I learned many things while I was in Atlanta, Georgia, this summer. Beside being the “Home of Coke” (the Original Coca-Cola formula was invented there by John Pemberton in 1886), Atlanta is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s place of birth. MLK, America’s iconic figure in the promotion of civil rights through nonviolence, was born there on January 15, 1929. A Baptist minister and leader of the African American civil rights movement, Rev. Dr. MLK strived to mobilize the American public against racial segregation in the US, following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
I had the chance to visit the MLK National Historic Site and a few other museums and centers dedicated to one of America’s most revered heroes. I also had the occasion to listen to many of the countless speeches he gave; speeches in which he urged his supporters not to yield to violence and hatred–ever–, despite their being imprisoned, molested, and persecuted; speeches in which he urged them to fight hard in order to stay on the path of brotherly love, solidarity, forgiveness, yet perseverance and firmness in the affirmation of their legitimate rights. MLK advocated for a faithful resistance against oppression through love and nonviolence.
MLK’s efforts bore fruit in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination against blacks and women, and ended racial segregation in the US (in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public, etc.). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, at age 39.
Although MLK’s struggle against inequality was mentioned to us at school, we have all been sort of taking for granted this important period of history. This miniature pilgrimage on the footsteps of MLK in Atlanta made me realize the greatness of his cause, and the ordeals every “Negro”, or non-WASP, had to go through. That day, I wrote a Facebook status which displeased many of my friends: “MLK = better than Hassan Nasrallah”.
Being in Atlanta also made me realize the discrepancy between theory and practice, the legal Act and the social action. The CRA of ’64 was indeed diligently and thoroughly implemented on a juridical and political level, however, the streets of Atlanta offer a blazing invalidation of it. Not that racial segregation is still effective, but by the number of Black homelessness, which is simply outraging. It seems that certain states are “blacker” than others. Furthermore, for whichever reason, the situation of Blacks in the US is far from being ideal, especially in comparison to Whites and Asians. In “Black” towns and neighborhoods, you realize that a distinctive “Black” accent, “Black” culture, and even “Black” religion exist. Racial and ethnic inequalities do persist in the freest of societies.
My argument is that the categories of “race” and “ethnic affiliation” remain central in US political and everyday life; they always have and, for a long time, will play an important role in shaping US social policy.
Change takes time. As we say in Lebanon, there is the change in the nusûs (texts) and the change in the nufûs (mentalities); and Sociology teaches us that mentalities are what require most time to evolve.
In France, the Catholic Church remains an institution to which the French people and state refer, in the sense that they constantly seek its opinion on major issues, without necessarily abiding by it. Despite the contestation it faces, the French Catholic Church is still a fortress, although one among others in the French panorama. Do not the French still talk about the Catholic opinion and the Catholic electorate?
It will perhaps require a long, very long time, for the Black Question in the US to disappear; and, more broadly, for race and ethnicity to become irrelevant. Let us not forget that race and ethnicity are inherent to US history; America was born from races and ethnic groups. By contrast, modern French history is based on the denegation of those two categories, a denegation which we, Lebanese–and more broadly, the Arabs–, blindly adopted at the early stages of our nationalist impetus. Unfortunately for us, sectarianism is congenital to modern Lebanon.
So let me break it down for you: The religious sect… will… AL-WAYS… be… a central factor… in… Lebanese society…
Think of American Blacks again, and remember: a long, very long time.
“Deleting” sectarianism? heh.