Wednesday, April 11, 2018

#MarchForHumanity: A Reflection on MLK and Cuban dissidents

Marching for Humanity and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent legacy

Marching to Atlanta's state capital from Ebeneezer Baptist Church on April 9th

I took part in the March For Humanity on April 9, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia on the fiftieth anniversary of the funeral procession for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Over the past week numerous events have been held to mark the 50 years since a sniper's bullet took his life. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., like Mohandas Gandhi before him twenty years earlier, was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee at 6:01pm.


Dr. King's example inspired the dissident movements in Poland, Cuba and elsewhere in the 1970s, 1980s and today. On April 4, 2018 outside of the Lorraine Hotel, author Taylor Branch reported on how a former Polish Ambassador speaking there told the crowd how MLK's movement inspired the Polish Solidarity movement.
Cubans, despite efforts of Cuban communists to distort the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr with an official center in Havana, have learned of his true legacy and the type of nonviolent action he advocated. In a speech he gave in St. Augustine in 1964 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described both the kind of love referred to in the Sermon on the Mount and the impracticability of violence:
"Its difficult advice and in some quarters it isn't too popular to say it...Let us recognize that violence is not the answer. I must say to you tonight that violence is impractical...We have another method that is much more powerful and much more effective than the weapon of violence...Hate isn't our weapon either...I am not talking now about a weak love it would be nonsense for an oppressed people to love their oppressor in an affectionate sense I'm not talking about that too many people confuse the meaning of love when they go to criticizing the love ethic. ...I am talking about a love that is so strong that it becomes a demanding love. A love that is so strong that it organizes itself into a mass movement and says somehow I am my brothers keeper and he is so wrong that I am willing to suffer and die to get him right and to see that he is on the wrong road."
Former Cuban prisoner of conscience Roberto de Miranda in a 2015 interview spoke of how human rights defenders in Cuba teach young people about Martin Luther King Jr. and Lech Walesa today.
"We have been inspired by many figures who have carried out struggles through civil disobedience, especially people who have fought for human rights, like Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.). In our libraries, we teach young people how his struggle was carried out, as well as teaching them about (Lech) Walesa and many others who struggled in Eastern Europe and who are great examples for the Cuban people and the dissidents."
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was one of the founders of the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba that came into existence on September 8, 1988, and had it become a national movement despite all the obstacles presented by the dictatorship. Oswaldo Payá explained the methods of this movement in December of 2002 while receiving the European Union's Sakharov Prize that echo the values of both Gandhi and King:
We have not chosen the path of peace as a tactic, but because it is inseparable from the goal for which our people are striving. Experience teaches us that violence begets more violence and that when political change is brought about by such means, new forms of oppression and injustice arise. It is our wish that violence and force should never be used as ways of overcoming crises or toppling unjust governments. This time we shall bring about change by means of this civic movement which is already opening a new chapter in Cuba’s history, in which dialogue, democratic involvement, and solidarity will prevail. In such a way we shall foster genuine peace.
This is not a coincidence. Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas's widow, Ofelia Acevedo, in 2014 spoke of King's nonviolent legacy and how it inspired her and her husband to also dream and work for Cubans to enjoy a better tomorrow. Following the brief interview she pulled out a copy of the 1990 Christmas Message of the Christian Liberation movement written by Oswaldo Payá where he put on paper his dream:
"The rifles will be buried face down, the words of hatred will vanish in the heart without reaching the lips, we'll go out into the street and all of us will see in the other a brother, let us look to the future with the peace of he that knows that he forgave and he that has been forgiven. Let there be no blood to clean or dead to bury, the shadow of fear and of catastrophe will give way to the reconciliatory light, and Cuba will be reborn in every heart, in a miracle of love made by God and us."
Sadly, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero, a youth leader from his movement who had been a seminarian were martyred on July 22, 2012 for advocating nonviolent change in Cuba. Oswaldo had managed to obtain more than 25,000 signatures in a Stalinist dictatorship demanding a vote to change the system and recognize the rights and dignity of Cubans. Like Martin Luther King Jr. he was killed but his ideas and example live on to inspire others.

In the struggle against dictatorship in Cuba it was the internal opposition that first took up nonviolence as a method to resist injustice without becoming unjust. It was the nonviolent opposition that confronted a regime rooted in hatred without hating but were followed by other organizations, including one that engaged with The King Center. 

 Coretta Scott King and Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue
Brothers to the Rescue is a grassroots movement founded in May 1991 in response to the death of a fifteen year old named Gregorio Pérez Ricardo who had died fleeing Cuba on a raft only to die of exposure and dehydration. The movement was funded by the community through donations in order to carry out a nonviolent constructive program saving the lives of Cuban rafters before they died of dehydration or starvation on the high seas in small rafts. Brothers to the Rescue actively collaborated with both The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia and Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution. Brothers to the Rescue conducted more than  2,400 aerial search missions.  These resulted in the rescue of more than 4,200 men, women and children ranging in age from a five day old infant to a man 79 years of age. Sadly, Brothers to the Rescue was dealt a crippling blow on February 24, 1996 when two of its planes were blow to bits in the Florida Straits by Cuban MiGs while searching for rafters killing four humanitarians.
The dream survives in others even when the dreamer has been cut down by the forces of repression and hatred. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. never set foot in Cuba but his example inspired generations of activists who continue to work for a better tomorrow on the island. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 in his famous I have a Dream Speech explained in powerful terms the importance of the now and the dangers of gradualism:
"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
Rev. King  was born 89 years ago on January 15, 1929 and lived a life of service for his fellow man and woman while resisting racism, poverty and war. He sought to make real the beloved community viewing it as an obtainable and realistic goal. At the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia they say that Dr. King was "a 20th century prophet" and "a 21st century architect." 
Both Martin and Oswaldo gave their lives in the cause of justice, dignity and peace becoming martyrs of nonviolence in the same way that Mohandas Gandhi did. Their good works live beyond them and have positive repercussions today and will continue to in the future. Michael Nagler, a long time peace scholar, presents the theorem as follows: Nonviolence sometimes “works” and always works, while by contrast, Violence sometimes “works” and never works.  Nagler offers a more detailed explanation.
The exercise of violence always has a destructive effect on human relationships even when, as sometimes happens, it accomplishes some short-term goal. The exercise of nonviolence, or Satyagraha, always brings people closer. This explains why Gandhi, after fifty years of experimentation in every walk of life, could declare that he “knew of no single case in which it had failed.” Where it seemed to fail he concluded that he or the other satyagrahis had in some way failed to live up to its steep challenge.  Taking the long view, he was able to declare that “There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence. The end of violence is surest defeat.”
Cuban opposition activist Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who spent over a decade in prison in Cuba for his nonviolent activism and defense of human rights would refer to and quote both Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On June 1, 2003 from his prison cell in a letter he wrote:
"My inspiration is alive: God and the great teachers of nonviolence, present today now more than ever. As Martin Luther King said: "If a people can find among their ranks a 5% of men willing to voluntarily go to prison for a cause they consider just then there is no obstacle that can stop them."
Six years later into his prison sentence in 2009 Dr. Biscet wrote about spreading the word about nonviolent icons and how some reacted with skepticism
 "I remember when I started preaching about Gandhi and Thoreau some said I would walk through the streets of Havana with a loin cloth like Gandhi. When I learned of these words spoken about me in a derogatory manner I just smiled because I knew I would be in these conditions but not in the streets of Havana. Rather in the infinite captivity that I would have through suffering. They had not been mistaken those who had made the joke to humiliate me. Because from the humiliation of a man in loincloth highlights the reflection of human dignity over barbarism."
 The legacy of Dr. King fifty years after his assassination continues to impact not only in the United  States, but around the world, including in Cuba among those seeking a democratic transition and an end to 59 years of totalitarian rule.

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