Professor Heidi Mirza spoke at St Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr addressed an audience in the same venue. During the week SELMA is released in UK cinemas, Heidi reflects on her speech and how we can end racism today.
Last Christmas marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral on his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. On 6 December 1964, when I was just six years old in Trinidad, Dr King shared his mighty wisdom on what it is to be human in a racist world.
Fifty years on, on a bright, crisp winter night 1,300 people gathered under the same magnificent dome of St Paul’s to reflect on Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ of an equal society, free from discrimination, intolerance, prejudice and extremism.
It was a momentous occasion to be asked to stand in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, and a great honour to be one of the speakers together with Baroness Doreen Lawrence of Clarendon, and Hugh Muir, Diary editor at The Guardian. The three of us were challenged by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, to consider the legacy of Martin Luther King and look forward to the possibilities of ‘Ending Racism’ in the next 50 years.
Martin Luther King might have been perplexed and possibly saddened – like me – that we still need to talk about the persistence of ‘racism’ in all its forms – the ‘thing’ that impels us to believe, and act upon, the idea that someone is different, less deserving, less intelligent, less human than ourselves.
Racism feeds off fear, envy and hatred; destroys communities; creates wars and strips people of their basic dignity and human rights.
We see palpable evidence of race hate in the blood-stained streets of Ferguson, Tottenham, and New York when black men are unjustly killed by white police. We see it on the billboards of government migrant ‘Go home’ vans, and we see it the school playground when a Muslim girl is spat on as her hijab is ripped from her head.
In his sermon, all those years ago, Martin Luther King asks where does such race hate come from? He recalls the story of the Good Samaritan – a man of a different race who stops to help a brother in need when his own had passed him by. In contrast to this act of kindness, our politicians in times of austerity have declared open season on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Immigration laws, detention centres, and curbs on benefits, strip them of dignity, the promise of citizenship, and the hope of belonging.
In unrelenting waves of Islamophobic hysteria young Muslim people are demonised as the new folk devils, just as young black men were seen as muggers and rapists in 1970s (and are still). Muslims are now subject to surveillance in schools and universities, and live under the threat of having their human rights revoked with detention without trial and seizure of their citizenship.
Where have we seen this virulent racialised out-casting before? Echoes of the scapegoating of Jews in Nazi Germany? Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood in 1960s? Our theories of race formation tell us in history, though times change, the racist beat goes on.
Racism is a central organising principle of the modern nation state, it thrives on the idea of ‘them and us’. Our political leaders have declared that ‘multiculturalism is dead’, but they still need a “them’ – the global poor and huddled masses to feed the insatiable needs of capitalist production.
Half a century on from Martin Luther King, in 2014 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani school girl who stood up for girls’ right to education against the violent, religious misogyny of the Taliban. Across the world in our societies, systematic racism lives on together with systematic sexism. Martin Luther King called his largely female non-violent civil rights movement ‘the army of love’.
This year let our resolution be a commitment to be a steadfast, determined soldier in the ‘army of love’ so we can fulfil Martin Luther King’s dream of ‘Ending Racism Today’.