Although D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has proclaimed Sept. 6 through 12 "Steve Biko Week," it is unlikely that the 10th anniversary of the death of the black South African martyr will receive the kind of attention that is due.
Biko, after all, was just one of hundreds of blacks to die while being "detained" in South African prisons. Not only that, he was considered by some blacks to be too radical because of his anticapitalist philosophy and his view that armed struggle was necessary to break free from shackles of white racist oppression.
Yet, few life histories shed as much light on the essence of global racial conflict as Biko's, and even if adequate publicity is not afforded to this weeklong celebration of his life, it is imperative that local schools make Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement a part of their history lessons.
Failing that, there still will be unique opportunities to get some firsthand impressions of Biko. From noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, Biko's widow, Ntsiki Biko, and other black South Africans will speak at Howard University's Blackburn Center and will announce the establishment of a Steve Biko Trust Fund in the Washington area.
Also, a regional office Black Consciousness Movement of Azania, which Biko founded in 1969, is located in Washington. For more information, write P.O. Box 13038 T Street Station, Washington, D.C. 20009.
Indeed, the Biko story would seem to hold special appeal for youngsters, because Biko was a student when he took many of his boldest political stances.
And for adults, there is no understanding the current labor unrest in South African gold and coal mines without understanding Biko.
Fed up with separate and woefully unequal educational facilities that were so obviously designed to produce slave labor, Biko, in July 1968, helped found the South African Students Association. This was most courageous because, just two years earlier, South African officials had brutally crushed virtually all other black student organizations.
"Blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing," Biko said in a speech to the General Students Conference in 1970.
"They want to do things for themselves and by themselves."
Not long after making that statement, Biko was banned under South Africa's Supression of Communism Act and prohibited from talking to more than one person at a time. It was also a violation of the law to quote him.
In the months leading up to his death, he was accused of telling black schoolchildren charged with setting fire to their school to renege on statements they had made to police.
The truth was that the schoolchildren had been beaten by police and forced to sign confessions that they had not been allowed to read. Biko advised the children to tell this to the court. They were acquitted. So was he.
But in the eyes of South African police, he was a marked man.
On Aug. 19, 1977, Biko and a friend, Peter Cyril Jones, were stopped in a car at a police roadblock and taken to a prison in Port Elizabeth. He was kept naked, manacled and beaten. He died at age 30 of head injuries on Sept. 12, 1977, leaving a widow and two children, ages 7 and 3.
In the wake of his death, all Black Consciousness Movement organizations were banned. The events of this week will note that those organizations live on, despite the ban, as much as Biko's philosophy.
"You are either alive and proud or you are dead," Biko said shortly before his death in detention.
"And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. So you die in the riots. For a hell of a lot of them, in fact, there is really nothing to lose -- almost literally, given the kind of situations that they come from. So if you can overcome the personal fear of death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you're on the way."
For local residents, this will be a time to learn more about the man, as well as the awful system of apartheid that he fought to his death.