It all began in December 1955 when Rosa Parks, an African American woman who was riding a crowded bus refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The bus driver summoned the police.
Parks was arrested and charged with violation of the segregation law of Montgomery City.
As tensions rose, the incident could have sparked a real bloodbath had Martin Luther King Jr. not chosen another means to resist racial segregation and fight for civil rights. Following in the footsteps of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, King opted for non-violence and peaceful resistance and always invoked the words of Jesus : “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)
“Give us the ballot”
King’s protest campaign opened a new chapter in the life of African-Americans. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for almost a year and greatly affected the public bus revenues since African American passengers accounted for more than 70 per cent of the passengers.
In June 1957, at the age of 27, Martin Luther King became the youngest person and the first minister to receive the Spingarn Medal awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his remarkable contribution to the struggle against racial segregation. On that occasion, King gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on 14 May 1957 in which he uttered his famous words: “Give us the ballot”. His efforts were not in vain; 5 million African-Americans were later registered on the voter lists in the Southern states.
After John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, King doubled his efforts to implicate the federal government in the racial crisis. However, Kennedy used his political tact to confront the attacks of King who accused the government of being incapable of settling major issues. In summer 1963, King initiated the Birmingham Campaign, a series of street protests in Birmingham, Alabama. On the second day, the first confrontation took place between African-American protestors and white policemen who used clubs and police dogs to disperse the crowd. The scene was broadcast on national television and the struggle could no longer be hidden from the public eye.
A court injunction was issued prohibiting all protests, marches, boycotts and sit-ins. For the first time in his life, King defiantly decided to violate a court order and marched with some 50,000 supporters along the streets of Birmingham. He was arrested and put in solitary confinement.
“I have a dream”
Many years of struggle against segregation enhanced the experience of the African-Americans civil rights movement. The 28 August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was unprecedented in magnitude. Participants were estimated at 250,000, among whom 60,000 were whites who joined the massive march headed towards Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, making it the biggest march in the history of civil rights movements. Martin Luther King delivered his memorable speech : “I Have a Dream” in which he said: ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“I have a dream” were Martin Luther King Jr.’s words 50 years ago. They spelled a wish for a better future for mankind, and held millions of Americans and civil rights advocates around the globe spellbound. “I have a dream” was reiterated by King’s generation and subsequent American and non-American generations.
In 1964, the American Civil Rights Act was passed. Martin Luther King Jr. was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, becoming the first American of African descent to be awarded the title. He also became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner when he was handed the prestigious award at the age of 35 for “combating racial inequality through non-violence.”
The life of this great activist was unfortunately cut short on 4 April 1968. He was shot to death by a right-wing extremist using a long-range rifle while he was in a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
50 years on
The date 28 August 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington D.C and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream”. America and the world commemorated the dream of a future where Blacks and Whites could live in harmony, enjoying equal freedoms and rights.
Hundreds gathered near Georgetown University Law School. They came from different places; they were of different colour, different ethnicities, different religions but they chanted in unison. They came together as one to commemorate “the Dream”.
The crowd cheered as the participants in the 1963 March arrived, many of them holding the hands of young men and women who also share the same dream.
The march followed the same route that the March for Washington took 50 years ago. It headed towards the United States Department of Labor and then proceeded to the United States Department of Justice and finally reached the Lincoln Memorial where a celebration took place attended by President Barack Obama and a number of American public figures.
In his speech, Obama linked the ongoing attempts to achieve economic equality in the US to the March on Washington in 1963; guaranteeing economic opportunities for everyone “remains our great unfinished business“, he stated.
The President also attributed his election as the first African-American president to the efforts of activists and protestors who called for equal civil rights.
Fifty years after the inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and all the participants in the historical March of 1963 who “assembled here, in our nation’s capital… to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress, and to awaken America’s long-slumbering conscience.”
2013 marches in Egypt
Here in Egypt, the March on Washington strongly brings to mind the march of Egyptians on Tahrir Square on 30 June. But it was not only to Tahrir that Egyptians marched. A staggering 30 million of them marched on public squares and spaces in all Egyptian towns. In Cairo, the numbers far exceeded the capacity of Tahrir; the protestors spilled over the city in its entirety, which then became the scene of unprecedented massive protest. The protestors marched earnestly, unarmed, peacefully, and joyfully; feeling all in one and one in all. They chanted, cheered, and sang demanding freedom from a stifling, radical regime which after one year in power was working to rob them of their basic freedoms and rights. They were determined to rid themselves of a regime that exploited religion to rob them of their Egyptianness, and instead instil Islamist exclusive values and loyalties to Islamism not to Egypt. They demanded the opportunity to decent living, and a new regime that would have their interests at heart.
The heavy price
Just like the marchers on Washington D.C 50 years ago, the Egyptian dream came true. On 3 July 2013, the army to step in and fulfilled the dream. And just as Martin Luther King Jr. paid a heavy price for his dream come true, Egypt is being made to pay a heavy price for the realisation of her dream. The Islamists are waging a war of terror upon Egypt for daring to shirk them off. They are bombing Egyptian police sites in Sinai, killing some 34 police and army personnel in the process. They are shooting at security men and at unarmed civilians, bombing and torching Egyptian significant targets, and vowing for more to come.
The Copts especially have paid, and are paying, a price for joining the protests that overthrew the Islamists.
A Human Rights Watch report places the number of churches and Church-owned buildings plundered and burned by the Islamists at some 84. Dozens of Copts, especially in Upper Egypt, have told Watani horrendous stories of how they were attacked while in the ‘safety’ of their homes, how they had to snatch their children and flee for their lives, only to see from a distance their homes being ransacked, plundered then set on fire. Seven men lost their lives, including a 12-year-old in Minya, for no reason other than being Egyptian Christian, including Father Mina Abboud of al-Arish Church. Despite these acts of hatred and sedition not a voice of Coptic protest was heard; the Copts realised that this time they were not being attacked only on account of being Christian, but because they joined hands with the other Egyptians who overthrew the Islamists. In this capacity, the Copts could see that their sacrifice was worthwhile.
So Egypt’s ‘immediate’ dream came true. But for the long term, will Egyptian determination to win rights and freedoms have the happy ending King’s dream saw? Will freedom, equality, and justice indiscriminately reign in Egypt? Will laws be enacted to achieve these ends so that all Egyptians, whether in the majority or minority, are guaranteed equal rights and duties? And will a Copt give a speech 50 years from now telling our children that, with him or her in the Presidential Palace, the dream has truly been fulfilled?
4 September 2013