25 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Martin Luther King's Legacy Highlights Civil Society Role

opinion

JANUARY 15 was the 84th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King's birth.

Giving King his full due as a leader and a catalyst for change, it is vital that we remember many others who worked for the extraordinary accomplishments achieved as a result of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Many - perhaps most - of the people who supported the movement did it through churches and civic organisations, which are today popularly known as civil society organisations (CSOs).

For 13 years King faced incredible adversity to his leadership of the struggle for civil rights. He was arrested at least 30 times, his home was bombed, his phones were tapped, and he was often threatened.

He and his team relied upon the support, energy and hard work of their CSO partners in helping citizens to organise, to make their voices heard, and to bring pressure on authorities in the long and difficult struggle for civil rights in the United States.

Although we now agree on the value of their accomplishments, 50 or 60 years ago some state and local governments and other entrenched powers saw CSOs as threatening and as enemies.

Even elements of our federal government, fixated then on fighting communism, were concerned civil rights organisations might be infiltrated by communists bent on attacking the US.

It is now obvious King and other leaders of the struggle for racial justice were deeply patriotic and were simply calling upon America to be true to the ideals upon which the country was founded.

In the 1960s, much of the US witnessed a serious conflict between CSOs, such as King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and state and local governments.

The conventional wisdom across much of America at the time was that King and the CSOs represented danger, and elected officials such as Bull Connor and George Wallace represented safety.

Today, we can see how wrong that conventional wisdom was. Individuals who sought to limit the ability of CSOs to work for civil rights are not well regarded by history, while those who endured the harassment, the abuse, and the violence are remembered as heroes.

Some of the officials who sought to stop the work of CSOs even came to change their views and later expressed regret for their actions. George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was one of those. In 1979, recalling his effort to prevent black students from studying at the University of Alabama, he said: "I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over."

As a government official, I can testify that it is not always easy to work with CSOs. Before coming to Zimbabwe, I met with CSOs interested in issues such as human rights, conservation, education, health care, democracy and business. I did not necessarily agree with all of their analyses or goals, but it was important for me to make the time to meet with them, to hear their points of view and to explain my own.

One of the functions of CSOs is to represent the interests of a given group of citizens to government. A single e-mail from an American urging our government to take action on an issue is far less powerful than one-million e-mails to government that a CSO can organise. In this way, CSOs act as a collective bargaining unit for citizens who share concerns about an issue.

So, while CSOs can be challenging for a government to deal with, the US experience with CSOs during our own struggle for civil rights and justice makes their value absolutely clear. As a government official, I have a responsibility to be respectful of CSOs that operate within the law to advance their membership's interests - even if I do not agree with their goals.

Furthermore, I have a responsibility to pay attention to their position and to give them an opportunity to share their views with me. I see it as an important duty of government to protect the space in which CSOs operate, just as it is our duty to protect freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

This week, in celebrating King, the other leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement and thousands of people who worked through civil society organisations, it is worth repeating one of King's most popular quotes: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Wharton became ambassador of the United States to Zimbabwe in November 2012.

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