I wish to commemorate Martin Luther King Day by some background that relates to all nations and their oppressed minorities, and then relating a few personal stories.
Martin Luther King (MLK) was supported by a wide spectrum of Americans: Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, and others, both the religious and non-religious. This was due to his ability to present a genuine sense of unity, in the midst of white/ black enmity and resentment that often defined social society in the 1950s-1960s. Martin Luther King emerged as an unexpected peaceful presence amidst the confrontational environment of the white Southern racists and their state governors who resisted the congressional mandates for integration of the Negro into the white world – buses (Negroes had to ride in the back), schools, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, indeed, neighborhoods and cities were segregated prior to the Martin Luther King era.
Prejudice has many faces. Hindus against Pakistanis, Arabs against the Pashtuns of Pakistan that come to work in oppressive production in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among others, illustrate prejudices are omnipresent. Many in Pakistan tell me that some of the “racial” tensions there emanate from the well-off Punjabi Muslim against the ethnic Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhis. Whether this is true, it is certainly debatable. The Pakistani armed forces are primarily Punjabi. It is rare to find Balochi or Sindhi serving in the Pakistani military, but it is common to find a few loyalist Pashtuns from KP serving in the majority Punjabi Pakistan Army. Perhaps Pakistan has many faces.
Historically, it is instructive to take a moment on Martin Luther King day to explore briefly the subtle prejudices that surround ethnic minorities and religious intolerance in Pakistan and abroad. Baloch, Pashtuns, and Sindhis have coexisted with each other for centuries. But, the Punjabi military have allowed Taliban to oppress the largely Pashtun minorities, and Shia, among other minorities. Foreign Arabs, prejudiced against anyone but “Arabs,” from Jihadist action across the globe are returning with inspirational Jihadist stories to recruit for ISIS even now, as they did a decade ago as al-Qaeda. The TTP funded by ISI to terrorize the internal affairs of Afghanistan and India by supporting Takfiri Deobandi terrorists still utilized in the Deep State as evident from Mumbai to the Peshawar murders of 135 children and their teachers. The new Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif has vowed to return to campaigns against the Taliban. Certainly, there is no prejudice evident in this, no Punjabis versus Pashtun, as this is a fight for control over the country of many ethnic groups, but differences in traditional Islam and Wahhabi/Salafist version of Islam.
Prejudice is too weak a word for the evil General Zia-ul-Haq in the years of 1977-1988. Zia was extremely fanatical in his prejudicial views against ethnic and religious beliefs against Shi’ites, especially hated Pashtun Shi’ites- particularly in those times, the Turi. He feared correctly that the Turis were the real hinderance in radical Sunni influence in the then NWFP and FATA regions and counter to the goals of the Afghan Jihad.
In past years the Pakistani military once cut off the Shia anti-Taliban Turi tribe from any remaining support by blockade. This was due to the Turis consistent refusal to allow the militants to enter Afghanistan via Kurram. The Taliban had been trying to launch operations around Kabul through the district. The blockade meant that the Turis were hemmed in by the military on one side and by the Taliban on the other. At the time, Col Tausif Akhtar, of the Pakistani security forces, cast this as “sectarian clashes” in Kurram. A typical obfuscation. Characterizing the conflict as a sectarian fight, as some still try to do, instead of the truth- Taliban incursion over the Turis – allowed the Pakistani military and ISI the needed cover to side with the Taliba, thus protecting its Strategic Depth program still in use today.
During celebrations of MLK, it isn’t irrelevant to consider past and global conflicts spurred by religious and ethnic differences in Pakistan that remain today, even as it did in different forms in India in MLK’s day.
The Afghan Taliban and subsequent Talibanization of Pakistani Sunni Pashtuns was another major factor in Shi’ite verses radical Sunni tensions in the region. Unlike Punjab, or Sindh or other areas of Pakistan, the situation in then, NWFP and FATA was, and is different. But, unlike Punjab and Sindh where Shi’ites are often considered second class Pakistanis and hated Shi’ites in Waziristan, KP and FATA where the Shia are more powerful than the radicalized Sunnis like in Aurakzai agency, Kurram agency, Kohat and Hangu.
Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists to this day encourage a state of war between the two communities as it serves their goals of divide and conquer. The same is true of Iraq and Syria, where Iraqi Sunnis are torn between risking death as a moderate or join the ISIS. ISIS terrorists are killing their own people, no different that the Taliban in tribal communities in 2002 and onwards; civilians and security forces in Waziristan and SWAT and other areas of FATA, KP, and Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists kill innocent Sunni Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They attack men, women and children as well as security forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is true that the Shia feel the pain for their Pashtun brothers among the Sunnis, being recruited or killed by the terrorists.
Prejudice comes in all forms- sometimes color of the skin, sometimes manifested in terrorism and radicalized-religion.
In the U.S. I dearly wish Martin Luther King could have survived to witness the election of the first African-American president, Barak Obama – the first “Black” in the “White” House MLK might have said. I am not a Democrat, though Obama is. I did not vote for Barak Obama, nevertheless, I see his presidency as a landmark and a point of pride that I celebrated at the time of his election then and now.
Progress as a country includes equitable living standards, wages and hiring practices, and the protections afforded minorities in this nation of the U.S. is supported by law of the land. Including the religious freedoms reflected in the stories above of Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, and the difference of the Wahhabi Saudi visions.
U.S. progress was built on the blood and relentless conviction of heroes of the past, both white and black: from William Lloyd Garrison, powerful advocate of the complete abolition of slavery and John Quincy Adams in relentless fight for equality of blacks to an adversarial US congress to 1846 the brilliant and outspoken Frederick Douglass launched his abolitionist newspaper, and my favorite black intellectual, W.E.B. Bu Bois, who said,
“The cost of liberty is less that the price of oppression.”
In recent times, progress meant in 2001 Colin Powell became the first African American U.S. Secretary of State. 2005 Condoleezza Rice becomes the first black female U.S. Secretary of State. 2008 Barak Hussein Obama, Democrat from Chicago, becomes the first African-American president and the country’s 44th president. 2009 On February 2, the U.S. Senate confirmed Eric Holder as the first African American to serve as Attorney General.
This progress I witnessed over the 1950s as I lived in the South. My story:
In the 50’s as innocent pre-teen white boys my brother and I were unknowingly living in segregated Texas. I always wondered why the black kids always seem to play baseball in areas where we didn’t live. My brother Dan and I had stark remembrance of the curious and inexplicable “Colored Entrance,” signs, “Whites Only” signs, throughout our small community. It wasn’t like that on the U.S. Air Force Base where my Dad worked as a Physiological Training Instructor for pilots. There was integration working well. We witnessed these strange curiosities when we lived off base. For example, Dan and I noticed in the movie theater, the “negroes” got to sit in the balcony. We thought, “Why do they get to have the best seats? How unfair!” As children, living in a non-prejudiced family, our innocent minds could not comprehend that they had to sit there- they had no choice and couldn’t sit on the main floor with us.
Attending a rock and roll concert in 1957, there was nearly a riot when the black kids sitting on one side and us, the whites, on the other, started dancing and began to mingle, as it really seemed quite natural. The authorities, police and bouncers waded into the crowd, and began assaulting various blacks and whites, trying to separate us. The performer was Little Richard. He caused quite a stir.
My brother Dan and I during this time had become accustomed to our black maid who was presumed by my brother and I to be the authoritative head of the household when our parents were out. Were he here today, Dan would agree as I remember him often saying, we were practically raised by “Ruth” our black maid. We loved her, and respected her. We also could fear her if we misbehaved. We never would have faulted her for using the switch hung on the back door, as we had it coming. But, alas, she never used it; the threat of it was enough. So, we behaved. My parents treated her like part of the family, and so did we. We looked up to her- so counterintuitive for the times.
In 1959, Dad was stationed in Okinawa and our family went with him. Once again we were experiencing something unique for the times: a fully integrated setting. At the time, I was a high school teenager, at 15 and 16. The young, black servicemen in Okinawa, at the base gym where I was interested in boxing, and there all summer, and every weekend, the black servicemen took me under their wing. That is, 19-23 year old Southern “Negro” Airmen, befriended this little white kid. I obviously respected and admired them, and their brave boxing skills, so, they decided to train me. They invited me to run with them, I declined only because I couldn’t keep up.
There was no hint of prejudice, even when after a workout, they would hang out in the gym telling stories, and I joined them, mostly listening, to the tales of Asian whores in the village of Koza, and white Marines that they encountered that yelled out what they called, “the “Magic word.” I was young, but I knew what that word was and it started with an “N.” I laughed right alongside of them as they told of being attacked by white Marines that didn’t know they were boxers; and one of them, my favorite boxer, Smokey, picking up a garbage lid and beating one marine down with it. Once with this group, I told the only joke I knew, which had “negro” in it. I will never forget the patience shown me by eight black boxers around me- just staring at me; Smokey said, “Call‘m colored.” I said, “Okay.” And, the silence gave way to jovial talking again.
I remember their surprised joy at discovering that I knew all the black musicians that they liked on radio. They’d say, “Sam Cooke? How’d you know Sam Cooke?” I came back with, “I like that song, “You Send Me,” and they would laugh in disbelief. Then, I’d, say “I also like Ray Charles!’ And, they would laugh out of surprise and say, “How d’you know Ray Charles music!?” At that time, you didn’t get all the black music on white radio. You had to look for it. These were Southern blacks from Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, all recruited by the top brass, specifically sent to Okinawa in a friendly-but-real rivalry, between generals and the different forces, to beat the Marines, and the unbeatable Airborne in boxing matches held at Camp Sukeran.
I remember running up to my middleweight friend, “Smokey” after he knocked out his opponent; Smokey was a boxer with the moves of Sugar Ray Robinson. He was surrounded by black friends, all lined up with their backs against the ring, and they menacingly yelled out at me as I approached; I was unaware of the danger. I was, in fact, looking at Smokey and smiling and mimicking in shadow boxing in the air how he knocked out his opponent, with delight over Smokey’s big KO, when they shouted out at me; “Who the Hell is that!?” Smokey just said, “He’s okay. He’s my friend.” And, they all relaxed.
In 1962 the family returned “Stateside,” for six months to Sumter, South Carolina, the heart of segregation country. We were there for Dad’s final Air Force assignment as Dad retired after 20 years from the military. Mom was an Australia-War bride, so, Dad was to later take us to Australia, her homeland, to live, and I went to college, and Dan worked in a photography lab. But, in 1962 Carolinas, we experienced raw hatred of Negroes. “Colored only” restrooms, “Whites only,” signs everywhere. When we passed a black funeral, half the school bus ran to the side yelling out, “One less Nigger!”
This was more than a shock to me, having beloved friends I had just left in Okinawa, older, black athletes that I admired befriend me, and we liked the same music, and here my local white friend made me cross the street, “Why,” I asked, “Hey, bo! You don’t wanna to walk by that ol’ Nigra woman do ya?” [“Bo,” was Southern drawl for boy]; I looked up and sure enough, here was a dignified older black lady coming our way. It was during a softball practice in the high school Physical Education class that really made me realize at 16, I didn’t like these white people at all in the South. A bunch of the boys in the game all ran to the back fence to harass the “negroes” who walked by – the teacher didn’t say a word; silence can say a lot. Silence can be deafening.
We moved to Australia, and saw no prejudice, as they were progressively phasing (1949-1973) the 1901 Australian White Policy out in stages to be dismantled the year I graduated from college in 1966. They were also integrating the native Aborigines into society.
It was in August 28, 1963, that I learned, as many of us did, that Martin Luther King was no ordinary activist. A 200,000 people march on Washington D.C.. all congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech; a speech that galvanized many white, brown and black Americans to join a peaceful but resilient fight for Civil Rights in the United States. I cannot hear that speech even today without weeping. It was during this era, the inspiring Martin Luther King era, that many presidential and congressional initiatives moved the U.S. government towards many important Civil Rights Acts.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s method of peaceful marching and pleas to common sense, can be contrasted to combative elements that arose in 1966 Oakland, California, as the militant Black Panthers.
When I visited Oakland and Berkeley, California in 1967, the Black Panthers were ubiquitous up and down University Avenue and all over Oakland. They were very hostile to whites. You did not ask them for the time of day, if you were white. I was instructed to call black people “Afro-American” at this point, referencing “colored,” would get a stare of mean intentions. The Black community was changing, and language meant lot about your standing on issues. “Black” was okay as a term, because of “Black Pride.”
By 1967 I was serving in the military, and Vietnam was raging, but, civil rights seemed destined to improve with MLK. But, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The country was stunned, I was enraged; and there was a lot of guilt I think felt by white Americans.
Martin Luther King was dead, but, his motivating legacy lived on and progress continued.
So, today, having lived through those days, and the 1968 horror of assassination of such an inspirational example of a martyr for his cause, where are we now?
Today, the U.S. has a black president; there are protections for minorities by law; Blacks are no more “victims” in American society today, than any other person that is white, of color, or has a religious preference, or varying sexual orientation- because any of us will find ourselves victims at times of hate by petty people different from ourselves- but, prior to MLK, in the U.S. prejudice was institutionalized. So, celebrate our progress; and do not allow anyone to fool you into hanging on to the yoke of “victim.” As Martin Luther King said, “…And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Are we, at times, victims? Being brown or black, if treated badly it is hard to remember whites often are faced with abrasive people. Perhaps it is not always due to the color of our skin. That said, prejudice will always be a global human flaw. Often in Pakistan, Pushtuns are met with prejudice from Sindhs in Karachi. Punjabis distrust Balochs, and on it goes. Arab Jihadists in Syria and Iraq ISIS (ISIL), split from al-Qaeda, gains territory for its goal of a Caliphate based on the prejudicial notion of Arab Wahhabi superiority over all of their self-proclaimed Kafirs. ISIS rages over moderate Sunnis, Shia, and destroy religious institutions to eradicate their legacies. In Pakistan Takfiri Deobandis are continuing making the Shias victims of genocidal murder, among Christians, Sufis, Hindus, with the same ideology of ISIS, as they attack with impunity all minorities. We must fight them with the mentality of Martin Luther King’s victory of right over wrong, not as victims; but, with the sword as well as the pen. One cannot negotiate with barbarians.
Rusty Walker is an educator, author, political analyst, ex-military, from a military family, retired college professor, former Provost (Collins College, U.S.A.), artist, musician and family man. Rusty Walker is an ardent supporter of a progressive Pakistan. Here is a link to Mr. Walker’s other articles published on LUBP: https://lubpak.net/archives/tag/rusty-walker