Change in Nigeria: Lessons from Birmingham

By DELE AJAJA

 “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

The familiar humid weather outside Shuttlesworth International Airport reminded me of home in southern Nigeria. Shortly, I was on the Tutwiller Hotel shuttle bus, heading southwest on Interstate 59, rapidly approaching the downtown of the largest city in the state of Alabama. The green vegetation on both sides of the road brought me even closer to home in southwestern Nigeria. Welcome to the last theater of racial segregation and the hallowed grounds of some of the memorable protests that liberated the African Americans in the United States of America. Welcome to the city of Birmingham, the land of revolution and reconciliation. The truth remains constant, they say. The same way what I witnessed in Birmingham half a decade ago remains relevant to the ongoing struggle to bring change to Nigeria, a nation degraded by modern day oppressors.

Later that momentous evening, the cocktails and socialization at the opening of the 2010 “We the People – Civil Rights Seminar” did not thrill me. I had more interest in the next day’s visit to some of the sites where the “battles” for the liberation of Black Americans were fought and won. Protests and demonstration sites were not strange to me. Back home in Nigeria, I had been privileged to march with remarkable activists like the late Dr. Tai Solarin, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the unfaltering Ken Saro-Wiwa, Professor Wole Soyinka, Dr. Frederick Fasehun, Professor Omotoye Olorode, Attorneys Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, and Mike Ozekhome, among other great Nigerians, in the 80s.

However, I couldn’t wait to tread the grounds once trod by the civil rights giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the Reverends Ralph David Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth (for whom the Birmingham International Airport, Birmingham, was renamed in 2008,) Wyatt Tee Walker, James Bevel, Herbert Oliver, Abraham and Calvin Woods, Colonel Stone Johnson, Ms. Gwendolyn Gamble, Ms. Yvonne Turner, Ms. Rosa Parks, Mr. Andrew Young, and the other distinguished civil rights advocates of the segregation years in the United States. I revered them for standing up to the boisterous, monstrous, and callous segregationists who were willing to perpetuate a race, culture, and hope in endless servitude in the land of the free.

As anticipated, the following day came with the reward of seeing, feeling, and taking in the artifacts of the revolution that swept across the city of Birmingham, the state of Alabama, and the other segregated parts of southern United States. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was the first site visited, and it had enough for anyone visiting the living museum of the segregated era in the United States. The exhibits left by segregation at the civil rights museum depict old Birmingham as a city populated by two divided peoples – the white oppressors and the oppressed blacks. The leftovers of segregation unambiguously illustrate early Birmingham as a city viciously segregated by custom and law. One of the displays has two drinking fountains – the clean fountain mounted on cooling porcelain was for whites, and the corroded fountain (without cooling porcelain) was for blacks.

Another exhibit shows a barber shop – the respectable section bears the notice – “For white customer only,” and the rickety segment has another notice – “For colored” people. The front half of the aged bus exhibited in the museum has a sign that says “Whites in the front, blacks in the back.” The most surreal and ill-fated part of the segregation culture was demonstrated by the division among children. The exhibit of white and black classrooms shows that white schools had more money, up-to-date buildings, equipment, books, and better paid teachers. The showcased well-ventilated white classroom has a projector, educational posters, and the other perks that make children love school. The uninspiring classroom setup for the black children could only attract the most desperate kids who wanted education at all cost.

The historical documents in the museum show that the Carver Theater served its black clientele by showing the movies already shown in white theaters. Although, blacks were excluded from well-paying public and private jobs, they generated their own opportunities. Blacks created businesses that catered to blacks. Disturbed by the flourishing black community, the Ku Klux Klan, KKK, unleashed a campaign of violence against the blacks in Birmingham and the rest of southern United States. The civic authorities were not happy with the blacks either. Under the command of public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham police and firefighters set dogs and water hoses on black children during the 1963 children march.

The stories became more appalling when some of the victims of the terrorist acts perpetrated by the KKK stood in front of us. Ms. Sarah Collins Rudolph recounted how she witnessed her older sister, Addie Mae Collins (14,) and three other girls – Carole Robertson (14,) Denise McNair (11,) and Cynthia Wesley (14) murdered by the bomb planted by the KKK, in the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963. The bomb was placed at the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, one of the two premier black churches in Birmingham (Bethel Baptist Church is the other church.) KKK members Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Robert Edward Chambliss reportedly placed the 19 sticks of dynamite that shook Birmingham, the USA, and the world.

Donzaleigh Abernathy, the beautiful daughter of the late Reverend Abernathy, actress, author, and African American historian, spoke about the struggles. She witnessed the 1963 “March on Washington” by the virtue of her father being the best friend and right-hand-man of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She recalled that Dr. King breathed his last breath in her father’s hands after he was shot at the 2nd floor of Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, in the evening of April 4, 1968. Ms. Dorothy Cotton, a civil rights activist, reminisced on how black children sang as they were attacked by police and firefighters during the 1963 march:

“I’m gonna do what spirit said do,

What the spirit said do I’m gonna do, oh my Lord!

I’m gonna vote ’cause the spirit said vote,

I’m gonna go to jail if spirit said jail;

I’m gonna dance if spirit said dance.”

The African Americans did not give up hope and the future. They stood their grounds, singing, “We shall overcome someday.” And, yes, they overcame! While there is still work left to be done, the United States has made progress in race relations. The election of the first African American President Barack Obama in 2008 lends credence to that. Do Nigeria and Nigerians have lessons to learn from Birmingham and the rest of the United States? The generations of Nigerians who watched silently as the nation slipped from the cascade of optimism to the chasm of pessimism, hoping that the good times would return somehow, sometime, someday, failed our own nation and people. But, we have a second chance to redeem ourselves. Many Nigerians campaigned for, voted for, guarded and defended the mandate granted President Muhammadu Buhari during the past election.

President Buhari, once a military head of state, stood out among those who ran for the Nigerian presidency. He fought corruption, the nation’s problem-in-chief, during his first chance as the commander-in-chief. Now, the corrupt political party and politicians, who ran the country aground for over one and a half decades, are doing all they could to prevent the Buhari regime from probing the epic corruption they engendered. We should recall that the African Americans demanded for their civic rights when everything seemed unattainable, and they overcame. As a nation and people who are tired of the hopeless status quo institutionalized bythe previous government, we have to defend the CHANGE, HOPE, and ACCOUNTABILITY we worked for. We cannot repeat the mistake of watching like feeble sentries, while our nation drools into oblivion like it did previously.

The appalling silence of the good people of Nigeria must end; else the people of ill-will we chased out of power would prevent transparency, accountability, and integrity from taking roots in the land. There comes a time when the ill-treated, drained, and threadbare people of a nation must rise and make the “impossible” possible. We cannot, and should not fail our Motherland ever again. Nigerians should not allow the kleptomaniacs and quasi-democrats, who have no idea what rectitude and responsibility mean, to influence Aso Rock policies again. Ours should not remain a despicably corrupt and despised culture among the comity of nations. Support President Muhammadu Buhari as he ushers the ethical revolution back to Nigeria.

DELE AJAJA, Nigerian author, former staff of TELL Magazine, and co-publisher of the defunct JUNE 12 Magazine, lives in the United States.

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