Tuesday 20 November 2018

King's hopes of civil rights and racial equality in America are still a dream - 50 years after he was assassinated

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In this March, 1967, photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, centre left, and Dr Martin Luther King speak to reporters. Photo: AP
In this March, 1967, photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, centre left, and Dr Martin Luther King speak to reporters. Photo: AP

Kia Johnson

A half-century after Rev Martin Luther King Jr's death, visitors still flock to the Memphis, Tennessee, site where the civil rights leader was assassinated and say that while there has been progress in racial equality, more strides need to be made.

"We still look like there is a shadow over us, still seems like something is holding us back," Charles Wilson, a black man from Mississippi, said during a recent visit to the site.

On April 4, 1968, King (39) was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes Room 306, preserved as it was when King stayed there, and vintage cars parked out front.

A Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, King worked to end legal segregation of blacks in the United States. He gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech at the August 1963 march on Washington, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35 - the youngest man to have received the award.

Despite King's advocacy of non-violent resistance, the days immediately following his death were marked by rioting in several American cities. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed.

Mr Wilson, the recent National Civil Rights Museum visitor, and his son Charles Jr were among those who contemplated King's legacy and the status of civil rights in the United States.

"I think that the changes that people fought for as far as voting etcetera, a lot of people don't take advantage of it, and a lot of people gave their lives for that right, they fought for it and people now don't appreciate it," Mr Wilson Jr said.

Nancy Langfield, a white woman visiting from Missouri, said politicians in Washington do not reflect the racial makeup of the United States.

She deplored what she called the rhetoric coming out of Washington, calling it hateful and mean. "I look at the government and it looks very white to me, and then I think about the country and it doesn't seem overly white to me," Ms Langfield said.

For Hyungu Lee, of Tennessee, who visited the museum with his family, King's legacy is still alive.

"Even though he is not here, I feel that his spirit is with us now, and because of him, our human rights is getting better and better, so I feel really thankful," Mr Lee said.

King is also remembered across Africa. Streets. Schools. A bridge in Burkina Faso. The name of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr can be found across the continent. A measure of the global influence of the American civil rights leader who was shot dead 50 years ago after speaking out against injustices at home and abroad.

A school for poor children that is named after King in Uganda's capital, Kampala, took as its motto, 'Have a Dream', borrowing a line from one of King's most famous speeches.

"Martin Luther King stood for human rights and equality, so we wanted a way of inspiring and motivating our students," said Robert Mpala, the school's founder.

In rural Liberia, a West African nation founded by freed American slaves, one official spoke proudly of a privately owned Martin Luther King school.

"Martin Luther King was a great man. We still follow his dream," said J Maxime Bleetahn, director of communications at the Ministry of Education.

Africa's push for independence from colonialism, which mirrored King's own movement for racial equality in America, attracted the civil rights leader's attention and support.

King first set foot on the continent in March 1957 to attend celebrations marking the West African nation of Ghana's independence from Britain.

After he returned to Africa in November 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nigeria's first president, King said African leaders had told him "in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go, for they see the two as based on the same principle".

The parallels between King's efforts and Africans' quest for independence were perhaps strongest in apartheid-era South Africa, where racist laws oppressed the majority black community for decades.

In December 1965 King delivered a speech in New York denouncing South Africa's white rulers as "spectacular savages and brutes" and called on the US and Europe to boycott the nation, a strategy the West eventually embraced and that helped end white rule.

King was unable to visit South Africa after being denied a visa. But years later a bust of King was slipped secretly - by diplomatic pouch - into a South Africa still in the grip of apartheid.

American sculptor Zenos Frudakis said the US government approached him about creating a bust of King that would be installed in South Africa for "political impact".

As it was barred by South Africa's government from being displayed in a public space, the sculpture was dedicated in 1989 at the US Embassy, visible to people outside the embassy fence.

Irish Independent

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