Why Martin Luther King matters to Europe’s Roma

With Roma issues hot in the news in Norway, Finland and Denmark – as well as in many other parts of Europe – Robert Rustem from the European Roma and Travellers Forum has written a thought provoking article comparing the Roma peoples’ struggle to that of African Americans:

There can be few more inspiring litmus tests of social justice than the one laid out for America in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have A Dream’ speech.

The black civil rights leader’s passionate appeal at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963, was an exhortation to recast the country’s racial model.

Some 47 years later, King, the man and the methods of the civil rights movement remain a model and a point of reference for marginalised communities.

Roma activists in Europe look closely at King’s fight for justice. In particular, they are now debating the value of direct action and civil disobedience in overturning the racism which has marked them out as second class citizens in their own countries.

Certainly, there are strong parallels in the condition and treatment of the two communities.

Like black Americans of the pre-civil rights era, Europe’s 10 -12 million Roma are “politically invisible” despite being the region’s largest ethnic minority.

Roma suffer from widespread and deeply-ingrained discrimination. Compared to other groups, Roma people have lower life expectancy. They have poorer health and live in worse housing. Employment and education levels are abysmal.

Like black Americans, Roma know the indignity of segregated schooling and medical experiments conducted without informed consent. The American Tuskegee syphilis programme finds its echo in the sterilisation of Roma women throughout Europe.

Whilst Roma do not yet face the terror of lynching, they are still subject to random attacks and, as in Belfast last year, are liable to be chased out of their homes. In some parts of central and eastern Europe, Roma run the risk of being murdered in their sleep.

The hate which fed the systematic killing of up to 1.5 million Roma during World War Two’s ‘Pharrajimos’ or Roma genocide continues to this very day.

The television appeal for a “final solution” to the “Gypsy problem” made in the Czech Republic last year, was a grisly reminder to Roma communities that even in 21st century Europe, they should keep moving or live in fear.

Rather than recognise the plight of Roma as an urgent social and political issue, too many European governments ignore the application of their own laws, see Roma as primarily the concern of local councils and the criminal justice system or simply do nothing at all.

A similar intransigence served as a call to action for the African-American leadership in the 1950’s. It responded by mobilising support among black and white people and set out to heap shame on America’s political elite.

Bus boycotts, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations and the emergence of more militant political forces such as Malcolm X, focussed the international spotlight on the injustice of Jim Crow Apartheid and created the political pressure needed for lasting change.

There are those in the Roma community who believe that similar non-violent tactics may now be needed in Europe to end the cycle of good intentions, warm words and neglect that has marked the post-war discussion of the ‘Roma Question.’

Admittedly, such thinking remains on the fringes of political activism but it is likely to filter into the Roma mainstream should they continue to be excluded from the European project of free movement and open borders .

More strident voices are already arguing that Roma communities have waited long enough for what Martin Luther King described during his epic speech as “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Change for Roma is coming too slowly and too late. For decades, the Council of Europe in particular has worked to fight anti-Gypsyism. Its Dosta! (Enough) Campaign recruited recently the French actress Fanny Ardant, director of the film Chiméres Absentes, to highlight the injustices forced upon Roma people.

Whilst it is true that there are no longer anti-Roma laws on the statutes in Europe, the mountain of reports from the Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Commission Against Racism And Intolerance (ECRI), show that virulent anti-Gypsyism not only survives but is growing in many countries.

That is why Europe’s Roma will share in the celebrations marking the 47th anniversary of the March On Washington and look to the civil rights movement for inspiration.

It offers a convincing example of how reconciliation, social justice and the progress of the marginalised into to the mainstream can be achieved.