The Long March to Freedom

Robben Island, South Africa

Alabama and South Africa, like Dr. King and Nelson Mandela, share the hard fought victories of the struggle for freedom

by Trevor C. Hale

Robben Island, South Africa—The jail cell is 6’x9’. Barely enough room to lie down. The steel bars on the door and window were rigid and cold.

Prisoner number 46664 spent 18 years in this tiny cell, about 7 miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

Along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., number 46664 is one of the greatest champions of freedom and forgiveness the world has ever known.

Standing in front of the cell that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned is of course a reminder of Dr. King and Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement.

The steel bars on a 6’x9’ cell

Alabama and South Africa, like Dr. King and Mandela, share the hard fought victories of the struggle for freedom. While here, I’m trying to educate myself about South Africa and find meaningful comparisons.  .

Mandela, or “Madiba,” his Xhosa clan name, as he is affectionately known, fought to establish the rights and citizenship of Africans.  Dr. King fought to enforce the rights which were supposed to be ingrained in our Constitution.

Dr. King also spent many nights in jail.  One of the seminal works of the civil right movement, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was written to church leaders in Birmingham who were critical of marches and sit ins. Like the “I Have A Dream Speech,” it’s an incredible read.

This is where we see his quote from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”  It’s carved on the fountain of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, a few blocks from Dexter Baptist Church where he preached.

Nearly 30 years after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela won his, shared with F. W. de Klerk, the white president of the National Party and frenemy who granted him his freedom.

Serving with pride striving for peace

At the ceremony, Mandela said, “Let the stirrings of us all prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.”

Apartheid, which means “apart-ness” or “segregated,” was instituted in South Africa by the National Party from 1948 and 1994, whereby the rights of the majority ‘non-white’ inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule by white people.  Segregation had been in practice, if not law, from the time Europeans “discovered” Cape Town in the 1600s, while on trade routes to India.

Mandela fought against apartheid as leader of an armed resistance called MK or “spear of the nation,” and was later arrested and sentenced for treason and communist conspiracy for opposing the ruling government.

In 1954, six years after the beginning of apartheid, the US Supreme Court overruled segregation. It was the same time Dr. King started preaching in Montgomery and led the bus boycott.

In April, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Mandela was serving the third year of his life sentence. Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island prison on February 11, 1990. Four years later, with the support of the African National Party, he was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

He turns 93 next month.

The municipal elections are happening this week in South Africa and there is pre-election vitriol between the African National Congress (ANC), which is Mandela’s party, mostly represented by blacks, and the Democratic Alliance, mostly represented by whites.  In the last few elections, more South Africans are voting on issues and people, rather than race. Many editorials this week say the results from this election may show results that are truly post-apartheid.

If you asked a South African about the state of race relations today, using the same charming greeting folk from all backgrounds here use, “Howzit?” They would reply that, like Birmingham, things are much better, but there is still work to do.

The greatest strength of Mandela, Dr. King and Gandhi was their ability to forgive their enemies for the good of their countries.

“You can’t build a nation on the basis of revenge,” said Mandela.

The base of the rugged Devil’s Peak forms the valley where Cape Town sits by the coast. Like the topic of race, it looms heavy over the city. Some days shrouded in fog. Other days it beams proudly in the African sun. It has a direct view to Robben Island, just out of reach, over waters sometimes troubled and sometimes still. •

Trevor C. Hale, a Cullman native, lives and works in Shanghai and can be reached at [email protected]

One Response to “The Long March to Freedom”

  1. “It’s carved on the fountain of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, a few blocks from Dexter Baptist Church where he preached.”

    Actually, the SPLC is literally in the back yard of Dr. King’s home church; only a parking lot separates the two buildings.

    This makes the fact that the SPLC has never hired a person of color to a highly paid executive position of power in its entire 40 year history all the more disgusting.

    SPLC founder Morris Dees writes in his 1991 autobiography, “A Season for Justice,” that he only offered famed civil rights leader Julian Bond the “largely honorary position” of president of the SPLC so that he could use Bond’s name on fund-raising letters.

    Bond had no more influence on the organization as honorary president as he does now as an honorary Board member. It was a simple case of paid celebrity endorsement. Nothing more.

    Dees has hired a few token blacks for low-level middle management positions, but they also have no influence over organizational matters and they never turn up in the SPLC’s annual disclosure of top executive salaries. The technical term is “brownwashing.”

    Apartheid may be a fading memory in South Africa, but the last “Whites Only” sign in Montgomery still hangs in the executive suite of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    Some “experts”

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