Egyptians draw inspiration from Civil Rights Movement comic book

OPINION - Over fifty years later, 'The Montgomery Story' has been given new life -- in the Arab world...

With as many as 2 million protesters flooding the streets of Cairo, and protests throughout Egypt, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he will not seek a new term in office in the September elections. Change seems to be on its way in that African nation. But did a 50-year old comic book about Martin Luther King help change the course of history in Egypt? Rep. John Lewis thinks so. On MSNBC the congressman and veteran of the civil rights movement told Andrea Mitchell that young Egyptians have been buying a comic book called the The Montgomery Story.

The comic book has a very interesting story. The Montgomery Story was published in 1956 during the civil rights movement in the American South. The comic, which for the most part was forgotten in the U.S., focused on the Montgomery bus boycott, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and precipitated by Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus. The boycott ended Montgomery’s segregationist public transportation policies. And the comic book inspired a younger generation of disenfranchised African-Americans to fight against Jim Crow segregation through nonviolent civil disobedience.

In what may be described as an ingenious marketing strategy, the group Fellowship of Reconciliation decided to build momentum for the civil rights movement by disseminating information to the semi-literate. With a $5,000 grant, the group consulted with King to publish a comic focusing on his strategy of nonviolent resistance via Mahatma Gandhi, and his Christian upbringing. 250,000 copies were printed, and only a handful of copies remain.

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“This is nonviolent protest against injustice. Our chief weapons are moral and spiritual forces,” King says in the comic book. “We depend on love! Love and goodwill toward all men must be at the forefront of our movement if it is to be successful.”

Over fifty years later, The Montgomery Story has been given new life — in the Arab world. Egyptian activist and blogger Dalia Ziada — director of the Cairo bureau of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), a civil rights organization formed in the wake of 9/11 — translated the comic into Arabic and Farsi. “Nonviolent activism is needed in the Middle East more than ever,” Dalia said. “Martin Luther King’s legacy offers a powerful alternative to violence, and we hope this new Arabic comic book can inspire young Middle Easterners to take responsible action for reform.”

A survivor of female genital mutilation, Dalia had used King’s method of nonviolence to stop her uncle from circumcising his daughter in 2006. “The main message I hope that Arabic readers will take from the MLK comic book is that: change is not impossible. It is time to stop using our muscles blindly,” Dalia added. “Let’s try using our intellect in innovative, creative ways to pressure decision makers and end dictatorship, tyranny and the suppression practiced against us.”
Professor Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agrees. Phares told BBC Radio Arabic that “Martin Luther King’s story should inspire underdogs in the Arab and Muslim world to rise using nonviolence. There are plenty of struggle against oppression in that part of the world, and for a long time. Hopefully the MLK story will inspire the oppressed to rise in that part of the world and achieve equality and justice.”

AIC’s HAMSA (Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance) initiative has printed over 2,500 copies of the comic book in the Mideast, and has made the book available online to activists in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen.

Historically, the Civil Rights Movement has inspired people and movements around the world. King understood the connection between racism in the U.S. and struggles for freedom everywhere, including the movement against South African apartheid. He called for economic sanctions against South Africa, made an “Appeal for Action against Apartheid” with ANC leader Chief Albert J. Lutuli, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960.

The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, which began in the 1960s, was inspired by the civil rights movement in America. Nobel Peace Prize winner and Northern Irish politician John Hume was greatly influenced by King’s message of nonviolence.

“He was an enormous influence. He was very strongly committed to his approach to non-violence, even when you were being beaten on the streets, the message was don’t retaliate. Let the world see who the real aggressor is.” Hume said of Dr. King. “When I was growing up, the housing situation in the area was appalling. I don’t know how the people stuck it — two to three families living in a house and the houses were small. It was really terrible, but the Civil Rights Movement achieved an awful lot.”

Iranians were inspired by Montgomery in 2005, when the Tehran bus protests took place. Mansour Osanloo, a trade unionist, was imprisoned and had his tongue cut by the Iranian government because he sought better working conditions for bus drivers. In 1989, at the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China, protestors held signs with pictures of Dr. King and the words “I Have A Dream.” Lei Yixin, a Chinese artist, is lead sculptor of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The memorial is scheduled for completion in Fall 2011. The sculpture of King will be shipped from China and assembled 11,000 miles away in the U.S. And a documentary, Bringing King To China, examines the international impact of Dr. King, and the implications of his philosophy for Chinese society.

Egyptians have Montgomery on their mind, thanks to a comic book that is over 50 years old. And a man who helped to transform America is influencing the Mideast over four decades after his assassination. There’s more to come.