On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech for the ages from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A quarter of a million people stood in rapt attention and listened to that speech. It was the crowning moment of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom.
Fifty years later, MLK’s speech continues to captivate the imagination and deeply penetrate the souls and consciences of people the world over. MLK was not only a dreamer but also a man of extraordinary vision, unlimited imagination and hope in the infinite capacity of humanity to be humane while acutely aware of “man’s inhumanity to man”. At the 2013 commemorative celebrations of the March on Washington, President Jimmy Carter ranked MLK at the pinnacle of American leadership. “In my Nobel Prize speech of 2002, I said ‘My fellow Georgian [MLK] was the greatest leader in my native state, and perhaps my native country has ever produced. And I was not excluding presidents and even the founding fathers when I said this.’”
As MLK envisioned in 1963, the March on Washington went down “in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of [the United States]”. Its success was assured by the guidance, participation and involvement of courageous civil rights, labor, and religious leaders and organizations and the determined and collective efforts of countless men and women of all backgrounds. There was A. Philip Randolph, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and labor leader who spearheaded the organizing effort. Bayard Rustin, a leading civil rights activist who challenged segregation beginning in the late 1940s, was the leading organizer. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who led the legal challenges which resulted in major court victories helped develop strategies for the March.
John Lewis, the youngest leader and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was jailed over 40 times and often brutalized by racist police, resonated the voices of youth at the March. He made an impassioned plea: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” James Farmer, the chief organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the U.S. and co-founder of the Congress on Racial Equality was in jail in Louisiana for organizing a demonstration and could not attend. He sent a speech which read in part, “We will not stop until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.” Many other civil rights leaders attended.
A number of the most famous members of the entertainment industry were brought to the March by the indefatigable Harry Belafonte including actors Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, author James Baldwin, singer Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.
An unpleasant truth must also be told. Women were the backbone of the March on Washington, but none were given the opportunity to speak on the issues. The incomparable Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson sang. Daisy Bates, who played a central role in school desegregation in Arkansas spoke, for just over a minute. Many other pioneer women of the civil rights women including Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women and Rosa Parks were present but were not allowed to speak. Rosa Parks later vowed that “women [in the future] wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
The March had a number of specific objectives and demands, including passage of a robust civil rights law, elimination of segregation in public education, job training and public programs for the unemployed, use of federal law to prohibit discrimination in public or private hiring, denying federal funds to programs that practice or tolerate discrimination, expansion of workers’ protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act and robust enforcement of constitutional prohibitions on the states under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Interpreting MLK’s Dream
MLK was first and foremost a Baptist minister and then a civil/human rights leader. His life and works were anchored in the teachings of Christ. He was ultimately a moral and not a political leader. So the question today is how one should interpret for oneself the dreams of an inspired moral leader whose appeal to justice, equality and fairness cuts across race, religion, ethnicity or language? What was MLK’s dream?
We all dream about things we feel are important in our lives. Most of us often dream of acquiring fortune, fame or power. Such dreams are fleeting and often without much consequence. Isaiah spoke of a hungry and thirsty man who dreams about eating and drinking but when he wakes up “his soul is empty”. Sometimes we have nightmares instead of dreams. For ages, Americans and others who have come to America from every corner of the world have sought the American dream. Some have found it, others have not. Malcom X did not find the American dream: “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream–I see an American nightmare.”
What was MLK’s dream? Did he dream the “American dream? Could we and coming generations interpret his dreams?
I believe MLK’s “dream” was different from the dreams of ordinary men and women. I believe his dream was akin to that written in Numbers: “Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, [I] the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, [and] will speak unto him in a dream.” MLK saw a vision and spoke. MLK’s dream was like Jeremiah’s, the “weeping prophet”, who forewarned of the dream of false prophets who use “lies” to tell the people, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed” while holding “deceit of their own heart”. I believe MLK was America’s “weeping” moral leader who held truth and love in his heart. Zechariah said “diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.” I believe MLK became a shepherd to oppressed people and a moral guide to the oppressors in America. Fifty years after the March, I believe MLK’s life and works illuminate the path for the oppressed and oppressors of the world.
MLK dreamed of leading “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners” to the Promise Land out of the captivity of hatred, segregation and discrimination. Like Moses, MLK died within sight of the Promise Land. He said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
MLK talked about the long nightmare of slavery that African Americans had to endure and the millions of slaves “who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” before he spoke about his dream of freedom for those “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He felt the urgency of now. He said the marchers had come “to our nation’s capital to cash a check”, a “promissory note” which “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to every American. He announced African Americans could no longer wait for their freedom any longer and challenged those in power to live out the true meaning of the nation’s creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” He demanded, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
MLK was crystal clear about the process and method of righting racial injustice and achieving the promises of American democracy. His prescription was not “an eye for an eye”. That “would make everybody blind”. He warned, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” In Ephesians is written, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote that Epistle. Such was the essential message of MLK.
MLK understood that oppressors and the oppressed share the same destiny. The struggle for the freedom for African Americans could not be separated from the freedom of those whites who oppress them. He urged understanding. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
MLK pled for courage and hope. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” He challenged us all to dream of things and ask why not. He had the audacity to dream like John Kennedy, who during his visit in Ireland two months before the March said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”. It is true John Kennedy was not present at the March on Washington.
MLK had “a dream” for all Americans despite living daily the nightmare of racism, segregation, inequality and indignity. He had “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” His “American dream” was “a dream that one day [America] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” It was a dream about the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting “down together at the table of brotherhood.” It was a dream about states “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” being “transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.” It was a dream about his “four little children one day living in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It was a dream about brotherhood, sisterhood and childhood where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
MLK also had hope, not only dreams. He wanted to “go back to the South” with “faith” that “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He had an abiding “faith” that Americans “will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” He believed that we are “all God’s children”. He proclaimed to the world, “let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire… the curvaceous slopes of California… and hill and molehill of Mississippi…” He saw freedom as inevitable and foreordained by the Almighty, unstoppable by any human force or agency.
MLK’s dreamed of creating the “Beloved Community” out of the nightmare of the triple evils
MLK’s dream was ultimately about creating the “Beloved Community”. He said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” MLK’s Beloved Community is a society free of racism, poverty and militarism. It is a community of love and justice where brotherhood and sisterhood founded on the principle of compassion and caring define the meaning of social life. For MLK, the evil of poverty has a thousand faces. Poverty is visible in the lives of the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the dispossessed and those consigned to the ghettoes. “There is nothing new about poverty,” said MLK. “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” What is lacking is not resources but basic compassion and caring by those who have the means to eradicate poverty. It is their indifference that makes poverty so destructive. “It is not only poverty that torments the Negro; it is the fact of poverty amid plenty.”
MLK understood that racism with its ideology of racial superiority, inferiority and domination was not only wrong but also a violation of God’s law. He believed all humans were “God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” They must free themselves by “joining hands and singing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
MLK opposed all forms of violence and militarism in its varied manifestations. He opposed the Vietnam War much to the dismay of President Lyndon Johnson who felt personally betrayed by MLK. “Somehow this madness must cease,” said MLK. “We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”
MLK believed only nonviolence and love had the power to break the unending cycle of violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation. Love restores community, hate destroys it. MLK had a complex understanding of “love”. He was not talking about romantic love (eros), nor was he talking about “affection between friends” (philia). Hi s idea of love is captured in what he termed “agape”, which is “love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.” Agape is the practice of what Jesus taught, “Love thy enemy.” Agape is the core value of MLK’s “Beloved Community” where “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is why MLK insisted, Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Nonviolence is the means by which we achieve the “Beloved Community”. MLK said “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
MLK taught about the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” and the use of love for nonviolent social change.” One must first accept the principle that nonviolence is a way of life. It is the preferred weapon in confronting the forces of injustice by awakening the conscience of people by appealing to their higher selves. The aim of nonviolent social change is not the destruction of the “enemy” but reconciliation through higher moral understanding. The nonviolent path to social change requires us to act against evil deeds and not the person committing them. We should focus on conditions, laws, policies and practices that perpetuate injustice, not the color, race, ethnicity, religion of the perpetrator. In seeking nonviolent change, one must accept suffering without retaliation because theer is redemption in suffering.
One must live out the six principles in practice, not just talk about them. In using nonviolence as a means of social change one must first ascertain facts. That requires gathering of information about the particular problem in the community, identifying the range of options available and determining when to optimally apply pressure. It is necessary to educate and prepare leaders who are not only dedicated to the cause but also knowledgeable about the issues so that they can teach and inform the community. This requires educating neighbors, relatives, friends, co-workers, community groups and others of the actual problems in the community.
One who is committed to nonviolent social change must make a personal commitment for a long term nonviolent campaign. The aim of a nonviolent campaign is to persuade one’s opponent of the justice of one’s cause, not to destroy or humiliate one’s opponent. In simple terms, the aim is to make a friend and a partner out of an enemy. One must also develop the skills of negotiation to reconcile viewpoints and arrive at a just resolution. Ultimately, the nonviolent social agent must be prepared to take direct nonviolent action when negotiations do not produce a just outcome. Such action could include street demonstrations to economic boycotts and beyond.
Reconciliation is the ultimate outcome of a nonviolent social struggle. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is “reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Living the dream
MLK’s dream is not about an imaginary utopia. It is also not about “hero worship” and giving lip service to lofty ideas. MLK’s dream is about having each individual help create a real flesh and blood “Beloved Community” in America and elsewhere. America does not have a monopoly on its creed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Those words written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in the American Declaration of Independence now belong to the entire human family because those truths are “endowed by the Creator” so that all humans have the “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
MLK’s dream has come to pass in many ways. The March on Washington became a turning point in the civil rights movement and led to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other legislation. Much progress has been made in America over the past five decades. Countless millions have come from every corner of the world seeking the “American dream”. But we would be foolishly selfish and sorely mistaken if we believe that our individual pursuit of the American dream has any meaning at all when millions of our fellow Americans can only dream about the American dream. It is not about individual success and achievement in the Promise Land. As MLK said, what we should know and strive for is “that we, as a people, get to the promised land.” It is really about what we as individual human beings do to make our corner of the earth a Promise Land. We must all do our part, however small or large. MLK said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” I shall continue to strive towards terminal “creative maladjustment”.
We shall overcome…
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
[This commentary is based on talk I gave at the first annual University of California, Los Angeles Habesha Student Association Networking Night event held at Ackerman Union on May 14, 2011.]
I have been asked to comment on youth political apathy and how to transform apathy into constructive action. That is a very tall order, but I am glad to be able to share with you my views on a subject that has defied and puzzled political scientists and pundits for generations.
The general allegation is that young people are uninterested, unconcerned and indifferent about matters of politics and government. Political apathy (crudely defined as lack of interest and involvement in the political process and general passivity and indifference to political and social phenomena in one’s environment) among youth is said to be the product of many factors including lack of political awareness and knowledge, absence of civic institutions that cultivate youth political action and involvement and the prevailing cultural imperatives of consumerism and the media. Simply stated, young people are said to be self-absorbed, short attention-spanned and preoccupied and distracted by popular culture, social networking, leisurely activities and the ordinary demands of daily life to pay serious attention to politics.
Longitudinal studies of youth political apathy in the U.S. suggest that many young people are politically disengaged because they believe politics is about “money and lying and they don’t want to involve themselves in it.” Many young Americans complain that politicians ignore young people and have little youth-oriented communication. They accuse politicians of being in the back pockets of big money and that their votes are inconsequential in determining the outcome of any significant issues in society. Feeling powerless, they retreat to cynicism and apathy.
In contrast, in the 1960s, young Americans led the “counter-culture revolution” and were the tips of the spear of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Speech Movement which began at the University of California, Berkeley was transformed from student protests for expressive and academic freedom on campus to a powerful nationwide anti-war movement on American college campuses and in the streets. Young African Americans advanced the cause of the Civil Rights Movement by employing the powerful tools and techniques of civil disobedience staging sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations. On May 4, 1961, fifty years to the month today, young inter-racial Freedom Riders set out to challenge local laws and customs that enforced segregation in public transportation in the American South, and succeeded in eliminating racial segregation in public transportation at considerable personal risk. Young people in the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s demanded racial equality dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency and advocated black nationalism.
A similar pattern of youth activism is evident for African youths. In many African countries, students and other young people have been in the vanguard of social forces demanding political changes. University students in Ethiopia agitated and mobilized for the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974. It is ironic that the very individuals who hold the reins of power in Ethiopia today were among those university students who fought and died for democracy and human rights in the early 1970s. In 2005, these former university students ordered a massacre which resulted in the killing of at least 193 unarmed largely youth protesters and the wounding of 763 others. In 1976 in South Africa, 176 students and other young people protesting apartheid were killed in Soweto. In recent months we have seen young people leading nonviolent uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries to remove decades-old dictatorships. In Uganda today, the young followers of Kizza Besigye, (Museveni’s challenger in the recent elections) are at the center of the Walk to Work civil disobedience campaign protesting economic hardships and a quarter century of Museveni’s dictatorship.
The African Youth Charter
Africa has been described as the “youngest region of the world”. The African youth population is estimated to be 70 percent of the total population (nearly 50 percent of them under age 15). Virtually 100 percent of the top political leadership in Africa belongs to the “over-the-hill” gang. Robert Mugabe still clings to power in Zimbabwe at age 86. It is manifestly hard to demand higher levels of political participation and involvement among African youths when they come of age in societies controlled and stifled by dictators long in the tooth. But there is no question that youth apathy is the greatest threat to the institution and consolidation of democracy in Africa.
There may be a glimmer of hope for African youths in the African Union’s “Youth Charter”, which provides comprehensive protections for Africa’s young people. Article 11 (“Youth Participation”) is of special significance. It requires signatory states to ensure “every young person” has the “right to participate in all spheres of society.” This requires state parties to “guarantee the participation of youth in parliament and other decision-making bodies”, access to “decision-making at local, national, regional, and continental levels of governance” and requires “youth advocacy and volunteerism” and peer-to-peer programmes for marginalised youth”. States are required to “provide access to information such that young people become aware of their rights and of opportunities to participate in decision-making and civic life”. Africa’s youths should hold their doddering dictators accountable under the Charter.
Transforming Youth Apathy Into Youth Action?
I have no ready prescriptions to convert youth apathy into youth action. My view of the issue is very simple. The word apathy has roots in a Greek word “apathea” denoting lack of emotion. Young people in America, Africa or elsewhere are apathetic because they are “not fired up and raring to go.” They lack that “fire in the belly”. They find themselves in a state of political paralysis unable to act. So, how can African youth escape the political doldrums of apathy on a sea of cynicism, pessimism, negativism and disillusionment? The short answer is that they need to find the issues in society they care about and pursue them passionately. The long answer revolves around a few basic principles:
Be idealistic. Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things and ask why. I dream of things and ask why not.” Nelson Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa at peace with itself.” Bob Marley said, there will be no peace until “the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned”, “there no longer are first class and second class citizens of any nation” and “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all.” Young Africas should dream of an Africa free from the bondage of ethnic politics, scourge of dictatorship, debilitating poverty and flagrant human rights violations. Why are these youthful dreams not possible? As Gandhi said, when you are idealistic, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Examine your lives. When Socrates was put on trial for encouraging his young students to question authority and accepted beliefs, he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is important for Africa’s young people to question their beliefs and actions. If they are indifferent to the suffering of their people, they should question themselves. Part of that self-examination is knowing if one is doing the right or wrong thing, and making corrections when mistakes are made. Unless we question our values and actions, we end up doing things mechanically, impulsively and blindly.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi said these simple but powerful words. The revolution we want to see in the world begins with us when we strive to relate to others on the basis of high moral and ethical standards. If we want to see a just, fair and compassionate world, we must begin by practicing those values ourselves. I want to congratulate the UCLA Habesha Student Association for bringing together young Ethiopians and Eritreans in one organizational setting to work cooperatively and harmoniously on issues of common interest and concern. Such collaboration sets an extraordinary example for all young people in the Horn of Africa to follow because the UCLA students have been able to relate with each other at the most fundamental human level instead of as members of opposing camps nursing historical enmities. It is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation.
Be independent thinkers and empower yourselves. Always ask questions and follow-up questions. One of the things those of us in the older generation do not do well is ask the right questions. Often we do not base our opinions on facts. Africa’s young people should think for themselves and creatively. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” It is easy and comfortable for others to do the thinking for us. The alternative is for the older generation to do the thinking for the youth. Do Africa’s youths want that? To think independently means to keep an open mind and tolerate opposing viewpoints. Africa’s dictators fear young independent thinkers because the young trumpet the truth.
Stand for Something. Rosa Parks, the great icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, is credited for modifying the old adage by saying: “Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” Young people of courage, character and determination today are the seeds of great leaders tomorrow. Africa’s young people need to take a stand for human rights, democracy, freedom and peace. They also need to take a stand against all forms of violence, ethnic politics and the politics of intolerance, hate and fear.
Network with other young people and learn techniques of grassroots organizing. The UCLA HSA is committed to self-help through networking. That is important and very useful. But networking can be used for political activism and advocacy as well. Using technology and social media, young people can create effective virtual and actual communities to enhance their political participation and be more actively engaged in the political process. Grassroots organizing is the most elementary and one of the most effective methods of youth political action. Youth grassroots organizing won the day during the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, and it won the day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Become a voice for the voiceless. There are hundreds of millions of Africans whose voices are stolen at the ballot box every year and remain forgotten as political prisoners in the jails of Africa’s dictators. Corruption, abuse of power, lack of accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of many contemporary African states. Young Africans must raise their voices and be heard on these issues. The great international human rights organizations are today the voices of the voiceless in Africa. They investigate the criminality of African regimes and present their findings to the world. Africa’s youths must take over part of the heavy lifting from these organizations. It is not fair to expect international human rights organizations to be the voice boxes of Africa’s masses.
Never give up. It is important for young people to appreciate and practice the virtues of tenacity, courage, determination and perseverance. In 1941, Winston Churchill speaking to young people at a school inspired them with these timeless words: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill’s words ring true for every generation of young people everywhere. For Africa’s youth, the message is simple: “Never yield to force.”
Cause looking for Rebels
If I have any words of wisdom, it is that young Africans must rebel against apathy itself through a process of self-examination. I believe a successful rebellion against one’s own apathy will be the defining moment in the pursuit of the greatest cause of this generation, the struggle for human rights. The cause of human rights in Africa and elsewhere needs armies of young rebels to stand up in defense of human dignity, the rule of law and liberty and against tyranny and despotism. To stand up for free and fair elections is to stand up for human rights. To fight for women’s rights is to fight for human rights. To defend children’s rights is to defend human rights. To uphold human rights is to uphold ethnic rights, religious rights, linguistic rights, free press rights, individual rights….
Ralph Nader, the implacable American consumer advocate warned: “To the youth of America, I say, beware of being trivialized by the commercial culture that tempts you daily. I hear you saying often that you’re not turned on to politics. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.” That can be said equally of African youths. I say defend human rights, speak truth to power!
Think global, act local. Think local, act global.
 The HSA “aims to bring together people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent (a/k/a Habeshas) at UCLA “by jointly organizing and sponsoring “cultural events, college workshops and community activities that promote the success of Habeshas at UCLA and the surrounding community.” It also aims to provide a “forum to discuss issues, share ideas and simply connect on a peer-to-peer level.” I thank the UCLA-HSA for the opportunity to dialogue with them.]
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
A specter is haunting Africa and the Middle East – the specter of an awesome army of youths on the move, in revolt, marching for freedom, chanting for democracy and dying for human rights and human dignity. Millions of youths are standing up and demanding dictators to stand down and leave town. They are fed up with despotism, totalitarianism, absolutism, authoritarianism, monarchism, fascism and terrorism. They are sick and tired of being told to wait and wait and wait as their future fades into nothingness. They are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Youths rose up like the morning sun to brighten the long dark night of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt. They dictated to the great dictators: “Mubarak, irhal (go away).” “Degage, Ben Ali!” (Get out, Ben Ali!). When Mubarak refused to budge like a bloodsucking tick on a milk cow, they brandished their shoes and cried out, “Mubarak, you are a shoe!” (a stinging insult in Arab culture). Mubarak finally got the point. He saw 85 million pairs of shoes pointed at his rear end. In a 30-second announcement, the House of Mubarak dissolved into the dust bin of history.
The Beautiful Egyptian Youth Revolution
What makes the Egyptian youth revolution so beautiful, wonderful, absorbing, hypnotizing and inspiring is that they did it with moral courage, steadfast determination and without resorting to violence even when violence was visited upon them by Mubarak’s thugs. They did not fire a single shot, as Mubarak’s thugs massacred 300 of their own and jailed several thousands more. Egypt’s youths fought their battles in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, but they won their war against dictatorship and for freedom, democracy and human rights in the hearts and minds of their people. How they went about winning their revolution is a testament to a people whose civilization is the cradle of human civilization. They transformed their oppression-seared nation into a molten steel of freedom-loving humanity: Muslims and Christians prayed together in Tahrir Square for the end of the dark days of dictatorship and the beginning of a new dawn of freedom. Civilians held hands with soldiers who were sent out to shoot them. Religious revivalists locked arms with secularists, socialists and others to demand change. Rich and poor embraced each other in common cause. Young and old marched together day and night; and men and women of all ages raised their arms in defiance chanting, “Mubarak, irhal.”
Victory of Courage Over Fear
For 30 years, Mubarak ruled with fear and an iron fist under a State of Emergency. He established a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated. Under an emergency law (Law No. 162 of 1958), Mubarak exercised unlimited powers. He banned any real opposition political activity and unapproved political organizations, prohibited street demonstrations, arrested critics and dissidents and clamped down on all he thought posed a threat to his rule. Mubarak had the power to imprison anyone for any reason, at any time and for any period of time without trial. Some he tried in kangaroo military courts and sentenced them to long prison terms. Mubarak held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law and the number of political prisoners in Egypt is estimated at 30,000. Mubarak’s brutal (secret) police are responsible for the disappearance, torture, rape and killing of thousands of pro-democracy campaigners and innocent people. A cable sent to Washington by the US ambassador to Cairo in 2009 revealed: “Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders.” When Egyptian youth overcame their fears and stood up to the notorious secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for Mubarak and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie left out in the Sahara sun.
All Dictators End Up in the Dustbin of History
These must be days of worry and panic for African and Middle Eastern dictators. No doubt, some are in a state of total depression having sleepless nights and nightmares when they catch a wink. They brood over the questions: “What if IT (the “unspeakable”) happens to me? What am I going to do? How many can I kill to suppress an uprising and get away with it? A thousand, ten thousand?”
African and Middle Eastern dictators who have abused their power must know that sooner or later their turn will come. When it does, they will have only three choices: justice before their national or international tribunals, the dustbin of history, or if they can make it to the airport fast enough to Dictators’ “home away from home”, Saudi Arabia (at least until their turn comes). There will be no place for them to run and hide. Let them learn from the fates of their brothers: Al Bashir of Sudan has an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court hanging over his head. Old Charley Taylor of Liberia is awaiting his verdict at the ICC. Hissien Habre of Chad will soon be moving into Taylor’s cell at the ICC. A gang of Kenyan state ministers which instigated the violence following the 2007 presidential elections should be trading their designer suits for prison jumpsuits at the ICC in the not too distant future. Mengistu, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Al Bashir and others will be on the lam for a while and evade the long arm of justice. Justice may be delayed but it will always arrive as it did a couple of days for Pervez Musharraf who has warrant out for his arrest in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
All dictators are doomed to an ignominious downfall. No African dictator has ever left office with dignity, honor, respect and the adulation of his people. They have all left office in shame, disgrace and infamy. History shows that dictators live out their last days like abandoned vicious dogs– lonely, godforsaken and tormented. Such has been the destiny of Mobutu of Zaire, Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Idi Amin of Uganda, Barre of Somalia, El-Nimery of the Sudan, Saddam of Iraq, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu of Romania, Pincohet of Chile, Somoza of Nicaragua, Hoxha of Albania, Suharto of Indonesia, Stroessner of Paraguay, Ne Win of Mynamar, Hitler, Stalin, Mussollini and all the rest. History testifies that these names will forever be synonymous with evil, cruelty, atrocity, depravity and inhumanity. It is ironic that Mubarak (which in Arabic means “blessed one”) was born to live as the blessed one; but he will forever be remembered in Egyptian history as the “cursed one”.
The Power of Nonviolence Resistance
As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi when he said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
As odd as it seems, violence is the weapon of the weak. To shoot and kill and maim unarmed protesters in the streets is not a sign of strength, it is a sign of fear and cowardice. To jail wholesale opposition leaders, journalists, critics and dissidents is not a demonstration of control but the ultimate manifestation of lack of control. One speaks the language of violence because one cannot speak the language of reason. Violence is the language of the angry, the hateful, the vengeful, the ignorant and the fearful. Dictators speak to their victims in the language of violence because their raison d’etre (reason for existing) is to hate and spread hate. Their very soul stirs with hatred often damaged by childhood experiences and feelings of inferiority. Hitler and Stalin exhibited strong hatred towards Jews from childhood, and because they felt woefully inadequate, they did things to try and show everybody that they have power. Violence never resolves the issues that triggered the violence; and as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Dr. Martn Luther King explained it further: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…” To reciprocate in violence is to become one with the perpetrators of violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
But the nonviolent resistor is strong, very strong. S/he is willing to sit down and reason with the one brutalizing her/him. Gandhi, Martin King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Rosa Parks and many others have proven to be stronger than those whose heartbeats stroked to the metronome of hate. Gandhi drove the British colonialists out of India without firing a single shot. They mocked him as the “little lawyer in a diaper.” In the end, the British saluted the Indian flag and left. More recently, Eastern Europe shed its totalitarian burden through nonviolent resistance. Now we have seen it happen in Tunisia and Egypt.
But there are some who believe that nonviolent resistance will not work in the face of a morally depraved, conscienceless and barbaric adversary who will mow down in cold blood children, men and women. Others say nonviolence resistance takes too long to produce results. Such views have been articulated since the time of Gandhi, but the historical evidence refutes them. As we have recently seen in Tunisia and Egypt, two of the most brutal and entrenched dictatorships in the world unraveled in less than a month through nonviolent resistance.
As to a long-term nonviolent struggle, there are many instructive experiences. Let’s take Poland as an example. In 1981, the Soviets put General Wojciech Jaruzelski in charge to crackdown on Solidarity, a non-communist controlled trade union established a year earlier. Jaruzelski immediately declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity members, often in in the middle of the night, including union leader Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski flooded the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and elsewhere in Poland with police who shot, beat and jailed strikers and protesters by the tens of thousands. By the beginning of 1982, the crackdown seemed successful and most of Solidarity top leaders were behind bars. But Jaruzelski’s campaign of violence and repression did not end the nonviolent resistance in Poland. It only drove it underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others took over including priests, students, dissidents and journalists. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations. A proliferation of underground institutions emerged including Solidarity Radio; hundreds of underground publications served as the medium of communication for the people. Solidarity leaders who had evaded arrest managed to generate huge international support. The U.S. and other countries imposed sanctions on Poland, which inflicted significant hardship on Jaruzelski’s government. By 1988, Poland’s economy was in shambles as prices for basic staples rose sharply and inflation soared. In August of that year, Jaruzelski was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met Walesa. Following the “Polish Roundtable Talks”, communism was doomed in Poland. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. History shows that nonviolent change seems impossible to many until people act to bring it about. Who would have thought two months ago that two of the world’s worst dictators would be toppled and consigned to the dust bin of history in a nonviolent struggle by youths?
The Wrath of Ethiopian Youth
In June 2010, I wrote:
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means.
Youths always inspire each other. Ethiopia’s youths seek the same things as their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts: a livelihood, adequate food, decent housing and education and basic health care. They want free access to information – radio, newspaper, magazines, satellite and internet — as they are absolutely and unconditionally guaranteed in their constitution. Above all, they want to live in a society that upholds the rule of law, protects human rights and respects the votes of the people. They do not want corruption, nepotism, cronyism, criminality and inhumanity. That is not too much to ask.
When the uprising took place in Tunisia and Egypt, it was not the “leaders” that led it. Youth power became the catalyzing force for a democratic revolution in both countries. Africa’s dictators should understand that people do not rise up because it is in style or fashionable, but because their conditions of existence are subhuman, inhuman and intolerable. It is possible to stop the satellite transmissions, jam the radio broadcasts, shutter the newspapers, close the internet cafes, grab a young journalist and human rights advocate as he walks out of an internet café and interrogate, threaten, intimidate and terrorize him, but it is far more difficult to quiet the hungry stomachs, mend the broken hearts, heal the wounded spirits and calm the angry minds of the young people. Youths united in Ethiopia and elsewhere on the African continent can never be defeated.
Power to Africa’s Youths!
Zenawi, irhal! Bashir, degage! Mugabe, irhal! Gbagbo, degage! Ghaddafi, irhal! African dictators, irhal!…. degage!