The Saints Go Marching Out
is the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther
King Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. Perhaps
it's time to reflect again on what has become of that
how icons, when their time has passed, are commodified and appropriated
(some voluntarily, others involuntarily) to promote the prejudice, bigotry
and inequity they battled against. But then in an age when everything's
up for sale, why not icons? In an era when all of humanity, when every
creature on God's earth, is trapped between the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) cheque book and the American cruise missile, can icons stage
Martin Luther King
Jr. is part of a trinity. So it's hard to think of him without two others
elbowing their way into the picture: Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
The three high priests of non-violent resistance. Together they represent
(to a greater or lesser extent) the 20th Century's non-violent liberation
struggles (or should we say "negotiated settlements"?): Of
the colonised against coloniser, former slave against slave owner.
Today the elites
of the very societies and peoples in whose name the battles for freedom
were waged use them as mascots to entice new masters.
India, South Africa,
the United States.
Broken dreams, betrayal,
A quick snapshot
of the supposedly "Free World" today.
Last March in India,
in Gujarat Gandhi's Gujarat right-wing Hindu mobs murdered
2,000 Muslims in a chillingly efficient orgy of violence. Women were
gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim tombs and shrines were razed to
the ground. More than a hundred and fifty thousand Muslims have been
driven from their homes. The economic base of the community has been
destroyed. Eye-witness accounts and several fact-finding commissions
have accused the State Government and the police of collusion in the
violence. I was present at a meeting where a group of victims kept wailing,
"Please save us from the police! That's all we ask... "
In December 2002,
the same State Government was voted back to office. Narendra Modi, who
was widely accused of having orchestrated the riots, has embarked on
his second term as Chief Minister of Gujarat. On August 15, Independence
Day, he hoisted the Indian flag before thousands of cheering people.
In a gesture of menacing symbolism he wore the black Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS) cap which proclaims him as a member of the Hindu
nationalist guild that has not been shy of admiring Hitler and his methods.
One hundred and
thirty million Muslims not to mention the other minorities, Dalits,
Christians, Sikhs, Adivasis live in India under the shadow of
As his confidence
in his political future brims over, Narendra Modi, master of seizing
the political moment, invited Nelson Mandela to Gujarat to be the Chief
Guest at the celebration of Gandhi's birth anniversary on October 2.
Fortunately the invitation was turned down.
And what of Mandela's
South Africa? Otherwise known as the Small Miracle, the Rainbow Nation
of God? South Africans say that the only miracle they know of is how
quickly the rainbow has been privatised, sectioned off and auctioned
to the highest bidders. Within two years of taking office in 1994, the
African National Congress genuflected with hardly a caveat to the Market
God. In its rush to replace Argentina as neo-liberalism's poster boy,
it has instituted a massive programme of privatisation and structural
adjustment. The government's promise to re-distribute agricultural land
to 26 million landless people has remained in the realm of dark humour.
While 60 per cent of the population remains landless, almost all agricultural
land is owned by 60,000 white farmers. (Small wonder that George Bush
on his recent visit to South Africa referred to Thabo Mbeki as his "point
man" on the Zimbabwe issue.) Post-apartheid, the income of 40 per
cent of the poorest black families has diminished by about 20 per cent.
Two million have been evicted from their homes. Six hundred die of AIDS
every day. Forty per cent of the population is unemployed and that number
is rising sharply. The corporatisation of basic services has meant that
millions have been disconnected from water and electricity.
A fortnight ago,
I visited the home of Teresa Naidoo in Chatsworth, Durban. Her husband
had died the previous day of AIDS. She had no money for a coffin. She
and her two small children are HIV-positive. The Government disconnected
her water supply because she was unable to pay her water bills and her
rent arrears for her tiny council flat. The Government dismisses her
troubles and those of millions like her as a "culture of non-payment".
In what ought to
be an international scandal, this same government has officially asked
the judge in a U.S court case to rule against forcing companies to pay
reparations for the role they played during apartheid. It's reasoning
is that reparations in other words justice will discourage
foreign investment. So South Africa's poorest must pay apartheid's debts,
so that those who amassed profit by exploiting black people during apartheid
can profit even more from the goodwill generated by Nelson Mandela's
Rainbow Nation of God. President Thabo Mbeki is still called "comrade"
by his colleagues in government. In South Africa, Orwellian parody goes
under the genre of Real Life.
What's left to say
about Martin Luther King Jr.'s America? Perhaps it's worth asking a
simple question: Had he been alive today, would he have chosen to stay
warm in his undisputed place in the pantheon of Great Americans? Or
would he have stepped off his pedestal, shrugged off the empty hosannas
and walked out onto the streets to rally his people once more?
On April 4, 1967,
one year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at
the Riverside Church in New York City. That evening he said (I can only
paraphrase him because his public speeches are now private property)
that he could never again speak out against the violence of those living
in the ghettos without first speaking out against his own government,
which he called the greatest purveyor of violence in the modern world.
Has anything happened
in the 36 years between 1967 and 2003 that would have made him change
his mind? Or would he be doubly confirmed in his opinion after the overt
and covert wars and acts of mass killing that successive governments
of his country, both Republican and Democrat, have engaged in since
Let's not forget
that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't start out as a militant. He began
as a Persuader, a Believer. In 1964 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He
was held up by the media as an exemplary black leader, unlike, say,
the more militant Malcolm X. It was only three years later that Martin
Luther King Jr. publicly connected the U.S. government's racist war
in Vietnam with its racist policies at home. In 1967, in an uncompromising,
militant speech, he denounced the American invasion of Vietnam. He spoke
with heart-rending eloquence about the cruel irony of the TV images
of black and white boys burning the huts of a poor village in brutal
solidarity, killing and dying together for a nation that wouldn't even
seat them together at the same tables. His denunciation of the war in
Vietnam was treated as an act of perfidy. He was condemned by his former
allies and attacked viciously by the American press. The Washington
Post wrote, "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his
country and his people."
The New York Times
had some wonderful counter-logic to offer the growing anti-war sentiment
among black Americans: "In Vietnam," it said, "the Negro,
for the first time, has been given the chance to do his share of fighting
for his country."
It omitted to mention
Martin Luther King Jr.'s observation that there were twice as many blacks
as whites dying in Vietnam in proportion to their number in the population.
It omitted to mention that when the body bags came home, some of the
black soldiers were buried in segregated graveyards in the South.
What would Martin
Luther King Jr. say today about the fact that federal statistics show
that African Americans, who count for 12 per cent of America's population,
make up 21 per cent of the total armed forces and 29 per cent of the
Perhaps he would
take a positive view and look at this as affirmative action at its most
What would he say
about the fact that having fought so hard to win the right to vote,
today 1.4 million African Americans, which means 13 per cent of all
voting age black people, have been disenfranchised because of felony
But the most pertinent
question of all is: What would Martin Luther King Jr. say to those black
men and women who make up a fifth of America's armed forces and close
to a third of the U.S. army?
To black soldiers
fighting in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. said they ought to understand
America's role in Vietnam and consider the option of conscientious objection.
In April 1967 at
a massive anti-war demonstration in Manhattan, Stokely Carmichael described
the draft as "white people sending black people to make war on
yellow people in order to defend land they stole from red people."
Except of course the compulsory draft has become a poverty draft
a different kind of compulsion.
Would Martin Luther
King Jr. say today that the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan
are in any way morally different from the U.S. government's invasion
of Vietnam? Would he say that it was just and moral to participate in
these wars? Would he say that it was right for the U.S. government to
have supported a dictator like Saddam Hussein politically and financially
for years while he committed his worst excesses against Kurds, Iranians
and Iraqis in the 1980s, when he was an ally against Iran?
And that when that
dictator began to chafe at the bit, as Saddam Hussein did, would he
say it was right to go to war against Iraq, to fire several hundred
tonnes of depleted uranium into its fields, to degrade its water supply
systems, to institute a regime of economic sanctions that results in
the death of half a million children, to use United Nations weapons
inspectors to force it to disarm, to mislead the public about an arsenal
of weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in a matter of
minutes, and then, when the country was on its knees, to send in an
invading army to conquer it, occupy it, humiliate its people, take control
of its natural resources and infrastructure, and award contracts worth
hundreds of millions of dollars to American corporations like Bechtel?
When he spoke out
against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. drew some connections
that many these days shy away from making. He explicitly described the
interconnections between racism, economic exploitation and war. Would
he tell people today that it is right for the U.S. government to export
its cruelties its racism, its economic bullying and its war machine
to poorer countries?
Would he say that
black Americans must fight for their fair share of the American pie
and the bigger the pie, the better their share never mind the
terrible price that the people of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and
Latin America are paying for the American Way of Life? Would he support
the grafting of the Great American Dream onto his own dream, which was
a very different, very beautiful sort of dream? Or would he see that
as a desecration of his memory and everything that he stood for?
The black American
struggle for civil rights gave us some of the most magnificent political
fighters, thinkers, public speakers and writers of our times. Martin
Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, James Baldwin,
and of course the marvellous, magical, mythical Muhammad Ali.
Who has inherited
Could it be the
likes of Colin Powell? Condoleeza Rice? Michael Powell?
They're the exact
opposite of icons or role models. They appear to be the embodiment of
black peoples' dreams of material success, but in actual fact they represent
the Great Betrayal. They are the liveried doormen guarding the portals
of the glittering ballroom against the press and swirl of the darker
races. Their role and purpose is to be trotted out by the Bush administration
looking for brownie points in its racist wars and African safaris.
If these are black
America's new icons, then the old ones must be dispensed with because
they do not belong in the same pantheon. If these are black America's
new icons, then perhaps the haunting image that Mike Marqusee describes
in his beautiful book Redemption Song an old Muhammad Ali afflicted
with Parkinson's disease, advertising a retirement pension symbolises
what has happened to black Power, not just in the United States but
the world over.
If black America
genuinely wishes to pay homage to its real heroes, and to all those
unsung people who fought by their side if the world wishes to
pay homage, then it's time to march on Washington. Again. Keeping hope
alive for all of us.
This is the text for a 15-minute radio essay broadcast by Radio 4, BBC.
Arundhati Roy is
the author of The God of Small Things.