Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium
Truman State University
January 16, 2001
Reflections on the relevance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech
God Is Marching On!" to the current situation in Chiapas, Mexico.
I want to invite you to a place called Chiapas, the southernmost state
in Mexico. Southern Mexico shares many similarities with the southern United
States. Historically, a small white population has dominated a large so-called
"minority" population and has grown wealthy off of the exploitation of
their labor. In the U.S., enslaved Africans were forced to work on cotton
plantations. In Mexico, Maya Indians caught in an equally abusive system
of debt peonage were forced to labor on mahogany plantations. In the United
States, Jim Crow laws assured that Africans would never enjoy full exercise
of their political rights or earn fair wages for their labor. In Mexico,
the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994
similarly meant that the Maya would never know anything but poverty and
exclusion. In both cases, these subjugated peoples have fought for their
civil rights-the right for land and jobs, access to governmental resources,
the right to vote, and the right to be treated like civilized human beings.
Centuries of injustice and repression resulted in the emergence of an
armed insurrection led by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN).
In declaring war on the Mexican government on January 1, 1994, poet-philosopher
Subcomandante Marcos observed that one could disagree with the violent
methods that the Zapatistas had chosen but not with the justness of their
struggle. Government and paramilitary forces responded to the uprising
with attacks on autonomous communities, resulting in the harassment, displacement,
and massacre of Indigenous peoples.
Today, rather than talking about the Zapatistas I would like to focus
on another group called Las Abejas-the Bees. The Bees are a Christian pacifist
group located in the Tzotzil-Maya speaking municipality of Chenalhó.
While they share the sentiments and objectives of the better known Zapatista
movement, they are committed to nonviolent methods including demonstrations,
non-cooperation, active resistance, and civil disobedience to achieve social
justice in Chiapas. Much like Martin Luther King noted in Montgomery 35
years ago, the Bees have "faith that nonviolence and its power can transform
dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows" in the struggle for peace, democracy,
justice, and dignity for all Mexicans.
On December 22, 1997, the Bees gathered for a second day of prayer and
fasting in a wooden church in the small, isolated community of Acteal when
a paramilitary force called Mascaras Rojas (Red Masks) arrived on the road
overlooking the village. Paramilitary forces, much like the Ku Klux Klan
in the United States, represent the oppressive arm of the exploitative
dominant society that seeks to deny the Maya Indians their civil rights.
They receive training, arms, and support from military and police forces,
and act in coordination with these state forces (some of who have trained
at the U.S. Army School of the Americas) to defend elite political and
economic interests through intimidation and repression of the civilian
Starting in the church and then following the wailing of infants to
flush out those who fled to hide in the bushes, the paramilitary forces
cowardly attacked the unarmed inhabitants with high-powered U.S.-supplied
automatic weapons. Hours later when they had finished their methodical
attacks, 45 people including 21 women (5 of whom were pregnant), 15 children
and 9 men lay dead in a ravine, and 26 more were injured.
Three years later with the government still not having heard the Mayas'
cry for justice, 250 Bees set out on a 65-day, 1400-kilometer walking pilgrimage
from Acteal to Tepeyac, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Similar
to King's 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the Bees's pilgrimage
was "for a just peace and a life with dignity for our people." Like Blacks
in Alabama 35 years earlier, the Maya no longer want to be systematically
excluded politically and economically from the rest of Mexico. They prayed
for a peaceful transition to democracy and that their friends and neighbors
might not fall into the temptation of armed insurrection, and that the
government might not return to the temptation of violent repression.
The Bees arrived back in Acteal just in time for the 3rd
anniversary commemoration of the massacre. Like King noted after the 1965
march, their feet were tired but their souls were rested.
In a cold drizzle and with a heavy fog, 1500 people, including Maya
Indians as well as others from throughout Mexico and around the world,
gathered for a reenactment of the massacre with wooden guns and firecrackers
popping. The survivors of the massacre were standing just above the scene,
wearing sashes indicating that they were present during the massacre. Former
Bishop Samuel Ruiz observed that "The heavens are pouring tears over us,
but they are just to nourish us with their hope."
Alonso López, speaking both in his native Tzotzil-Maya and Spanish,
led the commemoration. A Maya priest offered prayers for the dead from
an altar decorated with candles and flowers, with incense wafting over
the crowd. A choir of displaced Bees sang hymns. Far from being victims,
the Mayas have emerged from these experiences empowered and even more deeply
committed to their struggle for social justice. Felipe Arizmendi, the current
bishop of Chiapas, noted that "the brothers and sisters of Acteal are not
alone, this presence demonstrates that the blood shed so arbitrarily and
unjustly three years ago was not in vain."
Significant for the Mayas, however, was the return of retired Samuel
Ruiz (whom the Maya call Tatic, meaning "Father") who during his 40 years
as bishop of San Cristóbal fought tirelessly for the rights of the
Indigenous peoples, much like Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first
bishop of San Cristóbal did almost 500 years before. In his homily,
Ruiz noted that Acteal has "become a cry of hope" and "their voices have
grown and reach not only through spaces but also through time far from
this place." Like King, their legacy will echo throughout history.
Volcanos provide a good metaphor for Latin America, both because of
their incredible beauty as well as the ever present threat of unbridled
violence. Just in time for the Acteal commemoration, the giant Popocatepetl
volcano awoke from its 500-year slumber and threatened to cover Mexico
with ash. After the commemoration, Popo settled back down into a more peaceful
state, but seemed to leave behind the message that unless justice comes
to this land violence and destruction may very well be the result. Upon
arrival in Montgomery, King pled for a continuing commitment to nonviolence.
He proclaimed that "we must come to see that the end we seek is a society
at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." The
Bees are following in Dr. Martin Luther King's footsteps to achieve that
goal. How long will it take?