THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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By Mohammed Adamu
Four hundred years ago all that they could do as slaves in the Americas -agonizing under the yoke of captivity and drudgery- was to fearsomely hum nostalgic songs and lamentable ditties as they toiled and moiled on the plains and prairies of a white slave-master-America. The slave-master was reputedly brutally punitive. Some were not averse to publicly ‘staking’ errant chattels to teach others a lesson. Others may have even invited fellow white slave-owners to witness and to cheer the barbequing on stake, of an unruly slave or an innocent hunky one whose only offence was that the slave-master’s daughter or wife seemed to irresistibly lust after. And so all that Negros in those days could do to keep hope alive was hum some metaphorical songs usually evocative of the biblio-Jewish lament about the ‘Rivers of Babylon’, by which as captives in tribulation, they found solace, weeping and wailing as they remembered their long lost Zion, back in Africa.
But things did change no matter how grindingly slow. Because from only fearfully humming lamentable ditties, in time American slaves had also grown a little more confident; so that they could now openly –if defiantly- sing freedom songs importuning help from the gods to come get them out of their own Egypt. And in fact to their credit was a collection of timeless, somewhat even classic, freedom-numbers referred to as the ‘Underground Railroad songs’ –of which a few stood out like: ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’, ‘Wade in the Water’ and ‘Steal Away’ which were said to be coded guide-melodies for giving escape clues about routes especially to run-away or intending run-away slaves seeking path to a free Canada, then. It was the much that they could do: sing to lament captivity while fantasizing about freedom, or lament the drudgery of life as they poeticized about escape routes.
Yet slaves, even then, dared not rampage to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’. You needed first to own ‘yourself’ and your ‘time’ to afford to put them to use your own way. To go off the drudgery of building America and to assemble as slaves singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ would’ve been the worst case scenario of sedition and treason to be known to the statute books of a barbaric America. It would be tantamount to acting ‘free’ and ‘self-owning’ while being a chattel. How much worse then, for slaves in those days to dare (in addition to singing ‘We Shall Overcome’) to also go ‘swinging’ like blacks now have the privilege of doing in protest over the killing of one of them. Things are really changing in white-America –even if imperceptivity so.
By the way, it was still Uhuru for the Negroes as the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln, in the thick of the American Civil war, in 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery and freeing all slaves from their white owners. And although the South, unlike the North, was not willing to give up its slave-owning ‘right’ (a major factor that formed part of the reason for the war), all the same Lincoln, by the dint more of providence than of grit, was victorious. And this victory for the Negroes, was especially against the backdrop that although Lincoln set out to achieve two things, namely save his white country from dismemberment and also free her ‘from the great crime of slavery’, nonetheless he was prepared, if it proved impossible to accomplish both missions all at once, to save the ‘Union’ and to preserve the crime of slavery.
Yet Lincoln’s victory was pyrrhic. Because soon, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor with a representative grudge on behalf of a Southern Confederate army that had just surrendered, would shoot and kill the President at a Theatre in Washington DC where he had gone to witness the premier of a film. Booth was said to have shouted, as he made his escape, “The South is avenged”. Alas, the assassin together with three other conspirators missed the Vice President and the Secretary of State –as planned- and thus failed to achieve their goal of leaving a constitutional succession crises strong enough to through a spanner in the imminent victory which the Lincoln Federal army was about to have over the Southern Confederates.
Fast forward to 28 August 1963, the historic date of the peaceful ‘March On Washington’ -about a hundred years since Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Negroes long freed from the shackles of slavery were still bondaged by the manacles of racism and the denial of freedom and civil rights; -including the right to work to eke a decent living. Over 200,000 blacks from all over America led by a Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gathered in Washington to press home demand on the JF Kennedy administration for a civil right bill and at which Dr. King delivered his famous moving speech, ‘I Have A Dream’. And so, although it was still not “Free At Last” as Dr. King had foreseen in his ‘Dream’, at least the Negro slave of the plantation who once could only hum or sing ditties of freedom with Mosaic undertones, at least now owned himself and could organize to assemble –including now in Washington, where he had the constitutional right to press home civil rights demands and to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’.
And although the ‘March On Washington’ paid off with President JF Kennedy initiating a Civil Rights Bill in Congress, Martin Luther King himself would still thereafter pay the supreme sacrifice for daring to improve the lot of his fellow blacks. He would be killed by a white fugitive James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee –even though his family believed some other shadowy force sponsored by America’s racist secret service did it. And which would Prove that although the fiery violence-preaching Malcolm X may have come well ahead of his time (because he wanted ‘swinging’ even before it was time for ‘swinging’), yet, like Malcolm X, even Martin Luther King who preached non-violence, ironically was not spared by a violently racist white America.
Now fast forward again to June 5, 1968. Robert F Kennedy, younger brother to JF Kennedy was virtually prescient about racial violence in the United States, when, in 1968 while he was campaigning in Indianapolis for the Democratic nomination, Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated just when Robert Kennedy was about to address a black audience. He had received the news at the venue and was warned by the police that it might be suicidal to proceed with the address especially because he would be breaking the news to the black audience. Language maven and Journalist William Safire, in a preface to Robert Kennedy’s speech that day, said it was “with a shield of personal courage and (the) memory of the loss of his own brother (JF Kennedy) to an assassin’s bullet also, (that Robert) went (ahead) and broke the news to the crowd”.
And although he was able to condole and calm the restive nerves of his black audience, yet Robert did not save it the unpleasant truth that given the America that he knew, even the assassination of Martin Luther King would not be “the end of violence”. Said he: “We’ve had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder”.
Ironically Robert Kennedy himself, three months after the assassination of King, would be gunned down in California, this time by a Christian Jordanian of Palestinian descent, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan who was angered by Robert’s open support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. And although in the killing of Robert Kennedy by an Arab with a Middle-Eastern political grudge there is hardly any racial significance of the nature of black-targeted-white-violence, yet the irony of it again is that this same Robert Kennedy when he was Attorney General, AG, did in fact remotely have a hand in the assassination of Martin Luther King -because he it was who approved the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI’s wiretapping of Dr. King, setting the institutional process that led to the latter’s Assassination.
To be continued…