Monday, January 15, 2007

Chilembwe Day and King's Holiday

Today millions of people will recognize a leader who stood against white supremacy in the face of unremitting odds. They will remember a religious man, a reverend, who challenged white authorities and promoted justice and equality in the face of brutality. They will honor his past and reflect on his legacy.

I am referring, of course, to Reverend John Chilembwe. In 1915 Chilembwe led an uprising, against the white colonial powers and their racist regime in what was then known as Nyasaland and what we now call Malawi. In Malawi, January 15th is celebrated as Chilembwe Day.

In the United States, of course, we reflect similarly on Martin Luther King, Jr. King was clearly one of the great men of the 20th Century. He gave his life for racial justice. But on this day let's keep in mind that King is best celebrated as an embodiment of a struggle for justice in which millions shared a role. It is too easy to conflate King's role in the movement with a misconception of King as the Movement. King accomplished many great things in his too brief life. But he did not do so alone, and much happened in the Civil Rights Movement without King's imprimatur, without his active involvement, and under the guidance of common folks whose desire for equality was every bit as strong as Dr. King's. These words are not intended to deflate King's legacy, but rather to remind us all that the contours of history are not shaped merely by great men but rather by the work of thousands who too often fade into shadows cast by giant figures.

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