Photograph of Leonard Peltier courtesy of liberationnews.org
By Joe Thorpe
If we don’t know where we come from, how do we know where to go? In this final installment, Activists You Should Know will be visiting activists of the 20th Century. Those given this consideration have been the few who inspired the many.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the quintessential civil rights leader. King drew the blueprint for civil disobedience and non-violent activism in the dust of the ancestors of black Americans who toiled and perished on this land.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, King experienced his childhood in the Jim Crowe era south. Jim Crowe laws were legally enforced segregation of public spaces. Witnessing this form of racist injustice would be the spark King kindled into the fires of freedom and equality.
King took on the fight of injustice in any form he realized its ugliness to appear. He spoke out against poverty, the Vietnam War, and racial inequality.
Martin Luther King was a man who knew his efforts could force upon him the ultimate sacrifice and unfortunately, it did. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, shot by a white man, James Earl Ray, on April 4, 1968.
Since King’s death, his words, “I have a dream…” have cemented his legacy as a true American hero.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was a journalist and political activist convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, in 1982. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death row the same year, and many claim Abu-Jamal’s conviction was railroaded based on his race and his involvement with the Philadelphia civil rights organization MOVE. Despite many voices claiming Abu-Jamal is innocent of the murder, the Fraternal Order of Police still opposes a new trial. Whether or not he is actually guilty of the murder, the MOVE movement has lived on.
MOVE is not an acronym, it is more a state of being. Members of the MOVE organization say, “on the move,” like today’s youth would say, “stay woke.” MOVE is a mindset against a veil of deception by the government. In 1981, the MOVE organization was occupying a row house in Philadelphia, an attempted police raid of the home resulted in a firefight between members of MOVE and the Philadelphia police department. After expelling over 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the house, the Philadelphia police department dropped two bombs into the home from a helicopter, causing a fire that burned the house to the ground. Eleven members of MOVE, including five children, were killed that day.
Still, it is not Abu-Jamal’s affiliation with MOVE or his controversial criminal trial that has made him known as an activist. From death row, a place where it is illegal to write for profit, Abu-Jamal has managed to publish several books of essays covering topics from the treatment of prisoners by the state and religious authorities, race politics and capitalism.
When one reads the words of Abu-Jamal, his passion, intensity and insights that deal beyond the grasp of mere intellectualism are impossible to deny. Many human rights organizations consider Abu-Jamal to be a political prisoner. Despite the illegality of his writings, his books are available everywhere.
There are few people in the world who wouldn’t know John Lennon if they were shown a picture of him. Lennon became famous as one of four mop-top young men who took over the music scene in the early 1960s. Possibly the first “boy band”, the Beatles started as innocent teens imitating Little Richard and grew to a group of men who had gained wisdom, became clued-in to spirituality and turned on politically.
Lennon epitomized this transition and the 1960s counterculture. He became the voice of a generation. In 1969, Lennon and new wife Yoko Ono staged two “bed-ins” that captured the world’s attention. A play on the popular political demonstration of the sit-in, Lennon and Ono joined the anti-war effort, remaining naked in bed for three days each to promote world peace. Afterward, Lennon released the songs “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”
Lennon became such a powerful voice against the Vietnam War that President Richard Nixon attempted to have him deported to England from America.
Sometimes, all a revolution needs is for one man to use his platform for good to change the world. Even if it is just one person at a time, or one song at a time, those who try to make positive change can cultivate all the power—and love—in the world.
Native American issues are often swept under the rug and nullified by ignorance. Leonard Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, defied the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose mission it was to assimilate Native Americans by placing them in boarding schools and denying them the right to practice their culture.
In 1972, Peltier became a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to address issues of poverty and police brutality in native communities.
In 1977, Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents. According to the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, the FBI agents had been trespassing on tribal lands, when a shootout occurred for unknown reasons. Many of the AIM members who were camping there that day believed they were under attack by unknown assailants and returned fire.
“Native American activist Leonard Peltier has spent over 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Prosecutors and federal agents manufactured evidence against him (including the so-called “murder weapon”); hid proof of his innocence; presented false testimony obtained through torturous interrogation techniques; ignored court orders; and lied to the jury. People are commonly set free due to a single constitutional violation, but Peltier—innocent and faced with a staggering number of constitutional violations—has yet to receive equal justice,” reads the webpage of Peltier’s defense committee.
The plight of Peltier has never left the public sphere for long. Numerous musical acts including Rage Against the Machine and U2 have recorded songs about Peltier, two documentaries have been made and countless people in the celebrity spotlight have called for Peltier’s freedom.
Peltier is not the only standing example of how the U.S. continues to abuse the Native American. From 2016 to 2017, Native American protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline were attacked by dogs, pepper sprayed, and arrested for protecting the drinking water, sacred tribal grounds, and sovereignty of the Native American tribes in that area.
Activists You Should Know has been a segment seeking to explain and inform. Hopefully shining some light on these various activists will inspire others to speak up for what they believe is right.