Africa: What King's Legacy Means for Africa Today

20 September 2013
guest column

While the recent 50th anniversary commemoration of the "March on Washington" to demand rights for African Americans focused attention on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s unfinished domestic agenda in the United States, Dr. King was also strongly committed to a global human rights movement, particularly related to Africa.

In 1957 he visited Ghana for the presidential inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah. During and after that trip, he spoke frequently of what the U.S.

civil rights movement and anti-colonial movements in Africa shared. "Our struggles are a common struggle," he asserted.

A half century later, Africa has progressed dramatically, with most African nations holding democratic elections, reforming their economies and building peace. But for millions, equality is still a dream, and peace is still a promise.

For example, the two deadliest wars in the world since the March on Washington have been fought in Congo and Sudan. About eight million people have died in those two conflicts, with millions more driven from their homes by terrible human rights atrocities.

In 1963, Dr. King understood that apartheid and colonialism were rooted in racism and economic exploitation. Today, racism and economic exploitation are at the heart of crises in places like Sudan and Congo.

In the same way that the civil rights movement demanded peaceful change in America in 1963, brave citizens in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere across the continent are standing up today for peace, justice and freedom despite grave personal risk. These activists, who are living Dr. King's struggle in their own countries, deserve the support of Americans, just as American civil rights activists received support from around the world for their efforts.

Dr. King pressed repeatedly for a boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. This helped inspire a global anti-apartheid movement that eventually helped free Nelson Mandela and see the end of legalized discrimination in South Africa.

That in turn inspired the movement against blood diamonds that helped end three African wars: those Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola. That further inspired the Darfur anti-genocide movement that forced the Khartoum regime to allow life-saving aid for hundreds of thousands of people.

This then more recently provided the inspiration for two present day social movements: the first to stop child soldier recruitment and end the threat posed by Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa; and the other to end the deadly trade in conflict minerals from Congo which powers our cell phones and laptops.

These new global human rights movements are led and driven primarily by students, with faith-based groups playing an important role as well. They are all social movements rooted in the traditions of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Dr. King's reflections on the global phenomenon of racism became more nuanced and urgent as his work progressed. In 1967 he concluded, "... racism and its perennial ally, economic exploitation, provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation."

The model of racist ethnic mobilization fuelled by economic motivations which Dr. King opposed in South Africa, is - with variations - the same as that which helps drive conflict, limit opportunities and restrict democratic space in Sudan, Congo and other African states in crisis.

In Sudan, south Sudanese rebelled against a minority regime that concentrated all political power and oil wealth in its hands. More than two million southerners died before finally winning the right to self-determination, resulting in the creation of the new state of South Sudan.

But the Sudan that is left behind remains governed by the same minority dictatorship, fomenting ethnic and racial divisions in Darfur (where newfound gold is being violently extracted to sustain the regime) and the Nuba Mountains in order to contain rebellions there and in other parts of the country. Until that fundamental approach to governance is reformed, finally addressing the racial discrimination and economic exploitation that sustains dictatorship in Khartoum, there will be conflict.

Similarly in Congo, the deadliest war in the world has been fueled by a struggle over the spoils of natural resource exploitation, including land and the "conflict minerals" that power our electronic products.

Ethnic mobilization, exclusion and demonization are at the heart of the strategies of the governments in the region that have battled inside Congo directly and through proxy militias. Until that exploitative nexus between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda is addressed, peace and equal opportunity are not possible.

The United States still retains important influence in both Sudan and Congo, and in other troubled African states. Redoubling efforts to help the people in those countries struggling for peace and equality would be a worthy legacy of Dr. King's vision.

John Prendergast is a human rights activist, a former U.S. diplomat and the co-founder of the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

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