Black lives matter; every life matters — Emmanuel Ojeifo

By Ikenga Chronicles July 14, 2016

Black lives matter; every life matters — Emmanuel Ojeifo

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”– Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963).

On August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Baptist minister and foremost American civil rights activist, stood before thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and proclaimed his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He dreamed that one-day hypocrisy will end in America; that the jarring contradiction between the lofty ideals of a land of freedom, equality and justice enunciated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the daily lived battered experiences of black Americans will come to an end.

To the wild applause of his compatriots, the 34-year-old Rev. King Jr. rolled out his dream with oratorical prowess, mixed with a surge of emotion: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

When Rev. King Jr. proclaimed those words, he was reaching back to the foundations of America’s highest ideal, etched across the magnificent opening pages of the Declaration of Independence, which says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It was not for nothing that Rev. King Jr. decided to hold that historic march at the Lincoln Memorial, under the imposing shadow of President Abraham Lincoln’s statue. Exactly a century earlier, on January 1, 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave freedom to “all persons held as slaves.”

Sadly, when Rev. King Jr. spoke on that fateful day he regretted that America has failed to honour neither the Declaration of Independence (1776) nor the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Black people were still not free in the land of freedom. He, therefore, demanded that the nation should honour the promissory note that the architects of the republic framed into the Independence Declaration, the promise of equality, freedom, justice and rights for all Americans, irrespective of age, gender, race, colour or religion.

240 years after the Declaration of Independence, over 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and over 50 years after Rev. King Jr.’s Washington march “I Have a Dream” speech, a milestone in American civil rights movement, it appears as if nothing ever happened. Black people in America still remain victims of unspeakable horrors of injustice, oppression, discrimination and human degradation.

Black people in America are still being judged today by the colour of their skin. On account of skin colour, blacks in America have become cheap targets of police brutality and easy murder. Very often they don’t get justice. In the aftermath of the recent tragic shootings of two black Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota respectively by white policemen, I imagine that Rev. King Jr. would be recoiling in horror in his grave.

The year 2018 will mark 50 years after he was assassinated on account of his dogged struggle for black emancipation in America, yet with current happenings it would appear that a man like him never lived. So it is with Malcolm X, the African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was assassinated in 1965. Both Martin and Malcolm X were under 40 when they were shot dead. But after five decades since their deaths, America still remains trapped in the throes of racial discrimination. The country that prides itself as the mother of freedom, diversity and pluralism in the world seems not to have moved a bit in its perception of black skin colour and all that blackness represents.

A recent study by The Guardian (UK) revealsthat young black Americans are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by white policemen. Despite making only two per cent of the total U.S. population, African-American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of the total deaths logged in 2015 by ongoing investigations in the use of deadly police force. This epidemic disproportionately affecting black people just shows how much the American society is willing to waste the lives of promising young people. In this light, the outpouring of hash-tags calling America to recognise that Black Lives Matter matters. Black lives really matter; and so does all life. All human beings are created in the image of God. We have one God and Father; we are one family.

In 1985, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote the song and charity single “We are the World,” which was recorded by the supergroup United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa and produced by Quincy Jones. On the morning of April 5, 1985 (Good Friday of that year), at 10:25am, over 8000 radio stations simultaneously broadcast the song around the world, showing support for the relief of famine in Ethiopia.

If that song went on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide, raking in millions of dollars and winning numerous honours – including three Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, and a People’s Choice Award – it was because of the profound and deep truth it embodied: “There comes a time when we heed a certain call, when the world must come together as one. There are people dying, and it’s time to lend a hand to life, the greatest gift of all. We can’t go on pretending day by day that someone somehow will soon make a change. We are a part of God’s great big family, and the truth you know: love is all we need.”

In the 21st century, with all our passionate talk about human rights and justice in the world, no one should lose his or her life on account of the colour of their skin. While championing the cause of black emancipation, we must not forget that we need to stand up for all human beings of whatever race, colour, gender or religion, who suffer discrimination and oppression on account of accidental human distinctions.

At some point, we’d have to throw all labels and categories from black and white to Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist into the trashcan of history and stand up for every human being. We’d have to end this “you” vs. “us” mentality and find a common ground for pushing the frontiers of humanitarian causes that benefit all members of the human family, wherever they live, whatever faith they hold and whatever skin colour they carry. If this works, it will be the triumph of common sense and the triumph of humanity since the time Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As Rev. King Jr. taught in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.