Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre. A Time magazine article from 1960 explains what happened when some of South Africa's black decided to protest the apartheid regime's oppressive passbook system, which restricted their freedom of movement:
For years the Africans hated and endured the system. Then a new and more militant organization called the Pan-African Congress decided to exploit the passbook grievance. It urged Africans all over the Union to descend last week upon local police stations—without their passbooks, without arms, without violence—and demand to be arrested...The "mob" was likely much smaller, probably fewer than 7,000 people. But the police panicked and fired into the crowd. Sixty-nine black South Africans were killed. 180 were wounded. South Africans - and the world -were shocked by the horrific images that came out of that day.
At first, everything was relatively quiet, too, at the Sharpeville police station, 28 miles southwest of Johannesburg—but Sharpeville was soon to become a headline name the world over. Twenty police, nervously eying a growing mob of 20,000 Africans demanding to be arrested, barricaded themselves behind a 4-ft. wire-mesh fence surrounding the police station. The crowd's mood was ugly, and 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armored cars, were rushed in. Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers zoomed within a hundred feet of the ground, buzzing the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The Africans responded by hurling stones, which rattled harmlessly off the armored cars and into the police compound, striking three policemen.
Sharpeville was the first major turning point in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. The rest of the world started to question the regime's racist policies much more openly; South Africa left the commonwealth a year later.
It also provoked the militarization of the anti-apartheid movement. The ANC's militant wing, MK (Umkhonto wa Sizwe) and Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, both formed soon after the massacre. The next thirty years were marked with horrific acts of violence before - to almost everyone's surprise - the evil of apartheid ended peacefully.
Five years later to the day, American civil rights protesters led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began marching from Selma to Montgomery. The attempt by 600 marchers to do the same thing three weeks earlier culminated in Bloody Sunday, an attack by local and state law enforcement officials. With a protective order from a federal judge, five times as many marchers turned out for the March 21 walk. A few months later, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, which effectively ended the last vestiges of legal discrimination in the south.
My students (whom, you will remember, are almost all black men) sometimes debate the question: "Are you a Malcolm or a Martin?" What they mean by this is, "Is social change best achieved through peaceful means (as MLK carried out his work) or violent means (as Malcolm X advocated)?"
I cannot even begin to claim to be qualified to answer this question. If we look at political history, it's clear that MLK's nonviolent methods worked to restore voting rights and some degree of social equality for American minorities, and they worked relatively quickly. MK and Poqo's violent methods certainly also had an effect on the apartheid regime, although the struggle was very long and ultimately did not end because of violence but rather because of economic turmoil and Mandela's willingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement with de Klerk. But nothing approaching true equality of economic opportunity has happened for the vast majority of blacks in either country.
What is clear is that violent events like the Sharpeville Massacre provoke a response, especially when the media pick them up. A comparable event in the U.S. was the Emmett Till murder. Till was neither the first nor the last African-American teenage boy to be lynched by Mississippi rednecks, but his mother's decision to leave his casket open and to let the media photograph his mangled body was absolutely essential as a galvanizing factor for the Civil Rights Movement. The site horrified everyone, especially white American families outside of the South. It woke them up to what was going on and slowly built support for the growing movement that effected remarkable change.
So let us remember the 69 victims of the Sharpeville Massacre today. Their deaths were not in vain. South Africa has a long way to go in creating a truly equal society, but had it not been for Sharpeville, the road to freedom might have been much longer. And we continue to hope for a better future.