The Power of Righteousness

MLK arrested at a lunch counter. Front photo in Birmingham Jail. File photos.

Amidst dispiriting times, we pay tribute to the ever-radical Martin Luther King Jr. and his call to end the "withering injustice" still endured by African-Americans. On MLK Day, we like to post his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech calling on the country, 100 years after Lincoln, to "make real the promises of democracy." Urging the struggle be conducted "on the high plane of dignity and discipline...meeting physical force with soul force," he also decries those whites who ask, “When will you be satisfied?” His answer: Only when the multiple injustices - segregation, police brutality, economic inequality, "a Negro in Mississippi (who) cannot vote and a Negro in New York (who) believes he has nothing for which to vote" - are ended; when "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." A few months before, he sounded the same theme in his quietly enraged, smuggled out "Letter from Birmingham Jail" after white church leaders criticized this son, grandson and great-grandson of preachers for his uppity impatience in leading an allegedly untimely, illegal march urging a boycott of white-owned stores.

King blasted their response in the face of "our echoing demands" and laid out "the hard, brutal facts of the case." He was in Birmingham, "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States," because "injustice is here"; there are just and unjust laws and, in the words of St. Augustine, "An unjust law is no law at all"; they should be praising the "sublime courage" of protesters, not police who kept "order" by siccing dogs on non-violent marchers, abusing and assaulting black men and women in jail, and refusing them food for wanting to sing "Grace." "Over and over," he wrote, "I have found myself asking, 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?" Above all, he denounced whites who would challenge blacks for their too-avid struggle for justice, noting he had never seen a protest "for our Constitutional and God-given rights" that was "well-timed." "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," he wrote. "For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity...This "Wait" has almost always meant never."

Or, in the case of Delbert Orr Africa, 42 years. On Saturday, Africa finally walked free from Pennsylvania's state prison after serving over four decades for a crime he insists he did not commit, making him the eighth of nine Black Liberation MOVE members to be released or have died in prison. Activists had long fought for parole for Africa, 73 and still proudly bearing his now-greying dreads. A former Black Panther, he was one of dozens of MOVE black radicals who made their communal home in Philadelphia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, fighting against racial injustice, espousing environmentalist ideals and taking "Africa" as their last name. In August 1978, amidst a brutal police assault on the house, Del Africa climbed out of the basement, shirtless to show he was unarmed, and raised his arms to the sky in a now-iconic photo; seconds later, police descended on him, dragging him by his hair, beating him with a rifle, breaking his jaw and shattering his eye socket. During the siege, officer James Ramp was killed with a single bullet. Though Africa always said Ramp was mistakenly killed by fellow cops, he and eight others were sentenced to 30 years to life. In 1985, during Africa's 7th year in prison, Philly police launched a second assault on a newer MOVE home, dropping an incendiary bomb that sparked a massive fire; it razed 61 houses and killed 11 MOVE members, including Del's 13-year-old daughter. No city officials were found liable.

During his incarceration, Del Africa and fellow MOVE members held fast to their revolutionary beliefs despite the ongoing abuses of America's prison system. For six years, Del Africa was held in an infamous solitary confinement wing known as the “dungeon” because he refused to cut his dreadlocks, part of MOVE's belief system. He said he survived in part by developing a black history quiz, with other prisoners tapping out answers to questions like,  When was Brown v Board of Education? Who was Dred Scott? What year were the Black Panthers founded? Why do we remember John Brown? He had earlier come before the parole board, but he always maintained his innocence and refused to express remorse for any actions because "they are the ones who were wrong." His release, said Brad Thomson, a member of his legal team, “affirms what the movement to free the Move 9 has been arguing for decades: that their continued incarceration is unjust.” Today,  just one MOVE member, Charles ‘Chuck’ Africa, remains in prison; he had a parole hearing last month, and supporters are hopeful he will be released soon. Del Africa celebrated his freedom by striking the same pose as that photo over 40 years ago. Then he went home to his surviving family. "It’s something that they told us would never happen," said Janine Africa, released earlier from prison. "But I never lost faith that this day would come. The power of righteousness will never betray you.”

“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” - Martin Luther King Jr.


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 Seconds after this photo, police dragged Del Africa off by his hair and attacked him. Photo by Philadelphia Inquirer

Africa on his release. Photo by Brad Thomson


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