Tuesday, June 18

Unrecognizable! As mourners filed past Emmett Till’s coffin in harsh daylight from a window. The 14-year-old boy’s face was battered. He had left Chicago to spend the summer of 1955 in Mississippi with his great-uncle Moses Wright. Weeks later, he gazed lifeless from the open coffin. Outside the funeral home, his mother is paralyzed in agony. But her decision to display his mutilated corpse publicly rocketed Emmett to martyrdom. The teen’s abduction and lynching by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman electrified America. This was the moment the fire of civil rights ceased flickering and erupted into wildfires.

The American Civil Rights era was violent. America’s entrenched systemic racism at the time spurred many white Americans, especially in the South, to be hostile towards the Negro. At the time, it was either Negro or Coloured to refer to black people of African descent. Racist Americans preferred the racial slur nigger, which meant black in Latin. Negro is black in Portuguese and Spanish but not derogatory. By the early 1990s, African Americans began to replace all other references to black people of African descent.

The Spark

The nonviolent American Civil Rights Movement ignited in 1954 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her defiance sparked a firebrand crusade to dismantle racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Led by visionaries like John Lewis, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., the movement channeled centuries of Black resistance against oppression.

Mass protests, boycotts and legal battles targeted Jim Crow discrimination. These efforts powered landmark legislation — the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act — ultimately banning segregation in public facilities and protecting voting rights. The movement stirred a nation’s conscience and inspired ongoing racial justice struggles.

Jim Crow

As racism engrained itself into laws, the Jim Crow system emerged to deny African Americans fundamental rights. The racist term “Jim Crow” originated in the 1830s from a white minstrel performer who painted his face black. Blackface characters play on offensive stereotypes of lazy, ignorant African Americans in song and dance. Later, it lends its name to the system of discrimination.

Jim Crow is a system of discrimination against blacks from the 1880s to 1960s across the South. State and local statutes mandated racial segregation and inferior facilities in education, transportation, restaurants, voting and public life while denying blacks economic and the right to vote. Though the 1896 “separate but equal” ruling sanctioned segregation, in truth, black facilities were never equivalent, a deliberate tactic reinforcing inequality. Dismantling segregation was no small feat against such a deeply entrenched system.

Challenges

The civil rights movement faced formidable challenges. In the South, where Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation and inequality until the mid-20th century, this was commonplace. These state and local statutes marginalized African Americans. The Supreme Court upheld these laws under the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

The Civil Rights Movement galvanized mass support to challenge Jim Crow through nonviolent resistance. Boycotts, sit-ins, protest marches, and lawsuits targeted racial segregation. Meanwhile, diverse allies – churches, labour unions, students, women and celebrities – coalesced around demands for equality and justice. The movement’s inspirational use of civil disobedience fueled parallel global struggles against apartheid in South Africa and colonial rule in Africa and Asia. Just as the civil rights movement brought change despite adversity, several parallels and lessons can inform Africa’s fights against systemic inequality.

Tiger’s Roar

Lessons For Africa

What can Africans learn from the American Civil Rights Movement in the fight against Jim Crow laws?

The main lesson is that Africans should resist and challenge the corrupt and oppressive systems that plague our countries. Corruption is a significant problem in sub-Saharan Africa, where it costs the continent billions of dollars each year and undermines the well-being of the people. Corruption erodes the trust and confidence we have in our governments and institutions. Corruption is often enabled and perpetuated by weak governance, poor accountability, and lack of transparency and participation. We can adopt consistent peaceful protests, advocacy campaigns, legal actions, media investigations, and civic education to combat corruption.

Secondly, Africans can learn that we have the power to demand and fight for our rights and dignity from our leaders.

Lastly, we can also learn to build alliances with other stakeholders who share our vision, such as civil society organizations, religious leaders, journalists, academics, and international partners. We must demand our leaders to act right; the idiocy is too much.

Freedom is NOT free.

Liberties come at a cost. During the Civil Rights Era, these were a fraction of the challenges African Americans faced:

MOB VIOLENCE

Mob violence was another form of violence. It involved groups of white people attacking, beating, and killing Black people and civil rights activists, often with the support or indifference of the local authorities. In Little Rock Nine in Arkansas in 1957, the sit-ins in Greensboro in 1960, the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, and the Meredith March in Mississippi in 1966.

BOMBINGS

Bombings terrorized Black churches, homes, schools and businesses. One of the most vicious attacks hit Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 — killing four young Black girls and injuring 22 others. This church anchored civil rights organizing, hosting Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders.

Ku Klux Klan detonated the bomb, resisting integration through violence. The Klan is a white supremacist group formed in 1865 that employs violence, threats, and terror tactics such as arson, beatings, destruction of property, lynching, murder, and rape.

POLICE BRUTALITY

The attack on the Freedom Riders in Alabama in 1961, the use of fire hoses and dogs on peaceful protesters in Birmingham in 1963, the Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1965, and the Chicago police riot in 1968.

For many who remember the Civil Rights Movement and its leader, Americans widely hated it. In the 1960s, many white Americans supported segregation and opposed civil rights. A Gallup poll from 1966 showed that 66% of Americans had an unfavourable view of MLK. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2023, 81% of Americans say Martin Luther King Jr. has positively impacted the country.

The Lekki Massacre – An African Civil Rights Saga

In October 2020, the Lekki Massacre marked a flashpoint in Africa’s civil rights struggle targeting state corruption and brutality. That night, Nigerian security forces opened fire on peaceful #EndSARS anti-police violence protesters at Lagos’ Lekki toll gate, killing and injuring demonstrators demanding reforms. The bloodshed ignited global outrage and exposed Nigeria’s stark rights violations and a lack of accountability.

The Reckoning

The civil rights movement marched, bled and sacrificed for the dream of justice and dignity for all. The American Civil Rights Movement teaches us that no one WILL give us our rights and freedoms. We have to fight for them. Africans must wrestle for the right to live in dignity, prosperity, and peace from the corrupt elite and oppressive forces that threaten us. Be part of the solution and the revolution in Africa today, and follow the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, the history books will say we fought for our children to live in an Africa that promotes freedom and justice. They will say our fathers were not cowards.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Citizens must boldly demand accountability.

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