King's cause transcends countries. Africans celebrate a US hero
SENEGAL'S Goree Island is an 88-acre knoll in the sea, a quiet town where bougainvillea grows in profusion; where fishers and artists live in faded, rose-hued houses, and tourists stroll the sandy, careless paths. Today, this is a peaceful kingdom - but it was once a black hole through which 10 million Africans slipped into a life of hardship and servitude. This former slave-holding terminal, where black men, women, and children were loaded onto ships that carried them off to foreign lands, is now the site of the Slave House museum, a grim structure with tiny, dank cells that leave visitors chilled and shaken. Next week, however, Goree Island, a symbol of indignity to Afro-Americans, will have something to celebrate: the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
Through his life, his struggle, his victories, Dr. King stood for the effort to promote the welfare of American blacks. But King transcends the cause of United States civil rights. He is a universal champion of human rights and a figure of gigantic proportions to the world.
``It may surprise Americans, but Africans, and the Senegalese in particular, are very aware of the struggle of the black diaspora,'' says Ibrahim Gaye, information and cultural affairs officer at the embassy of Senegal in Washington, D.C. ``In Senegal, there is a special sensitivity about black Americans.''
Last year, 140 countries commemorated the slain US civil rights leader. On the African continent alone, 45 states observed the King holiday in 1987. And in some places, the celebrations far surpass those of the United States, which has been less than unanimous in its support of the federal holiday.
From Bangladesh to China, festivities range from formal balls to essay contests to prayer vigils. This year, Senegal's tribute to King will be Jan. 18-24. The driving force behind this extended salute is the two-year-old King Foundation, based in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
This foundation, with a governing body consisting of four black American expatriates and five Senegalese nationals, is a social, cultural, and educational institution dedicated to highlighting and perpetuating King's history and achievements as the nonviolent leader of the black emancipation struggle in the United States.
Working with Senegal's Ministry of Culture and the US Cultural Center in Dakar, the King Foundation has planned a program that will include regional conferences on King's life and vision, a ringing of church bells throughout Dakar at noon on Jan. 18, photo and film exhibits, widespread distribution of books and pamphlets about King and human rights, and a soiree for American and Senegalese officials at the National Theatre.
According to Mr. Gaye, if you ask the average person in Senegal if he has heard of Dr. King, the answer will be yes.
``They recognize him as the representative of the black conscience,'' he says, adding that his country had its own champion of the black conscience in its former president L'eopold Senghor - a distinguished poet and essayist who helped forge the concept of ``negritude,'' which rejected the European colonial policy of assimilation and affirmed the black African heritage.
One highlight of Senegal's week of celebrations will be the inauguration of the Martin Luther King Boulevard in Dakar. The thoroughfare, long known as Cornish West, was renamed after King last spring.
``It's the best street in the city,'' says Abubacar Africa Weaver, an Afro-American who has lived in Senegal for the last decade and who has been involved with the King Foundation since it began. ``It leads to the university, has embassies on it, the oldest cemetery, an art market, and beautiful homes. But it also runs right through the ghetto, then past a prison and a smelly sewer section. It represents Dr. King's hard times and good times.''
Back on Goree Island, which is miles off the coast of Dakar, some people feel a need to emphasize black achievements as well as indignities. Millard Arnold, a lawyer, Africanist, and author, was moved by his tour of Goree; he spoke with the US ambassador to Senegal, Lannon Walker, who suggested that he establish another museum on Goree to contrast with the Slave House.
Ultimately, Arnold and a group of primarily black American leaders founded the Goree Historical Trust Society, to carry out the idea. The trust is now working to raise the $300,000 needed to purchase and renovate a building for the museum. It has chosen a large, rose-colored structure that once housed the US Consulate.
``Once we've acquired the property, we aim to have the involvement of Senegalese and other blacks throughout the diaspora,'' Arnold says. According to Anthony Benesch, the US State Department desk officer for Senegal, the country's President, Abdou Diouf, is so enthusiastic about the project that he has made considerable personal contributions to the fund. Arnold would like to see the new museum open during King week celebrations this time next year.
``Everyone who has gone to Goree has left it aware of the enormous inhumanity done to man there,'' says Mr. Arnold. ``We thought there needed to be an additional museum which depicted black people in a more positive way than as victims of cruel exploitation ... a museum that celebrated the irrepressibility of the human spirit.''