Vickroy: King, Mandela both changed world through nonviolence
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy January 19, 2014 3:44PM
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. | File photo courtesy the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Archives
Updated: February 21, 2014 6:15AM
In a world routinely rocked by violence, it is perhaps cathartic to remind ourselves that some of the most profound changes in history came in the name of love and peace.
As the world mourns the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and as the country marks what would have been the 85th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one can’t help but notice the similarities between these two esteemed leaders’ approaches to ending the tyranny of segregation and apartheid.
In their pursuit of change, both Mandela and King faced down ignorance, cruelty and danger. Both men spent time in prison, both feared for the safety of their families, and, although both were routinely subjected to threats of violence, both advocated change by nonviolent means.
Instead, they relied on the power of words and prayer, as well as protests, grass-roots organizing, civil disobedience and, yes, even forgiveness, to make the world a fairer, better place.
The Rev. Rod Reinhart met Mandela in South Africa 15 years ago. He also marched on the front line with King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, at a civil rights demonstration in 1974.
The pastor of both St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Harvey and St. Joseph and St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Blue Island, Reinhart said both King and Mandela “agreed that countries like America and South Africa used a brutal form of racism and militarism to enforce a cruelly unfair economic system on their people. They both believed that large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience was the most effective and safest method that powerless unarmed people could use in the face of powerful, violent and highly armed governments.”
Both Mandela and King were strongly supported by labor unions and churches, Reinhart said. Both men knew about each other and were inspired by each other’s courage.
Reinhart will travel to Detroit next week to take part in the 15th annual World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation, the interfaith Holy Day dedicated to making peace among all the religions and races of the world. He founded the World Sabbath in 2000 at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
He said, “I believe that if King had not been so tragically shot down in the late 1960s he would have continued, like Mandela, for many years as one of the most important religious, social and political leaders our nation has ever seen.”
Bernard Rowan, professor of political science at Chicago State University, said both Mandela and King, “walked their own talk. They both suffered so that their oppressors could clearly see what suffering does to people.”
In addition, Rowan said, both men were gifted speakers and thoughtful writers whose works are studied in high schools and college classrooms across the country.
“I don’t think either one particularly sought fame or public accolades, although both received the world’s highest honors — the Nobel Peace Prize,” Rowan said. “Both were selfless and both are perceived positively in life and in death.”
Most important, he said, both embraced peaceful change.
“They refused to dehumanize their opposition,” he said, even though many of their opponents resorted to dehumanizing tactics.
As similar as both men were in their beliefs and methods, there were some significant differences between them as well, Rowan said.
Mandela had the backing of the majority, which was trying to overthrow a dominant minority and so needed to overhaul that country’s constitution. In order for people to be treated equally, South Africa needed a new constitution.
The United States did not, he said. This country’s forefathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, already had spelled out that all men were created equal. Frederick Douglass, escaped slave turned social reformer, was among those who pointed out that America was not practicing what it so profoundly preached.
“King’s trajectory was very American,” Rowan said. “I feel he was trying to reform and fulfill the true meaning of the American Constitution, not trying to overthrow it. He believed America had promise, that blacks and whites could stand together. He was not talking about revolution, he was talking about change.”
King’s method, Rowan said, was to attack the root cause — why do people think they are better or worse than others?
King did not necessarily have the support of the majority, as Mandela did. He also didn’t have the support of the youth movement, which Mandela also benefited from, Rowan said.
King was not anti-establishment, Rowan said. In fact, he leaned toward the Republican Party, but the Republican Party did not support his cause. Neither party embraced his cause, but certain Democratic leaders, including John F. Kennedy, came to support him.
“The fact that, unlike Mandela, King did not have a national party that took up his cause makes his success distinctive,” Rowan said.
In addition to being molded by his political predecessors, Rowan said, King was influenced by his strong Christian values and the work of India’s Mahatma Ghandi, who also aspired to change through nonviolent methods.
King visited Ghandi in 1959.
“I don’t believe that King or Mandela had a martyr complex or that either wanted to be a saint,” Rowan said. “They deeply believed in touching the human spirit and the human soul. They were extremely progressive in that regard. The legacy for both is that they effected positive change in a positive way.”
What America needs now, Rowan said, is a way to deal with the past injustices.
“Should we apologize for slavery, for what we did to Native Americans, to Japanese citizens during World War II? Because of Mandela, South Africa now has a means of dealing with its past. The United States is still in need of that,” he said.
And our society still is wracked with violence, including racial violence, he said.
“We need to look for the next generation of leaders to carry forward, to improve upon, to update what King and Mandela began,” he said.
In honor of King’s birthday, the King Center in Atlanta, Ga., is calling on Americans everywhere to “choose nonviolence.” To learn more about the initiative, visit http://choosenonviolence.org/