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When justice does not roll down like water

By Mumbi Risah | September 13th 2020 at 12:01:27 GMT +0300

The two-mule team wagon used to carry Dr King’s body to the burial site. [Mumbi Risah]

I Can’t Breathe ...Black Lives Matter... When these phrases hit the screens and trended on social media world-wide, I recalled another phrase...slogan if you like, very related to the two.

On the hot summer Sunday afternoon on June 30, 2019 accompanied by three family members, we visited Martin Luther King Jr National Historical Park located at 450 Auburn Avenue N E Atlanta, GA (Georgia). What a coincidence; the Lorraine Motel where King met his death is located in a similar address - 450, Mulberry Street, downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

The place was abuzz. Hundreds of people of all races went in and out, their phones in hand and many posed for photos against some of the many Civil Rights Movement events depicted on murals or photographs.

Our first stop was at the pool whose crystal clear blue water rolled down in a beautiful cascade. I bent to adjust my shoe when I heard: “Mum, look at what is written over there,” my daughter Dorothy nudged me with her elbow. And then I saw it. As the beautiful pool water cascaded downstream I read “...We Will Not Be Satisfied Until Justice Rolls Down Like Water And Righteousness Like a Mighty Stream.”

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These emotive words are part of the famous “I have a Dream” speech that King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on August 28,1963. That was the day of the Million Man March in Washington for jobs and freedom.

Adjacent to the pool is the enclosed eternal flame. Kenyans know about the flame that burns at the burial place of the founding father of the nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

The eternal flame at the Luther park reminds visitors and all Americans, black, coloured and whites that while Martin Luther King Jr may be physically gone, his flame, his spirit and the quest for justice lives on and is unstoppable. In front of the enclosure, a long line on the ground reads: “The Dream Lives, The Legacy Continues.”

The park hosts some of the most memorable moments in the Civil Rights Movement in America. They include the house where King was born on January 15, 1929.

Although the two-storey house has been given a deserved face lift, it remains as it was when King’s parents, Martin Luther King Sr and Alberta Williams bought it in 1926. The Kings lived in this house until 1941 when Martin Luther King Jr was 12 years old. We had to queue for several minutes to have a chance to have photos taken on the steps of the house.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptised and where he and his father were pastors, stands imposingly on the left to the entrance of the park.

The “I Have a Dream” International World Peace Rose Garden and a memorial tribute to Mohanda’s K Ghandi are part of the site as it is the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. The walk created in 2004 commemorates some of the brave pioneers who fought and risked their lives for social justice.

It consists of footstep impressions of those honoured, marked in granite and bronze. Among the footsteps are those belonging to Rosa Parks (1913-2002). This brave Black American woman was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her unprecedented act sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that went on for 11 months.

Other ‘walkers’ footsteps belong to President Lyndon Johnson (1905-1973) and President Jimmy Carter.

King was initially buried at the South-view cemetery in Atlanta, near the graves of his parents. When the King Centre was established in 1968 by his late wife Coretta Scott King, his body was buried next to the Ebenezer Baptist Church within the Martin Luther Historical Park.

In death, they lie next to each other. The epitaph on King’s grave stone reads: “Free At Last, Free At Last. Thank God I am Free At Last.” Coretta’s reads; “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love. These three, but the greatest of them is Love.” (1st Corinthians 13:13).

Many quotes from this great Black American icon hang on the walls of this national site. One that stood out to me so strong reads; “My wife had already fallen asleep…”

King’s funeral procession on April 9, 1968, is also one of the myriad memories in the park, as are his many quotes like; “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

In another section hang some of the segregation laws that the Civil Rights activists fought so strongly against. The laws were, to say the least, outright annoying, discriminatory and inhumane.

As we left this historical park, a sense of anger at what human beings can do to each other overwhelmed me. We left Atlanta and headed to Acworth, a city 33 miles away, where we were to have dinner in my daughter’s friend’s house.

My American Civil Rights Movement lessons at the University of Nairobi several years ago had been revisited right there. I was ‘walking’ the history that Prof Idha Salim taught us. In my “A” levels I studied the policy of assimilation adopted by the French in some of their colonies in West Africa. The French ensured the people they colonised learnt and spoke French. This was a way of maintaining tight control on their subjects.

In a similar manner, the American slave masters ensured that the slaves lost their native languages. In my humble submission, there can never be greater loss than this.

Even now, as Black Lives Matter movement and fire burns, I cannot help but (excuse my naivety) wonder how nobody ever thought of suing the American government for ‘stealing and killing’ black people’s languages. Someday, maybe.

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