Martin Luther King addressing a Crowd

Martin Luther King Jr and His Legacy: The American Civil Rights Movement

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr Speech

The decade bygone has stood testimony to some of the most challenging times the world has come together to witness. Last two years in particular have seen a paroxysm of resistance that has swept across six continents and engulfed both liberal democracies and brutal autocracies alike, though if you ask me, the thin line between the two has been fading in the haze of capitalism. Movements have emerged overnight and in no time have proliferated exponentially to amass global fury. From Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, Moscow, each capital state witnessed a domestic brawl emerge out of a local issue to become a national/international movement capable of regime changes and even overall restructuring of the political setup. In Sudan a rise in the price of bread brought people out onto the streets in unprecedented numbers – eventually toppling a dictatorship. A bill to change extradition rules in Hong Kong turned into widespread anti-China and pro-Democracy protests that continue till today. A fuel price rise in France triggered Yellow Vests to demand overall reform in governance and wealth distribution. Across the Arab world, the slogan ash-sha‘b yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām (the people want to bring down the regime) became a catch phrase. George Floyd’s custodial death caused an international declaration of the war against racism, injustice and authoritarianism. Black Lives matter became an anthem the world resonated with.

Each of these movements had two things in common – unprecedented political mobilization and the use of social media. The global citizens of this globalized world stood in solidarity, interconnected by multiple factors, but the most powerful of all was the spirit. The spirit that draws strength from the spiritual lineage that connects Jesus to Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. These people popularized what I would like to call “The Common Man Phenomenon” – the realization of the strength common men working together in concert possess. 

And now that a new decade has dawned with the legacies of the unfinished struggles that the previous decade served upon us, the greatest gift of the concept of mass mobilization that the likes of Gandhi and King have bequeathed upon us becomes relevant more than ever. 6th day into the new year, and one of the oldest democracies of the world saw a crisis that was unprecedented on all grounds when US Capitol was stormed to turn around a legitimate democratically conducted election. The sequence of events that ensued was straight out of a nightmare, but the people continue to have faith in the democratic institutions and in the same light, the US congress has taken the historic decision of impeaching the President a second time. Talking about the world’s largest democracy, that is India, the farmers who have peacefully gathered from every nook and corner of the country to assert their democratic right of inclusion, consent and voice in the policy-making process, have shown the world the true meaning of resilience that Gandhi preached and Martin Luther King drew inspiration from. 

And today, on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, I can’t help but go back to the “March on Washington” moment of 1963, where he told the world of his “Dream” and more importantly, told the people that they could “Dream”. In words of Barrack Obama, “ If anyone had a right to question whether our democracy was worth redeeming, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Because in the face of billy clubs and lynchings, poll taxes and literacy tests, he never gave in to violence, never waved a traitorous flag, never gave up on the country he called home, despite all of the injustices and indignities it brought upon him.” The approach to peaceful resistance, civil disobedience and non violence that he adopted can be seen among the protesters all over the world who have  been echoing songs of renaissance, revolution and freedom in the hope that they shall surely reap the fruits of change one day.

Martin Luther King
Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Martin Luther King Jr – A Tribute

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Born in an educated family steeped in the tradition of the Southern Black ministry, with a secure background, Martin Luther King had a solid educational foundation while growing up. However, these privileges could not shield him from the episodes of racism and segregation that he had to face even at the young age of six when his white playmates refused to play with him. With age, the discrimination intensified, as was pretty common in the south. However, one summer away in a tobacco farm in Connecticut revealed to him a society which knew no differences and whites and negroes did everything alike. This new knowledge of such an egalitarian existence brought with it the realization of humiliation that the segregated community felt. Thus began the never-ending struggle to end the racial injustice he and his community faced and culminated into one of the biggest civil rights movement the world has seen, a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and an extremely heart-wrenching assassination at the hands of a white racist. King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Resistance Movements of the 21st Century

The 21st century, and the last decade in particular, has seen uprisings all over the world. From the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protesters to the millions worldwide who marched against climate change to the unprecedented citizen protests in Hong Kong, it was the ‘pushback’ decade. Millions took to the streets against Chile’s President Piñera and millions marched to protest China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. Dalits and farmers marched, women marched, Muslims marched, gay people and students marched. Most were peaceful, but some crossed the thin line that demarcates a protest from what the state terms as extremism and vandalism. According to King and others, whenever the protesters initiated violence, they lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  While absolutely condemning the later where violence is involved, I would like to laud the spirit of those who have borne the flag of resistance and resilience in face of extreme adversity and suppression, all the time remaining committed to the ideals of non-violence and peace. Here when I say “Non Violent”, it means that the movement doesn’t initiate or threaten violence. However, there is no guarantee that the violence won’t be initiated by the state. This last decade can be called the “Decade of Resistance”. Erica Chenoweth, Prof. In Human Rights and International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School, uses the term “resistance” interchangeably with nonviolent mass action or “unarmed resurrection”. According to her, the core tenet of the Civil resistance Theory is – citizens working together in concert have more agency than they believe.” And to aid this extraordinary mobilization, social media has played the role of an explosive catalyst.  Starting from Facebook pages to moving to more secure encrypted platforms like Signal, Telegram etc, social media have definitely made it easier to communicate. The trends and hashtags have moved the world a click apart. Movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter saw participants cutting across boundaries of politics, age, culture and regions to come together as one unit. However, social media is not without its flaws. The biggest challenge that the movement faces today is lack of coherent leadership. Everybody wants a slice for himself and that’s when fragmentation is inevitable. Secondly, the multitude of information, fake for most times, that is thrown at the users is overwhelming and it becomes impossible to tell the right from the wrong. Thus, today more than ever, one needs to be careful of one’s core demands and ideologies, as it is very easy to be swayed by destructive and disruptive factions who are constantly at work to press predefined and motivated agendas through these mass mobilizations.

Here is a brief overview of some of the resistance movements that this decade came face to face with.

  • Arab Spring – What started in 2010 as protests in Tunisia against poverty and an oppressive regime soon spread like wildfire across West Asia to envelop Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Suddenly, there were street demonstrations, riots and popular uprisings. Authorities attributed the rapid spread of the protests to social media and shut down connectivity in many places. A second wave hit the middle east in 2018 and countries continue to remain unstable with their political future in gloom.
  • Hong-Kong – What started as a series of largely peaceful rallies against a highly controversial piece of legislation rapidly transformed into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement, blaming Beijing of excessive interference into Hong Kong’s affairs, fundamentally breaching its already limited sovereignty. 
  • Extinction Rebellion (XR) – It is a socio-political protest movement centered around environmental issues that was created in the UK in May 2018. It employs non-violent action and civil disobedience methods to emphasize its message of climate change and tragic loss of biodiversity on Earth.
  • LATIN AMERICA AND THE VIRAL DOMINO EFFECT – Latin America has a rich history of civil unrest and the recent economic slowdown, rise in inflation and unemployment, as well as widespread corruption represent the main motivators for the demonstrations. While the demonstrations’ initial triggers were relatively varied from country to country, ranging from a hike in metro fares in Chile to a revolt against Evo Moral’s attempt to hold on to power in Bolivia, the underlying theme remains the general dissatisfaction with the government’s performance.
  • IRAN – The latest protests in Iran represent a strong reminder of what can happen when a country completely shuts down communication. In November 2019, as civil unrest erupted due to a cut in fuel subsidies, the Iranian government deliberately interrupted the internet service before cracking down on the demonstrators. According to a report by Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed, with security forces described as firing on protesters that “did not pose any imminent risk”. Thousands were also arbitrarily detained.
  • Greta Thunberg Movement – In August 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl stood outside the country’s Parliament with a placard that said ‘School strike for the climate’. Within a year, her solitary protest galvanized millions over the world to take to the streets to demand action against one of the biggest catastrophes of our times: climate change. ‘Climate strikes’ — by young and old — erupted across the globe. Addressing world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg roared: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” 
  • India – With an increased “nationalist” fervor, and what some describe as masculine “democratic backsliding”, India has had its share of protests. Coming from the land of Gandhi, the father of civil disobedience and nonviolence, these “dharnas” hardly come across as a surprise. India is a country whose very genesis rests upon a strong foundation of protests, mass demonstrations and democratic ideals. It was only a matter of time when people rose up to demand what was rightfully theirs, the power to decide their own fate. All peacefully though!!
  • #MeToo: The phrase ‘MeToo’ was first used on social media by Tarana Burke when she wrote about the sexual harassment she had suffered. But it was only when multiple charges surfaced against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein that #MeToo became a viral, global trend as more and more women began to put #MeToo as their social media status to show how widespread the menace of workplace sexual harassment was. It led to wide-ranging discussions across nations, forcing institutions and companies to take sexual harassment seriously and establish mechanisms for complaint and redress. Starting with showbiz and the media, the movement spread to other industries, including music, sports, law, politics and advertising.

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