Today the United States honors Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday. This time last year we shared this photo of King with wife Coretta Scott at Ghana’s Independence day celebrations in March 1957, and recalled King’s 1963 words on unified black struggles. A year after making that speech, King was in London where he denounced the apartheid regime and called for sanctions against the white South African government.
It’s worth noting that while MLK acknowledges the shared fight against racism across continents, he’s also clear about the differences between the struggle against the South African apartheid regime and the African-American struggle in the U.S.
“Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organise to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organise the people in non-violent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.” (read the full speech here).
We like to draw parallels between forms of oppression to neatly summarize the experiences, but in the 1960s black Americans were recognized as human by their constitution, whereas black South Africans were not. African Americans could reference their constitutional rights; black South Africans had no rights and little room to fight for them. It’s for these reasons that King, typically viewed as a staunch proponent of non-violent protest, justifies the use of sabotage by the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
The speech reminds us to stay woke to the different contexts that inform political strategies and ideologies. And it’s a welcome reminder of MLK’s radical politics, often brushed under the carpet in favour of a less challenging version of his life and thought. Read the full speech here and check out this recently published collection of MLK’s final works “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?“