The struggle for justice, civil rights, and human dignity, is a struggle that has permeated virtually every fiber of American life. And it is a dilemma and a challenge that has affected all people, regardless of color, creed, so-called race, or national origin. Even the wealthy, the privileged, and the influential, have not been immune from its influence, nor the exploiter entirely heedless of its call, for fear is a strong motivator and even an oppressor is in need of liberation from his evil deeds.
Despite the composition of noble documents, and the sterilization of historical accounts, America was founded, enriched and perpetuated on incredible acts of violence and cruelty. And although the country has made steps to right some wrongs and to purify itself of the blight of injustice and inequality, this was realized only through the efforts of those individuals that organized and agitated for change. Many suffered great persecution, and some payed the ultimate price of death in their quest to force America to put into practice those exalted ideals that it had written in its Constitution. Ideals it was supposed to stand for.
Sadly, with the advent of 9-11 and the draconian measures of conservative and counter-productive elements in our society, many of the gains in civil rights, (along with the cultivation of human rights and dignity) have been rolled back or obliterated.
Yet, we should take heart and encouragement from those noble souls that went before us and strove with every fiber of their being to break the chains, and cast off the fetters of insensitivity, barbarity, and gross ignorance.
Let us, (as time and space permits), turn our attention to a few of them.
”If there is no struggle, there is no progress”
Frederick Douglas was born in a slave cabin in 1818, near the town of Easton on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Separated from his mother when only a few weeks old, he was raised by his grandparents. At the age of six his grandmother took him to the plantation of his ”master” and left him there.
When he was eight, he was sent to Baltimore to live as a houseboy with Hugh and Sophia Auld, who were relatives of the slavemaster. Shortly afterward Sophia taught him the rudiments of reading despite stringent laws and customs that made it illegal to teach a slave how to read and write. Later, to further his literacy, he traded his food to white youths in the neighborhood in exchange for lessons.
In 1838, at the age of twenty, Douglas escaped from slavery and moved to New Bedford Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Anna Murray, began to raise a family. He soon become a valued lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a close colleague of the renowned abolitionist, William Loyd Garrison.
Frederick Douglas’s hatred of slavery, along with sharp intelligence, striking eloquence and charisma, led him into public speaking, and writing. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, wrote three autobiographies, and was a sought after speaker in America and Europe. 
Leonine in bearing, with his strong dignified presence and regal crown of hair, Douglas was one of the most courageous champions in the struggle for human dignity. He had a splendid analytical mind and a gift with words that few have ever attained.
On July 4, 1852, he was invited to speak at a Independence day commemoration. He addressed his audience thus:
”Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national alter, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?…
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy licence; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hyms, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocricy– a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the mon-archies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocricy, America reigns without a rival…”
Martin Luther King Jr
”It is unfortunate that, even at this late date, human beings cannot disagree, without becoming violently disagreeable”
– M L King Jr
A spiritual descendant of Frederick Douglas, he was born Michael Luther King on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. Shortly after his birth, he was referred to and christened as Martin.
Martin Luther King grew up in the south during a time of tremendous segregation and racism. The son of parents who were devout Christians and the recipient of generations of black religious traditions, King developed into a man with a burning desire to overcome injustice, and an admirable capacity to endure bigotry and violence without retaliating physically, but of seeking to overcome evil with superior moral power, and to wear down his enemies with priciples of universal love and affinity.
Although he revered and emulated the nonviolent resistance tactics of Mohandas Ghandi, King was not a pacifist, but believed that nonviolence in the face of the enormous reality and capacity of violence from whites in America, was more practical than retaliatory violence in which black people would, ultimately, be harmed the most. He also believed that history had always proved that violence, far from being the solution, only produced more intense hatreds and more profuse bloodshed. King often commented that a philosophy of an eye for an eye, would leave everyone blinded.
In 1963, civil rights leaders led a multitude of thousands on a dramatic sojourn to Washington DC to bring attention to the blighted economic and political plight of blacks in America. On a hot August afternoon, King approached the speaker’s podium, looked out at the sea of humanity and said:
”In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men- yes, black men as well as white men- would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ”insuficient funds”. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds, in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation.”
By the mid 1960’s, King began to publicly speak out against the war in Vietnam. He did this against the advise of many of his closest colleagues and friends who were concerned about losing support of powerful people in government. King explained to them that, as a man who could never accept segregation in American society, he should not be expected to allow his conscious and moral concerns to be segregated.
In the last years of his life, King organized what he called a poor people’s campaign and plans were made for a huge (perhaps millions of the poor and downtrodden), to march on Washington, to set up tent cities, and to refuse to vacant until the power structure effectively addressed the problems of poverty and discrimination in the nation.
In April, of 1968, King was invited to Memphis Tennesee to interceed on behalf of striking sanitation workers. He had raised the struggle above the limited arena of fighting the demons of segregation and anti-civil rights laws and ordinances, and had entered the battlegrounds of labor, international politics, and human rights. On the evening of April 4, 1968, at approximately 6 PM, Martin Luther King Jr, was killed by an assasin’s bullet, in what many believe to be a far reaching conspiracy.
”You’ll get your freedom by letting your enemy know that you’re do anything to get your freedom, then you’ll get it. ”
– Malicolm X
Malcolm X (El Hagg Malik Shabazz)
Born Malcolm Little, in Omaha Nebraska in 1925, the man who would become known as Malcolm X, lived a life marked by incredible highs and lows.
As a young man he hustled on the streets of Boston and New York where he was dubbed ”Big Red” and earned a reputation for savvy and street cunning.
Malcolm was involved in a litany of crime and vices, including drug peddling, bootlegging, numbers running, armed robbery, and burglary.
His criminal career was cut short in 1946, when he was arrested for burglary, convicted, and sent to Charlston Prison.
Impressed by the acumen and verbal proficiency of a fellow inmate, he embarked on a quest to educate himself in the prison library. He is later introduced to Islam by a younger brother, and studies the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad.
After Malcolm is released from prison, he joins the Nation of Islam and eventually becomes the National minister and Elijah Muhammad’s most eloquent spokesmen. Gifted with a razor-sharp intellect, an uncomprimising temperment, and a dignified demeanor, Malcolm traveled the country speaking and working tirelessly for the upliftment of Black people in America.
Although branded by the media as a racist and as an advocate of hatred and violence toward whites, Malcolm always denied this, maintaining that he did not indict whites because of their color, nor did he harbor any animosity for them individually, his charges against them were based on their collective deeds. He emphasized that he was not a lover of violence or bloodshed; but black people, who historically have been the victims of organized violence, i.e., burnings, lynchings, clubbings etc., were within their civil and (more importantly) their human rights to defend themselves. He argued, that he took issue at a society that indicts the victim of a lynch mob for struggling to defend himself, yet says nothing of the lynchers who are the instigators of organized vilence and mayhem.
In March 1964, malcolm broke away from the Nation of Islam, citing ideological and practical differences. He later makes the pilgrimage to Mecca and anounced that he was wrong to give blanket condemnations of white people, although he qualifies his statements and makes it clear that he will continue to organize and struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. Malcolm explained that the equality he sought didn’t neccesarily have anything to do being equal (or comparing one’s self to whites in the society). Equality meant having the barriers and crippling influences of racism, and economic injustice removed so that blacks could be free to fulfill their potential.
Often, when he was accused of teaching hate, he responded by saying that the most effective and vicious hate mongering is the kind that teaches an entire people to hate themselves, and thus, he utilized every opportunity to point out the great accomplishments of African people world wide.
Malcolm, like King, was a man who predicted that he would die young and violently. His premonition came true on February 21, 1965, when he was shot to death by several armed assailants.
”Everyday, they die in Vietnam for nothing. I might as well stay here for something. If going to war- and possibly dying- would help 22 million Negroes gain freedom, justice, and equality, would not have to be drafted, I’d join tomorrow.”
– Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, was a contemporary of Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Although universally recognized and lauded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, there are many enthralling facets in his life, apart from his stellar performance in the ring.
To be certain, a champion athlete must personify enormous qualities of strength, endurance, courage, perseverance, and skill; what differentiates Ali from others is that he exhibited these qualities in the social and political arenas as well as he did in the boxing ring.
Bursting on the world scene as a young, brash, olympic gold medalist at the start of the turbulent 60’s, his would become (within a decade) the most recognizable face on earth.
Unlike many black champions in the fickle (and often violent) atmosphere of American social mores and traditions, Ali did not bow and scrape, mumble platitudes, and follow patterns designated for him by deeply entrenched racial taboos. And if he followed a script, it was one of his own making.
Soon after winning the gold medal at the olymic games in Rome, Ali was invited to to hear Malcolm X speak at a local mosque. Therafter, he and Malcolm developed a close friendship, both admiring the fine qualities of the other.
There were many in America (both black and white) who dismissed Ali as a young upstart and braggart, who would be exposed as a charlatan as soon as he faced a quality professional opponent. Yet, they did not understand the spirit of Muhammad Ali, nor did they comprehend the social and historical
dynamics that shaped him.
With his handsome face, splendid physique, and biting wit, Ali infused the struggle for civil rights with power and vitality. And he used his fame as the heavyweight champion, to catapult him into the vanguard for the fight for human honor and dignity.
In many parts of the United States for most of its 227 year history, a black person was routinely punished for any behavior that was interpreted as ”uppity” or impertinent. Actions such as looking a white person in the eyes, voicing a opinion, or speaking out against injustice, often culminated in a
In the America of the 1960’s and 70’s, the ruling elite had established a myriad of institutions, agencies, and regulating forces to maintain the status quo and the system of white supremacy and class dominance. Blacks who were not afraid to exert their humanity, or to speak their minds were methodically jailed on trumped up charges, fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, ran out of the country, beaten, or murdered. In this social atmosphere and with this political backdrop, Ali’s voicerferousness was a revolutionary act, his ”conceit” and ”arrogance” were revolutionary weapons, and his posturizing and defiance, were courageous and insurrectionary assaults on the racist and oppressive American infrastructure.
When Muhammad Ali declared himself to be the greatest, the prettiest, etc., it was not merely the proclamations of a braggart reveling in the throes of narcissism, nor were they solely the exclamations of a shrewd self-promoter
with his eyes set on drumming up the gate. His words and manner (coming from the person of a black American removed from the fetters of chattel slavery by a scant 100 years) were also political and seditious; for by his words and by his presence, he was assailing the traditional racist ideas that had described blacks as incompetent, as subsevient, as slow witted, as ugly and undesirable, and he was proving that they were malicious lies. And when Ali showed that he was wiling to give up the World Heavyweight Championship, (the most prized title in sports) millions of dollars, and to risk imprisonment and death in defense of his principles, he gained the respect and the admiration of the world. Not just for being a boxing champion, but for being a champion of that which is right.
. Accessible online at http://www.frederickdouglas.org/douglas_bio.html
. Howard Zinn ”A people’s History of the United States” HarporCollins Publishers, New York, NY (2003) p.p. 182, 183
. Excerpted from Martin Luther King’s ”I Have a Dream”, delivered in Washington DC, August 28, 1963