The sun poked through the curtains of the house on E. Third and S. Ottawa in Dixon, IL. My son, Scott, bounded out of bed like any boy who had just turned seven. This was an important day for him-Monday, September 12, 1977. There was only school separating him from his birthday party and presents. For him, Robert Browning's poetic affirmation certainly applied, "God's in his Heaven-All's right with the world!"

Photo of Biko However, all was not right with the world. Halfway around it in a South African prison cell, Steve Biko died. The police had beaten him to death while he was in their custody. The hearing that looked into his death the following year heard testimony that he had committed suicide by repeatedly beating himself about the head and that those self-inflicted wounds were responsible for his death.

Thirty years have come and gone since that senseless and brutal killing of Biko. Why should the world pause and remember this one black African freedom-fighter? There were many others who suffered grievously like Biko. Who can count all those who fought the apartheid government and were themselves imprisoned, beaten, and often killed? There is no accurate accounting of the hundreds of thousands of indigenous black South Africans who suffered under the brutality of white rule.

Nevertheless, on the thirtieth anniversary of Steve Biko's death, we all need to look again at this one man's life and thought. In doing so, we will be able to see through the prism that he provides an insight into both white racism and the place that blacks still find themselves even a generation after his death. Biko's message is still as relevant to both races today as it was in the 1970s.

Bantu Stephen Biko was born on December 18, 1946 in King William's Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa. After attending a boarding school in Natal, Biko went to the University of Natal Medical School in Pietermaritzburg in 1966. While there, he became active in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). In 1968, feeling that the NUSAS didn't fully address the needs of black South African students, Biko formed the South African Students' Organization (SASO), which developed into the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

In 1972, Biko helped found the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), which worked for social justice around Durban. The BPC was an umbrella group that pulled together scores of black consciousness groups in South Africa that, at the time, were all fighting the apartheid government's oppression. As a result of his efforts and activism, Biko was banned by the government. The ban restricted Biko to King William's Town. This was designed to keep him away from the activities of BPC in Durban. In spite of the restraints, Biko continued his work with the group.

In a hauntingly accurate prediction, not only about his own death but also the future of South Africa, Biko wrote, "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die."

Over the next several years, Biko was arrested on four separate occasions. On his final incarceration, he was taken into custody on August 21, 1977 and was held in Port Elizabeth. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury."

Finally, the doctors suggested that he should be taken to the prison hospital in Pretoria where he was driven on September 11, 1977. He rode in the back seat of a Land Rover for the 740-mile ride from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. Biko died the next day from his beatings. He was 31 years old. The police initially claimed that he died from a hunger strike.

The hunger strike allegation was quickly put to rest when photographs of Biko's beaten body were published throughout the world by his friend, Donald Woods. Woods was a white liberal and editor of the East London Daily Dispatch. Biko had engaged Woods in a long running dialogue over how to best deal with apartheid. Woods gradually came to understand and accept Biko's position. During this process, the two became close friends. Woods became a staunch supporter of Biko's work within the white community. When Biko was murdered, it was Woods who gained access to the morgue where Biko's body was being held and had pictures taken of it. Those photographs were sent worldwide and added to the growing outrage against the apartheid régime.

The tidal wave against the South African government had been building for some time. The Soweto uprising and subsequent massacre in June of 1976 where several hundred protesters including young children were killed by the South African security police had caused worldwide outrage. Biko's killing added to the call for the end of apartheid. It was becoming clear that the old order was going to change; it was now merely a matter of time.

As the world recalls the legacy of Stephen Biko, it is interesting to note that his insights about both blacks and whites nearly a half century ago are still applicable about both groups. Sadly, neither group has totally accepted his message.

Since white people created the apartheid problem, whether speaking of it in South Africa or in America, a good beginning place for them to honor Biko's legacy, is to come to the realization of their place within the human community. Biko wrote, "So as a prelude, whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior (to blacks)." The equality of each individual must be recognized.

While that might seem a rather simple starting point, it is a stumbling block for many whites who even in subtle ways still feel superior to people of color. This arrogance fed the drive of Manifest Destiny of Americans and the equally condescending notion of noblesse oblige of Europeans. It is critical that whites see this self-righteous cancer within their community. For without recognizing it, whites will continue to assume an attitude of moral superiority over all people of color-including blacks. This leads to apartheid in places like South Africa and slavery/segregation in places like America. Without this moral adjustment in attitude, unborn generations will be paying for those sins of the fathers of both countries. Seen solely from the white man's perspective, neither the notion of apartheid nor of slavery was a wise decision. Whites need to learn that lesson-racism is not only inhumane toward the victim, but it is too costly for the perpetrator. Racism is not cost-effective on any level. While it would be great to see the "heart of man" change for idealist reasons, financial gain or loss remains an often greater catalyst to motivate such shifts.

Although racism is inherently evil, reprehensible, and despicable, it is, in some ways, easier to address than the issues that Biko raised for the black community. Biko was more concerned about addressing the way his black sisters and brothers thought about themselves. He said that blacks were suffering a corporate inferiority complex because of all the centuries of white domination. As he looked upon blacks, he said, "All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity."

Biko claimed that blacks have bought into the message that whites have taught them-whites are superior/blacks are inferior. He wrote, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." If you can get people to believe what their oppressor believes, you really don't need many chains to enslave them; they will enslave themselves. Biko was calling for liberation...first, of the mind of the oppressed.

The question, therefore, is how is that to be accomplished? Biko certainly began to answer that question when he said, "Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being." This liberation needs primarily to be accomplished by black people themselves-and not co-equally with white liberals even like Biko's friend, Donald Woods. Whites can work within their community to change the hearts and minds of their own people, but they really need to stay out of the development work of black consciousness. As well meaning as some white liberals might be, they need to know their place and the limits of their own understanding and experience. That place is not working on the rebuilding of the black psyche that whites have attacked for centuries. But, it is being committed to tearing down the walls that the whole notion of white superiority has wrought in individual societies and in the world.

"The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth," said Biko. For him, this emotional revitalization process had to be a black experience devoid of white involvement. Blacks, whether in South Africa or America, need to come to find their own identity that is shaped by their own black experience.

Biko wrote, "The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity." The irony is "the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality." History has proven him correct. Those who were beaten and abused have made great strides in beginning to turn the vehicle around not only for themselves but for the country of South Africa.

Biko also predicted that, "In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift-a more human face." Indeed, that is Biko's legacy not just for Africa but for the entire human race...a more human face. Our human race has needed a radical transformation and makeover for countless centuries.

Biko headstoneThirty years have come and gone from that day in September. South Africa is a free but struggling country. All the remnants of apartheid have not been reconciled or erased, but a generation has had the luxury of growing older naturally. And thanks to Bantu Stephen Biko, the face of humankind is a bit more humane today.

For more material on Steve Biko and Donald Woods.

Here is my interview about Steve Biko aired on NPR. NPR logo

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