The Betrayal of Martin Luther King's Legacy
Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, The Independent (London, England)
TODAY IS Martin Luther King day in the United States. After years of argument, politicking and campaigning, and virulent opposition from some white Americans, the third monday of January (King's birthday was on the 15th) was declared a national holiday in 1986. He was assassinated in 1968, aged only 39, but his reputation is kept burning by the generation which fought so hard for US civil rights.
One has to admire the tenacity of those who still so fiercely hold to the memory of the hero whose beliefs in non-violence and justice were absolute. This steadfastness appears majestic because we are doomed to live in times ever more fast and loose, when principles, ideologies, and truths can be turned over by spineless leaders following the trite views of focus groups who meet for a few hours to chat over glasses of Chablis.
The idea of having such a memorial for such a hero in this country would never get anywhere. Britain is too wedded to honouring withering Royals and establishment exemplars, people who strive to keep the country as what it thinks it has always been, rather than brave individuals who insist on changing it or the world.
For years, the statue of Nelson Mandela on the South Bank was defaced because racists thought he should be strung up for not knowing his place. Characters who would help to demolish imperialist myths will wait for ever before they are recognised. Why, even naming a small road after Mary Seacole, the Caribbean nurse whose work in the Crimea earned her accolades in The Times of the day, turned into an ugly brawl in a London borough because some residents - fools and knaves - objected to this "political correctness". And I know how hard Baroness Flather has had to work to raise funds for a lasting memorial to all those non-whites who gave their lives in the two world wars.
Perhaps another reason for this failure of imagination is that in this country we have not yet produced inspirational black leaders of the stature of King, Malcolm X, W E B Dubois, or writers such as James Baldwin or Toni Morrison. These were the people - as well as Gandhi, obviously - who radicalised my views when I was growing up in Africa. Their voices added intensity and meaning to the more- obviously political rhetoric of leaders such as Nyerere, Nkrumah, Nehru, and Nasser as the Empire was challenged and then helped by these freedom fighters to collapse faster than it might have done.
I am now old enough to ruminate sadly about the lost legacy of those years when there was a sense of practical purpose built on universal values and idealism - rather than the greed, corrupt self interest, tribalism and hatred that propel most of our world in this new and bitter century. In his book, Between Camps, Professor Paul Gilroy criticises these dispiriting trends which threaten humanistic ideals and what he calls "cosmopolitan imaginings".
This is why it makes sense to ask what on Earth is the point of remembering Martin Luther King in the US today? We have just been treated to the first pictures of tortured Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners in the well-organised hell hole that the Americans have made in Cuba. So Mr King, sir, do you smile as you look down on your country or do you weep that Colin Powell, a black man, having reached unimaginable power, is failing to promote any of your ideas while remembering to evoke your name, I am sure, whenever he makes comforting after dinner speeches about what inspired him when he was young?
Can any fate be worse for King and Gandhi and Mandela too, than to be consigned in this disrespectful way to "heritage"? …