There Shall Just Be People

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Biko funeral, Alamy photo

Bantu Stephen Biko - South African writer, organizer, anti-apartheid activist and "Father of the Black Consciousness Movement" - would have turned 70 Sunday. Murdered in detention at age 30, he continues to be honored for his struggle for racial equality by a foundation created by his son, a Steve Biko Cultural Center in his hometown, an online archive, at least two biographies, and, for his birthday, a Google doodle. A former medical student and scholar of Frantz Fanon and Malcom X, Biko founded the  Black Consciousness movement in 1969; with the African National Congress banned and its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, jailed or killed, the movement galvanized a new generation of young blacks to fight for their collective rights on their own in the name of  “the cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.”

Biko died in police custody in Sept. 1977 after being arrested in Port Elizabeth, brutally beaten, and transported, naked and manacled, to Pretoria for medical attention too late; when he died of head injuries, he became the most well-known martyr of the fight against apartheid. His funeral service, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, drew up to 20,000 grieving South Africans chanting
“Amandla! Ngawethu!” (Power is ours!). His story reached the rest of the world in part through the efforts of Donald Woods, a white editor and friend who called him "the most important political leader in the entire country, and the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know...A man of peace, he was militant in standing up for his principles (but) his abiding goal was a peaceful reconciliation of all South Africans.” In rare video, Biko likewise stressed he was fighting for everyone. He sought not majority or minority rights, he said, but a non-racist society where "there shall just be people" - a fight, clearly, that still goes on.

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Saying good-bye to Biko. Getty Images.

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