MLK and Mandela: Two Men, Two Countries, One Goal

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/22/2014, 2 p.m.
Although civil and human rights icons Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. never met, there are a ...
Courtesy photo

King rose to prominence when as a 26-year-old he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The 381-day boycott began when seamstress Rosa Parks defied a bus driver’s demand that she move to the back of the bus so that whites could sit in the forward section of the vehicle. Blacks in Montgomery coalesced around the effort to fight back the best way they knew.

According to Stanford University’s Encyclopedia, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle,” the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) coordinated the boycott, and King, its new president, became a prominent civil rights leader as a result of the international attention focused on Montgomery.

In time, said King associate Julian Bond, the Civil Rights movement evolved from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement. And like all good movements, its leaders and members continued to agitate, sustain morale, foster fellowship and develop tactics.

“Movements must also have catalytic leadership “who join the adventure without a foreseeable end,” and also must have a strategy, plan and tactics to confront its oppressors,” he told an audience at Gallaudet University last year. “You have to hope and expect the movement to succeed and for it to effect change and provide relief from the injustices a group faces,” he said.

Similarly, at the age of 25, Mandela joined the African National Congress Youth League and was intimately involved in leading his people to stand up to the National Party and its aggression against its opponents. He became the leader and public face of the anti-apartheid struggle against the brutal tactics of the racist government. He rose to prominence in 1952 during what became known as the Defiance Campaign. Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers' strike and was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders led black South Africans into a series of popular protests and uprisings against the violence, oppression, bannings, and imprisonment of anyone opposed to the white minority government.

In 1963, South African authorities sentenced Mandela and 10 other ANC leaders to life in prison for alleged political offenses, including treason. Mandela walked out of prison a free man when he was 72 years old. Elected president in 1994, Mandela served one term before stepping down.

Although the Free South Africa Movement in the United States didn’t gain traction until the 1980s, King advocated sanctions against South Africa in 1964.

“If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil; if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny, then apartheid would be brought to an end,” King said. “Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”

Unfortunately, one King and Mandela admirer said, King wasn’t allowed to participate in the America’s reconstruction and reconciliation.

“Both experienced a type of death and they were symbols that people rallied around,” said St. Mary’s County resident James Fleming. “Mandela served and actually directed reconstruction. It speaks a little of how brutal our society is, one that settles things with a gun. Dr. King was not able to take part in the rebuilding of America. But I don’t know if he would have been able to direct that from a pulpit. He would likely have to have been a politician.”

The powers-that-be in the America could not abide King crossing the boundary from human rights to begin focusing on economic and class issues, said Fleming, a 50-year-old federal government employee.

“From the time King started to deal with issues that went beyond Civil Rights and core Civil Rights activities which ran across class, race and the Vietnam War, that spelled trouble,” he said.