Tag Archives: Rosa Parks

Gandhi, Rustin, Tolstoy, Civil Rights & MLK, Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986 (Reagan agreed it in 1983), his birthday was on the 15th. Born in 1929 to a pastor and a schoolteacher, he himself became a Baptist minister and advocate for African American equality and social justice from the 1950s through to his 1968 assassination. He was instrumental in the bringing in of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Mahatma Gandhi & Non-Violence

King was inspired by the Hindu lawyer and campaigner for rights in South Africa and India, Mahatma Gandhi, and his principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience over and against armed uprising. Gandhi was also an advocate of religious tolerance but was in the end also assassinated, in 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. King managed to visit India in 1959.

Gandhi had succeeded in the 1920s in uniting Muslims and Hindus against the common enemy of the British empire. Yet by the 1940s an independent Muslim nationalism led to the eventual division of India and creation of a separate Pakistan.

Some of Gandhi’s more extreme pacifist views included recommending that Britain openly yield to Hitler rather than defend itself, and that the Jews should have willingly surrendered to the Holocaust as an act of collective suicide. He did not support the idea of the state of Israel gained through violence or Zionism, but only as something within the gift of the Arabs to bring about peacefully.

Gandhi’s principles meshed with King’s own Christian principles, as he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Another early source that energized King was the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was also an influence on Gandhi.

Bayard Rustin, Gay Communist

Bayard Rustin was a sometime adviser to Martin Luther King and had also visited India, in 1948, not long after Gandhi’s assassination. He shared both Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. King’s involvement with him was discouraged by others due to Rustin’s former membership of the Communist Party and his homosexuality, which King had little problem with.

Rustin later became a gay rights activist, in addition to his earlier civil rights campaigning. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The journey towards civil rights was more of a bus route, with lots of stops and delays. Rustin had been beaten and arrested back in 1942 for sitting in the second row of a segregated bus.

Thirteen years later, in March 1955, 15 year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on a in Montgomery bus. Due to Colvin’s unmarried and pregnant status the civil rights activists waited for a better test case and were rewarded with the defiance of the now famous Rosa Parks who was arrested later that year, in December, for also refusing to give up her seat.

The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued, which whilst planned by others was publicly led by King, and resulted in his house being firebombed.

“All men are created equal”

The path to equality culminated in the quarter-million strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, predominantly organised by Rustin. Despite its being unprecedented in size and diversity, it was boycotted itself by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for being too soft and sanitised, promoting peaceful harmony and integration rather than strength and independent identity.

The iconic “I have a dream” speech, much of which may have been improvised on the spot, includes the famous and inspirational line:

“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.'”

Whilst King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and indeed the Nation of Islam, fought for black equal rights, the case for full civil equal rights for “all men” continues. LGBTI equality, for example, has been the focus of the last decade of legal progress in the USA, something that Rustin fought for until his death in 1987.

King’s Assassination and Death

King was ever the optimist, preaching love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over resentment.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

It was a belief that may have cost him his life, and not a little opposition from other members of the civil rights movement. After President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, King said to his wife, Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” Five years later, he did indeed suffer the same fate.

Black Lives Matter

Despite all the progress, the reality on the ground, is that black lives are still not considered equal. The last year or two has seen so many cases of unarmed black men being shot dead by American police officers that it is clear that stereotypes persist in the minds of many. 980 US citizens were shot dead in 2015 by police, 91 were unarmed and a disproportionate 37 of them were black.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The laws may have changed half a century ago, but it is hearts and minds that still need to be won, in this generation and in every one that succeeds it. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not passive about change, and how it was to be accomplished:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals…Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”

International Women’s Day 2015 Empowering Women Make It Happen

International Women’s Day 2015

Since the early years of the century before last century nearly 200 years ago, in diverse ways individual countries and eventually the world, at the behest of the United Nations since 1977, have fought for various forms of women’s equality and celebrated women.

Now known as International Women’s Day it is a national holiday in many countries, appropriately just for women, in China. Like Mother’s Day, which falls on a Sunday in the UK, it is not a day off for mothers, working or otherwise!

Women in Finnish Parliament (1907)
13 of the total of 19 female MPs, who were the first female MPs in the world, elected in Finland’s parliamentary elections in 1907

In 1910, an International Women’s Conference of 100 women from 17 countries was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the conference, Luise Zietz, a German Socialist, suggested establishing an annual International Woman’s Day. The delegates agreed and promoted it as a way to foster equal rights, including suffrage, for women. It was observed far and wide across the Austro-Hungarian empire, even in Russia in 1913. The First World War suspended much advancement but 1918 brought rights for women in England and Germany, but not until 1944 in France or Greece! French Algeria took until 1958 to grant the right to Muslim women.

2015 IWD Themes

The International Woman’s Day theme for 2015 is ‘Make It Happen’ whilst the UN theme is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!“.

Bring Back Our Girls

Whilst Boko Haram this week have seemingly sworn allegiance to IS (Islamic State, ISIS, Daesh) it seems less likely than ever that the 200+ Chibok girls kidnapped in Nigeria a year ago will be returned. Yet, the UN seems to be more worried about declaring the cultural vandalism of destroying ancient Assyrian artefacts in Nimrud and other historic cities of Iraq and Syria, a war crime, than the heinous human rights atrocities of kidnap, torture, forced marriage, stoning of women and more, as crimes against humanity, especially women.

Somali-born feminist and activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, fights against forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:

“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”

WOW Festival

Last year I attended the awesome Women of the World Festival in London, this year I followed most of it on Twitter and Radio 4, and heard an interview that gave me pause for thought. Was it not “preaching to the converted” the interviewer asked? Perhaps, but it was also encouraging the feminist faithful. Still, more does need to be done.

Selma, Voting and Double Discrimination of Black Women

This week has also seen the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march and demonstration which triggered US voting reform. As one young woman visiting the site this month said, “Voting was never really important to me,” she said. “But I will never not vote again.”

The 1965 activism on 7 March was one of several marches to pressure full enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the legalities of which were being avoided by those finding ways to inhibit black voters.  At Selma, one of the leading organisers, Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious by state troopers. Rosa Parks had been present too. Boynton survived and in 1990, she was honoured with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Medal.

Amelia was born to parents of African-American/Cherokee heritage in 1911 – the very year that International Women’s Day was marked for the first time by a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. As a young girl Amelia had joined the fight for women’s suffrage. As an adult she organised alongside Martin Luther King. While Selma was 50% black, only 1% of the town’s African-American population were registered to vote.

In 1964 Amelia ran for the Congress from Alabama, “the first female African-American ever to do so and the first female of any race to run for the ticket of the Democratic Party in Alabama.”

Triple Discrimination of Women

Audre Lorde wiki
Audre Lorde

Imagine being black, female, and bisexual or a lesbian – before race equality, voting reform, gay rights, let alone sex discrimination. Furthermore, don’t imagine but recognise that some of that prejudice came from other women, white heterosexual women. Audre Lorde, was one such black lesbian feminist who realised that not all women fight for “all women”, in reaction she became a staunch advocate of intersectional feminism of the “continuum of women”, of ANY women, of ALL women:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are very different from my own” – Audre Lorde

In addition, she spoke about the oversimplification of labels and single issue politics:

“there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle. We do not live single-issue lives.”

We are multifaceted human beings, complex creatures, not to be reduced to someone’s label or category and in the process denied our unique identity and individuality.

Yet More Stigma

Add to all of the above prejudices and discrimination that some aspects of mental health disproportionately affect women. For instance trans women and bisexual women have the greatest mental health risks of all groups. 25% of women will suffer from depression, 15% post-natally. Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men and ten times as likely to suffer from anorexia.

Audre Lorde heel print quoteAs Audre Lorde argued it is time for a coalition of the continuum of women to fight for any woman, until all women are free, from the schoolgirls of Nigeria to the sweatshops of the Far East, and the LGBTI women denied recognition and respect, whether as asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood or as trans teenagers taking their lives and being misgendered in life and death.

Whilst gender may be a construct and sex an accident of birth, how we treat each other is the one choice we have the power to make.