It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day today in the United States.
I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the American civil rights movement until I watched the wonderful Selma over Christmas, and inspired, followed it up with voracious reading on MLK over the holidays. While growing up in Pakistan, my school education was not big on world history, least of all civil rights struggles of anyone but the South Asian Muslim population. As an immigrant to the US, I knew the basics: Dr. King was a hero to African Americans and led a nationwide movement to win the right to advance their civil rights in America. And there is a federal holiday to celebrate him. But beyond that, I had no idea what the specific struggles of the movement were, the extent of sacrifices made by those who participated in it, or anything about the remarkable team of fellow activists who carried the movement on their shoulders alongside Dr. King.
Notwithstanding the alleged inaccuracies regarding the portrayal of President Johnson, I believe Selma succeeded in providing a key historical lesson for civil society movements throughout the world: While all great movements need a great leader, they do not revolve around just one person. They are driven by ideology. Dr. King’s brilliant and steadfast leadership, negotiating ability, and unflinching dedication to the non-violence philosophy were the cornerstone of the American civil rights movement, but so were the heartbreaking sacrifices by the many activists who gave up their lives or survived years of police violence and public hostility, and kept fighting the fight despite being dismissed as mere agitators by many. Together, they won rights that were considered an impossible dream just decades ago.
There are many excellent lessons in Dr. King’s legacy for civil rights advocates all over the world, including those in my home country where a majority of educated youth pass through higher education with almost no inkling of many of world history’s most remarkable moments. Social Studies curriculum in Pakistan’s secondary school education is peppered with doctored, one-sided knowledge of our own past, and severely lacking in emphasis on non-Muslim icons in recent history. That emphasis is needed today more than ever.