‘Martyrs’ who left indelible marks
As fate would have it, a few of the most influential and iconic advocates for human rights were murdered in the month of April - Chris Hani, Martin Luther King jr and Abraham Lincoln were all shot and killed in April.
Although their alleged killers were found, conspiracy theories remain about who was truly behind their deaths.
Lincoln was the 16th president of the US, known for leading the Union through the American Civil War, but most importantly for abolishing slavery in 1863. He was by no means a saint and like all these April martyrs he had his shortcomings.
Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on April 15, 1865.
Booth allegedly opposed his abolition of slavery and abhorred everything Lincoln stood for.
Historians agree that Booth did not act alone, but the list of his alleged co-conspirators includes the Roman Catholic Church and Lincoln’s vice-president at the time, Andrew Johnson.
Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln was particularly suspicious of Johnson.
The abolition of slavery in 1865 was just the beginning. African-Americans were no longer slaves, but they were far from being treated humanely.
Thousands of freed African-Americans were killed by white supremacists who were unable to accept the demise of cruel racial subordination.
Decades of violence followed, including acts of lynching. By the 1960s African-Americans were still treated like second-class citizens and deprived of their civil liberties.
The racial segregation, violence and subjugation experienced by African-Americans ranged from purely absurd occurrences to utterly devastating events.
Take the story of Clennon Washington King jr, who in 1958 applied for admission to the whites-only University of Mississippi. A judge had him thrown into a mental health institution on the basis that he must be clinically insane to think that a black man could go to such a university.
The grave injustice and hatred gave rise to the civil rights movement that saw the likes of Martin Luther King jr rise to prominence for their activism.
King believed that peaceful non-violent activities were the only way to bring about sustainable change. He was of the view that it was not a case of “non-violence versus violence” but a case of “non-violence versus non-existence”.
King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, after giving his famous last “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech just a day before.
The alleged shooter, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty but later recanted his plea, and denied pulling the trigger.
In a civil wrongful death lawsuit initiated by the King family, it was uncovered that US government agencies and the Mafia were allegedly all part of the conspiracy.
Ray died a prisoner in 1998.
South Africa’s apartheid, though years later and within the framework of its distinguishing features, bore striking resemblance to the racism in the US. The oppression of black South Africans by the white minority gave birth to a generation of freedom fighters and anti-apartheid stalwarts including Chris Hani.
Hani was the leader of the SACP and chief of staff of the armed wing of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe. His contribution to the fight against apartheid, his charisma and belief in the “upliftment of the working masses of our country” made him one of the luminaries of the anti-apartheid movement.
Hani was so influential that his assassination almost sent South Africa over the edge into a state of civil war.
Like King and Lincoln, Hani’s death triggered its fair share of conspiracy theories. Janusz Walus, a right-wing extremist who fired the fatal shots on April 10, 1993, and Clive Derby-Lewis, who supplied the weapon, were charged and convicted of his murder. They were originally sentenced to death but the abolition of the death penalty in 1995 saved them that unfortunate fate.
Many believe that they were acting under instructions from the Conservative Party and had political motives, and they in fact made that case when they sought amnesty before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission denied amnesty, stating that there was no evidence to indicate that the two had acted under orders.
Lincoln, King and Hani stood for progressive change, racial equality and freedom. They lost their lives for the cause but made a significant impact on the lives of generations to come.
Although clouds of mystery and doubt shroud their deaths there can be little doubt that they positively shaped the world we live in today.
Angela Mudukuti is an international criminal justice lawyer at the Wayamo Foundation, formerly with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the International Criminal Court.