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From Selma to Cairo: The people drive freedom

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Contributor
  • Roland Martin: Egyptians' protest reminiscent of Martin Luther King's "fierce urgency of now"
  • He likens arrest of Google exec Wael Ghonim to King's arrest in Montgomery
  • Martin: No doubt Egyptians will not stop protesting until their dream of democracy is a reality

Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch With Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- It's always interesting talking to American youth, especially African Americans, who are quick to suggest that the "old ways of doing things" like marches, rallies, protests and boycotts have no effect on changing public policy today.

Maybe someone should tell that to the people in Egypt, who, over the course of 18 days, brought the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak to its knees and forced him to resign as president.

While Mubarak tried desperately to hold on to power, the millions of Egyptians, led by the nation's disgruntled young, made it clear that waiting for him to not seek re-election in September wasn't enough; they wanted him gone. Today.

Their ability to remain unified reminded me of "the fierce urgency of now" often proclaimed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., making it clear that when the people want freedom, asking them to wait is a waste of time. What did Dr. King title his letters from a Birmingham jail? "Why We Can't Wait."

The developments in Egypt that were covered each day were eerily similar to those of the Civil Rights Movement. The spark in northern Africa began with a Tunisian farmer setting himself on fire to protest police trying to extort money from him. In 1955, the fire burning inside African Americans was lit by the brutal murder of Emmett Till.

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Egypt's influence on region

In Egypt, the nation's young used Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to get their message out and to show the world that they were unwilling to continue to live in a state of oppression. During the Civil Rights Movement, long before Time, Newsweek and the New York Times showed up, the Chicago Defender, Memphis Tri-State Defender, and a host of other Black newspapers were the outlet used by leaders to get their message to the masses, as chronicled by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff in "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation."

One of the galvanizing forces in Egypt was Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google marketing executive. His arrest and subsequent release rallied the people even more. We can't forget the arrests of a 26-year-old preacher in Montgomery and other cities that put the attention on the oppressive nature of Jim Crow all across the south and galvanized his supporters. That man was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His insistence of following a nonviolent path to changing America was seen and felt all across Egypt. Knowing full well that they would not have the sympathy of the world if they chose to take up arms against their oppressors, the Egyptian protestors maintained their commitment to civil disobedience. And just like when Bull Connor and angry mobs showed their violent ways against fellow Americans, the world seethed with anger as pro-Mubarak supporters killed protestors, and the secret police were unleashed with fury. The people in Egypt were just as brave and fearless as the people in Selma and Little Rock.

Even the reaction from American political leaders today during the Egyptian crisis was similar to the lack of forthrightness during the Civil Right Movement. Instead of being unequivocal in standing for full freedom for all Egyptians, political leaders hedged their bets, trying to protect their interests, and not those of the people demanding a change.

While many feared for what America would look like when Jim Crow was crushed, too many fear what will happen in Egypt in a post-Mubarak world. It is abundantly clear that those demanding freedom will not accept anything less. They want free and fair elections; they want the government to care more about the poor and disenfranchised and not just the well to do.

Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Dorothy Height, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker and countless others didn't settle for some freedom; they demanded full access to democracy.

And I have no doubt that the people of Egypt will not stop protesting and rallying and mobilizing and organizing until their dream of democracy becomes a reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.