The African Americans have many heroes and heroines. In their captivity of body, they never allowed their condition to become a mental slavery. To free them from the gulag of mind and body, many Negroes volunteered their time and life. Two persons started the last struggle that eventually paved way for the Obama presidency, Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr. On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks a 42 year old African American woman who worked as a tailor was returning from work. She had boarded this Montgomery Alabama city bus. She and three other African Americans sat behind the ten rolls of seats reserved for the Whites only. A white man entered the bus but then all the seats reserved for the Whites had been taken. As was then the practice and law, the driver asked the four Black passengers to give up their seats for the white passenger. Rosa Parks refused to oblige. She was arrested and charged to court and was convicted. That started mass protest of Coloured people in Alabama. Martin Luther King Jnr who had relocated from Atlanta Georgia to Alabama led the protest and famous Montgomery bus boycott that lasted for 385 days. Martin Luther King Jnr with other civil right movement leaders continued the struggle, facing the police brutality and fire hose regularly. Many were killed, murdered and others imprisoned. On April 3rd 1968, Rev. Martin Luther delivered a powerful address in Memphis Tennessee which happened to be his last, titled `I have being to the Mountain Top`. In it he made allusion to being born at the right time because if he was standing at the beginning of time and God should ask him when he would love to be born, he will not have chosen a better time. He said `I have been to the mountain top and have seen the promise land but I may not get there with you`. The following day, 4th April, 1968 he was shot at the balcony of Lorraine Motel where he had lodged in room 306 in Memphis. He was taken to St. Joseph`s hospital where he was pronounced dead at 7.05pm the same day.
I was in Atlanta Georgia his home place and at his grave site and the Martin Luther King Jnr Centre for Nonviolent Social Change. One regular feature there is parents bringing children to his grave site to make good wishes for them. Coins of various denominations are thrown into the pool of fountain water surrounding his grave, by people who come to make wishes and ask for favours from the God of Martin Luther King Jnr. He led many walks in protest across America. He was barely 39 years old when he was killed. He is the only single individual who is not a former president of the United States of America that has a holiday in his honour. The African Americans believe that Rosa Parks sat in the bus so that Martin Luther could walk. Martin walked for freedom so that Barak Obama could run for president. Obama ran for president so that African Americans could fly to true freedom.
Imagine what the situation of the African Americans would have been in the land of their slavery if not for the sacrifices of their people! There were many of them who used many methods to get the people into freedom but Luther using the philosophy of nonviolence resistance was able ignite the people`s emotions and hope. Malcom X, born Malcolm Little on May 19th 1925 in Omaha Nebraska USA. He converted to Islam and followed the Prophet Elijah Mohammed of the Nation of Islam, and he took the name El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. He was the opposite of Martin Luther King in his approach. He continued to encourage the African Americans to `Use whatever means Necessary` to achieve freedom. When Martin Luther gave the signature speech of `I Have a Dream` at the foot of Abraham Lincoln`s Statue at the Washington DC Mall, Malcolm X was reported to have said to him that what he had was not a dream but a nightmare.
On 4th April this year the world commemorates the 45th anniversary of the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr. It brings to mind the value of sacrifice and nonviolence in resolving conflicts and expressing one`s desires. By the time Martin Luther was killed, Nigeria was going through a bitter war of attrition. That war wouldn`t have been necessary if all peaceful means propounded were allowed to mature. The war has ended but peace in the country has continued to be elusive. The fruit of every war is mutual suspicion because when the guns become silent, the bigger guns in the mind and heart of people will continue to shot. War is a failure of human power and not a demonstration of might. It takes a great mind to walk away and like Jesus Christ taught, turn the other cheek. It takes a strong man to lead his people to teach the enemy the value of life. Nelson Mandela is today celebrated all over the world as a hero, not because he led the people of South Africa to confront the Apartheid regime with guns and machetes. He led the people in a nonviolent war against the regime of oppression. In his autobiography, `Long Walk to Freedom`, he said he survived the brutality and hatred in the prison for 27 years and he believes `that no one can oppress you if he is not under oppression himself. So his first approach to setting himself free was to set the oppressor free by education.` Through that he became a secret friend of many of the policemen and security agents in the prisons. Buker T. Washington, another African American freedom fighter said `no one can hold you down unless he is on the ground with you`. The oppressor is also under oppression.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr, an ardent `disciple` of Mahatma Ghandi embraced the principle of nonviolent resistance because nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people and he was a man of great courage. It is only a coward who employs extraneous materials like guns, machetes, bombs and bows and arrows to do his bidding. The man of courage believes that he is well equipped inside himself to fight his course. After all believers in God say `what is inside you is greater that what is outside you`. So suicide bombing is actually an act of cowardice. While nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding, violence scatters and divides forever. It is when the principle of nonviolence is used that the axiom `no victor no vanquished` can be true for as Martin Luther King Jnr would say, `Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice and not people`. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that injustice will certainly be defeated and justice will prevail, so he gave that powerful speech, `I have a dream that one day, my four little children will live in a country where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character`… that one day, the children of former slaves will sit down with the children of former slave owners at the table of equality`. All these have come to pass. The children of former slaves are not only sitting down with children of former slave owners, but also children of former slave owners are now serving as cooks, stewards and drivers in the homes of children of former slaves.
In Nigeria today, lessons have to be learnt by both the leaders and the led. Violence for violence begets further violence. An eye for an eye leaves the whole town blind. There is no alternative to peace and dialogue in matter of national and personal interest. If your position on issues does not lead to peace and harmony, then your life worth needs to be re-examined. You will need to re-negotiate your mandate. At this trying time in Nigeria, questions are being asked, where are the heroes of our country? Who are the strong men of courageous character that can be called leaders of the nation? It is easier to return violence for violence because it is a cheap article. Our leaders in Nigeria should go for the expensive and difficult choice of peace and nonviolence for it is lasting and durable. As Rev. Martin L. King would say, `I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporary defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant`. Nigerians as we mark the 45 years of the death of Rev. M.L King jnr, let us learn from him for he said, `We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools`. Rev. Martin Luther King jnr, continue to rest in peace.
Rev. Fr. Ojaje Idoko is Director of Pastoral Affairs Department, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria