In the face of Trump administration efforts to roll back or repeal U.S. legislation and government actions to reduce economic inequality, further civil rights and protect the environment, the words and courageous life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have taken on added weight and importance. Here in Kansas City, this January’s King holiday celebrations of his life and message have been especially well attended. The public gatherings also served this year as an opportunity to call on people to resume the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. King the year of his assassination fifty years ago.
That Poor People’s Campaign mobilized people of many races against the scourges of racism, militarism and materialism and marked King’s expansion of his organizing from the civil rights of African Americans to the human rights of oppressed people world wide. The civil rights leader had long been inspired by the progress of persons overseas in claiming their rights, having early in his ministry made the connection between the struggle of U.S. blacks and those in Africa in opposing colonial rule.
Soon after the 1957 integration of public transportation in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King attended the festivities celebrating the independence of Ghana in West Africa. Ghana was the first English speaking African nation to achieve independence from European colonial rule and Dr. King drew inspiration and strength from this historic advance. One month after Ghana’s Independence Day, on April 7, 1957, he preached at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery on the new nation’s, and our own, march toward freedom and liberation.
“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.”
Dr. King briefly summarizes in the sermon the five hundred years of slave trading and colonial rule by Britain and the European powers across the continent of Africa. He then describes the struggle of the new nation’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and the Ghanaian people against colonial rule. Ghana’s opposition to colonial rule and its similarity to the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the U.S. made a deep impact on Martin Luther King. He shared his reaction with his congregation:
“When Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, ‘We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,’ all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.”
“After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:
Free at last! Free at last!
Great God Almighty, I’m free at last! ..……”
When Dr. King wrote his last book in 1967 that experience was still fresh in his mind. In the book’s final chapter, which he titled “The World House”, he wrote, “What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…..All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands……For several centuries the direction of history flowed from the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in ‘conquests’ of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism is at an end.”
Like no one else, King knew that there were many people in the U.S. who are unaware of or who are opposed to the “freedom explosion” he celebrated in Ghana in 1957. In words as relevant today as when he wrote them in 1967, he declares, “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.”
The leaders of the current administration in power in the U.S. not only goad and abuse people of color worldwide; they are trying to turn back the clock on the “freedom explosion”. Like Rip Van Winkles they have slept through “the widest liberation movement in history”. They may never wake up but we, in opposing, resisting and helping set a different course for our nation, we join the “great masses of people (who) are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands”. And as Dr. King, our scriptures and world history continue to remind us, “the freedom explosion” ultimately will prevail.
Note: “The World House” chapter concludes Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr., first published in 1968