Celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 17, Paradise Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., joined the American Anti-Slavery Group in a special service to call urgent attention to the mass slavery of black Christians and animists in southern Sudan by the Muslim government in the north.
Democratic congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey, a senior member and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was honored at the service. He has traveled to devastated areas in southern Sudan to meet with escaped and redeemed slaves and has pushed for the Clinton administration to actively join the new abolitionists.
Also present was Jane Alley, who escaped a slave raid on her village in Sudan in 1990. Another speaker was Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, which, along with Christian Solidarity International, has liberated more than 15,000 slaves.
Many more, however, remain in captivity as Arab militias on horseback continue to sweep into black villages to kill many of the men and abduct the women. The women are sold as concubines and house slaves to buyers in the north. Also abducted are young boys, who are then forced into Islam _ although many believers in Islam tell me that slavery is abhorred by those who truly practice that religion.
Also at the Paradise Baptist Church service in memory of Dr. King were ministers of other African-American churches. All present committed themselves to pressure New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman to divest that state's $17-million investment in the shares of Talisman Energy, Canada's largest independent oil company, which is a heavy investor in government oil fields in southern Sudan.
Meanwhile, in New York, the state government's first elected black official, Comptroller Carl McCall, intends to join New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi at the next shareholders meeting of Talisman Energy to persuade shareholders to withdraw their investment. Talisman Energy denies the existence of government-encouraged slavery in Sudan.
The anger at Talisman and other companies and countries that are partners of the government of Sudan is based on the horrors experienced by blacks in southern Sudan.
Another escaped slave, Victoria Ajang, testified before Congress on May 27. She told of the raid on her village by government militia forces:
"Against the dark sky, we saw flames from the houses the soldiers had set on fire. The cries of the people forced inside filled our ears as they were burned to death. Our people were being turned into ash .
"My neighbor, Batul Adam, was captured as well. Her beautiful daughters were taken captive and given to northern masters. There is a powerful ideology that drives these slave raids. In the government's mentality, all blacks are bad _ slaves. Whether Christian, Muslim or animist, we should be slaves forever. We are inferior beings who must submit or be killed . I still see the bones of starved people, who lack even the energy to bury the dead around them."
In his 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "When you are harried by day and haunted at night by the fact that you are a Negro living constantly at a tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness'; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
Does anyone doubt that if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive he would be in the forefront of those, black and white, leading the charge against slavery in Sudan? Yet a friend of mine who was at the abolitionist service for Dr. King at the Paradise Baptist Church told me that the same Sunday, up the street from that church, Jesse Jackson, who prides himself on his association with Dr. King, was speaking at another black church on economics.
Jackson has steadfastly refused to take any part in the liberation of slaves in Sudan. "He's too busy," says one of his allies. But Jackson spent a lot of time recently in Decatur, Ill., protesting the expulsion of six black youngsters from school.
At the service for Dr. King and the slaves, all present, black and white, joined hands and sang We Shall Overcome. Where was Jesse?
Syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.
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