In his proclamation declaring the celebration of African American History Month during February 2011, President Obama said:
Bolstered by strong values of faith and community, black men and women have launched businesses, fueled scientific advances, served our Nation in the Armed Forces, sought public office, taught our children, and created groundbreaking works of art and entertainment. To perfect our Union and provide a better life for their children, tenacious civil rights pioneers have long demanded that America live up to its founding principles, and their efforts continue to inspire us.
The U.S. has celebrated African American History Month (also called Black History Month) since 1976, and as the name implies, this is a domestically focused activity. Here in India, however, I think there are two links that can be drawn. One of those concerns the way in which both India and the United States value diversity and protect minorities. The other involves the strong ties between the American civil rights movement and the principles of non-violent resistance espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. Both tolerance for diversity and non-violent resistance are being tested today in different parts of the world.
In neither country is commitment to diversity unqualified and entirely secure. Concerns about illegal immigration and about terrorism in the U.S. have led to debate over profiling of Hispanics and Muslims for scrutiny. The Obama administration has firmly rejected profiling, but some states, notably Arizona, have enacted laws endorsing it. Here in Hyderabad, a recent incident highlighted the fact that many Indians do not believe that minority protections or tolerance for diversity should extend to gays and lesbians.
While the U.S. respects that values differ around the globe, we believe that it is impossible to stand up for human rights without also defending gay rights. Article 2 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Just as Gandhiji’s Satyagrapha philosophy inspired Dr. Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil rights movement, today’s democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are applying the same principles of non-violent resistance to great effect. This is an exciting time for proponents of democracy in many parts of the world.
In some places, however, reactionary forces are still powerful. I was distressed to learn of the imprisonment on charges of treason of 46 Zimbabweans, including many friends whose courage I witnessed firsthand during my tour in Harare. Their “treasonous” behavior consisted of attending a meeting to discuss the implications of events in the Middle East.
As Black History Month ends, my thoughts and sympathies lie with minorities suffering persecution wherever they may be, and democracy activists putting their lives on the line in Libya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.