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On September 12, 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, died in police custody. He is a world famous symbol of not just resistance but Black resistance against oppression. With a life story so compelling, Denzel Washington had to play him in the movie Cry Freedom and A Tribe Called Quest (“Steve Biko, Stir It Up”), among others, had to devote songs to him. So who was Steve Biko and what’s so great about him?

If you’ve never heard of him maybe that’s because he was the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa although we tend to think of Black consciousness in the United States. At that time South Africa was under the apartheid system, or what we in the United States would call segregation.

Apartheid means “apartness” in Afrikaans, a language spoken in parts of South Africa. Under the South African apartheid system the white minority government restricted where the Asians, the Mixed race people and the Black people could live, own businesses and own land, especially the Black people. On top of that for the non-white groups – education, jobs, and unions were separate and substandard. Participation in government was limited also.

A number of Blacks and some whites opposed these laws and actively resisted through strikes, demonstrations and sabotage. They were often met with violence and punishment from the government. Steve Biko was one of the South Africans who resisted.

As a smart kid in school, Steve Biko got good grades but was kicked out of high school in 3 months for his political activities, but that didn’t stop him from eventually going to medical school. He became even more involved in political activities and founded South African Students’ Organization (SASO).

Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy was that Black people were psychologically affected by oppression and were internalizing negative stereotypes about themselves. To him Black Consciousness meant “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.” He preached “Black is Beautiful” and “break the chains of oppression” to Black people.

His speeches caught the attention of the authorities and he was banned from speaking and writing about this cause in public. Despite detention and harassment by the police, Biko continued speaking for 4 years. In late August of 1977 Biko was detained by police under the Terrorism Act. He was beaten so badly it has been said that Nelson Mandela, another anti-apartheid activist in South Africa at the time who was imprisoned for 27 years by the government, had it easy. Steve Biko was questioned, starved, “chained to a grill at night and left to lie in urine-soaked blankets. He had been stripped naked and kept in leg-irons for 48 hours in his cell. A blow in a scuffle with security police led to him suffering brain damage as he was beaten till he was unconscious.

On September 12, 1977 at the age of 30 Steve Biko died leaving behind a wife and two children. The police lied about the whole thing. So did the doctors who treated his injuries.

His death was mourned by the world. 15,000 people showed up to his funeral. It received worldwide attention, shedding a very negative light on the South African government. In 1994 the country’s constitution was rewritten, Nelson Mandela was elected their first Black president and the last of apartheid was outlawed. Second only to Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko was the most important person in the Black Freedom movement. On the 20th anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder, Mandela said,

“One of the greatest legacies of the struggle that Biko waged – and for which he died – was the explosion of pride among the victims of apartheid.”

Learn more about apartheid and Steven Biko here and here.