I am not old enough to remember the great anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko in life. At the time of his death in a Pretorian prison cell I had not yet been born and my memories of Apartheid South Africa are limited to it's death throes in the late 1980s and early 1990s from my safe home thousands of miles away. It seems, as we celebrate today the 40th anniversary of his unjust and violent death at the hands of an inherently racist government, his memory, at least in the United States and much of the western world, has been neglected. In fact, if it weren't for the song Biko written by a personal favorite Peter Gabriel, many of us may have never encountered his legacy at all.
So why, on a blog written by a Catholic priest in northeastern PA, would I want to touch on the life and death of a man who lived in a country that is not my own, in an era that is long past, and who didn't appear inherently religious at all? It's simple--Biko's legacy touches on something that is as important today as it was in South Africa in the 1970s--dignity.
As a teenager Biko was expelled from all government schools for his involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement and eventually found a home at the Catholic St. Francis College in Natal. You can still read some of his commentary on his time there, how he learned of the contradictions between the Gospel and the "Christian" society in which he lived and became better able to realize the true call of Christ to the black community of South Africa. So much of his writing, his speaking, and his impact centers on the idea that what was/is needed above all for the oppressed black majority in his home country was a sense of dignity, of pride in being black, of eliminating the false and dangerous notion that they belonged to an inferior race. The Black Consciousness Movement was about more than reforming political or economic systems, it was about restoring a sense of dignity to the minds of black South Africans, of allowing his brothers and sisters to feel proud about who they are and be willing to fight for a more just society.
I do not claim to be an expert on the thought of Steve Biko nor am I qualified to examine or explain his message. I do, however, think it is worthwhile today, 40 years after his death, to take a chance to examine his legacy. A quick Google search today will undoubtedly lead you to no shortage of interpretations. It seems to me, though, that above all he sought to bring dignity back to his black community. It is the dignity of the human person that lies at the heart of all Catholic social teaching, dignity that is God-given and inalienable--a truth Steve Biko knew and was willing to die for.