On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of every January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It became the first federal holiday honoring an African American and it commemorates MLK’s achievements during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
For us at The City of Peace Initiative Lagos, it is a day when we specifically celebrate the legacy of peace and nonviolence. We are well aware of the society in which we live and we are cognisant of the fact that the concept may appear alien given the current Nigerian political climate, but the merits of a the Kingian philosophy cannot be overstated. The message is clear: ensure there is justice for the disenfranchised, protect those targeted by hate, defend the freedom to vote, and demand that our leaders fight societal ills fearlessly and wholeheartedly.
Racism is a concept that does not directly affect us as Nigerians living in Nigeria, but it is one point Martin Luther King was vocal about. In our society today, we have a similar evil taking various shapes as tribalism, ethnic bigotry, religious intelorance and targeted malice based on gender, social class and/or economic background.
As the 2023 elections approach, the common denominator around the country is fear. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of election malpractice, which may result in protests. Fear of protests, which may or may not be hijacked by hoodlums. Fear of lockdowns and curfews and states of emergency which may ensue from that. For the longest time, election violence has been the bane of every political exercise in the country, from the federal level down to the grassroots— and has become something we are accustomed to, something we have even come to expect.
The violence is often as a result of disatisfied citizens reacting to oppression. And this is true even for those who allow themselves to be used as vehicles of destruction by the political class. But violence is never the answer. In the words of Nietzsche— Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”
We must embrace the idea of collective action outside our formal institutions or procedures of government, avoiding systematic or deliberate use of violence or armed force to achieve our political or social objectives.
Martin Luther King is a figure with a National holiday (in the US) celebrated only once a year, but I am of the opinion that we don’t have to wait until the third Monday in January to celebrate such an important legacy. Dr. King would have celebrated 93 years on earth today. He means more than the Selma walk. He means more than the ‘I have a dream’ speech. He means more than all the popular quotable quotes that litter the internet.
His legacy is one that speaks to the inequalities and injustices in our Democracy, and his work is relevant even to us non-Americans in continental Africa if we are to transform the hate of traditional revolutions into positive nonviolent power.
Today, as we celebrate MLK day, let us remember that.