Dr. King’s birthday will be recognized with a National Holiday on Monday, January 20, 2014. On Monday, January 20, 1986 the first Martin Luther King Jr. day was officially recognized as a national holiday.
Dr. King is the only person who was never an American president to have a national holiday named in his honour. It is an honour which he richly deserves since he put his life (and the lives of his family) on the line to fight for change to the brutal oppression of living in a White supremacist society. In his time African-Americans (the descendants of the enslaved Africans whose unpaid labour built America) were relegated to living on the periphery of American society. They were third class citizens in the country of their birth. Dr. King was the face and body of the Civil Rights Movement, an easy target of the White supremacist American government and society.
He was the target of a relentless campaign organized by the government and carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the leadership of John Edgar Hoover. Hoover had a long history of tormenting African-American leaders beginning with his targeting of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey who he hounded for five years (1919 to 1924) until he railroaded Garvey into jail. Hoover described Garvey (one of our most recognized freedom fighters) as a “notorious Negro agitator” who he was determined to destroy. Decades later, Hoover would use the same methods of harassment he practiced on Garvey against other African-American leaders including Dr. King, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz and members of the Black Panther Party.
The Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture has a list of many of the African-Americans who were targeted by Hoover: (http://schomburgcenter.tumblr.com/post/12293288481/j-edgar-from-garvey-to-gaye)
As the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the target of the FBI, Dr. King was arrested 30 times. On one of those occasions when he was incarcerated Dr. King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to an open letter written by a group of eight White (Christian and Jewish) religious leaders (published April 12, 1963) who expressed concern that the “Negroes” wanted too much too quickly. In his reply to the good White religious leaders Dr. King wrote in part: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied. We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society …. when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
The book “Why We Cant’ Wait” began as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963 as Dr. King responded to the open letter from the White religious leaders. The letter (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html) was written on scraps of paper while Dr. King was in jail for demonstrating without a permit (which the court refused to grant). Dr. King and 50 others were arrested as they peacefully demonstrated on Good Friday, April 12, 1963.
In “Why We Can’t Wait” Dr. King described the writing of the letter: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”
The letter was reprinted several times including the August 1963 edition of “Ebony Magazine on pages 23 to 32 entitled “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929 and assassinated on April 4, 1968. In his 39 years he achieved more than many people who lived twice as long. He was just 25 years old in 1954 when he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and at 26 accepted the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association eventually becoming the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
As leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association Dr. King spearheaded the Montgomery bus boycott which lasted from December 1, 1955 to December 21, 1956. During the boycott Dr. King was arrested, his home was bombed and he was subjected to the wrath of the White supremacist system. In 1963 Dr. King was named Man of the Year by “Time” magazine and in 1964 became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day came after a long struggle beginning in 1968, the year in which he was assassinated, when Congressman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, first introduced legislation for a commemorative holiday four days after King was assassinated. The bill was stalled until petitions endorsing the holiday containing six million names was submitted to Congress. Conyers and Representative Shirley Chisholm, Democrat from New York, resubmitted King Holiday legislation each subsequent legislative session. Public pressure for the holiday mounted during the 1982 and 1983 Civil Rights marches in Washington.
Congress finally passed the holiday legislation in 1983 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been a National Holiday in the U.S. since then. The holiday is recognized on the third Monday in January and this year, on Monday, January 20, Dr. King will be remembered across the U.S.
Dr. King supported Affirmative Action and Reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. Reparations have been on the minds of Africans since slavery was abolished. In America there was the idea of 40 acres and a mule for African-Americans which was never realized.
Africans in the Caribbean have also sought Reparations. In 2013, a National Reparations Committee was established by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) with the intent of pursuing the issue of Reparations from the former slave owning European nations that benefited from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans.
Dr. King (as we remember him on what would have been his 85th birthday) would have supported his Caribbean brothers and sisters (14 Caribbean countries including Haiti and Suriname) as they seek Reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands.