Black Is Beautiful: In Memory of Bantu Stephen Biko

Stephen A. Crockett Jr.
More than 10,000 people attended the unveiling of the statue of Steve Biko, who died in police detention in 1977 in South Africa, in East London Sept. 12, 1997.

On Aug. 18, 1977, South African police stopped a car carrying Bantu Stephen Biko and a friend. They had no idea that Biko was in the car, but they were looking for him. Biko, who founded the Black Consciousness Movement in the late 1960s, had been banned some years earlier for his work to end apartheid. The ban meant " … he was no longer allowed to speak to more than one person at a time or speak in public, had to stay in his home region, and could not write publicly or speak with the media."

The police took the friend out of the car and began working him over. They accused him of knowing Steve Biko, told the man that he was probably on his way to go see him. Had Biko been quiet, they might have gotten away, but he had spent a better portion of his life fighting against injustice and wasn't going to let this happen.


His friend planned on keeping quiet. But Biko wasn't afraid. He cleared his throat and told the police, "I am Bantu Steve Biko."

The admission would lead to an arrest and an interrogation that included being chained to a window and beaten. According to one report, the day before his death he was questioned and tortured for 22 hours.

He would end up in a coma, suffering from a major head injury that ultimately led to his death. Different reports said that Biko may have fought back, and that is easy to believe, considering that he had always been a fighter. 

Biko was the third of four children. He went to a prestigious boarding school until apartheid changed things and he was booted for his political beliefs. He would marry twice and have four children, one of whom, a daughter, died at 2 months old from pneumonia.


On Sept. 12, 1977, 37 years ago today, South Africa lost one of its greatest sons when Bantu Stephen Biko died of injuries related to his beatings. He was 30. Cops would say his death was the result of a hungry strike, but an autopsy would reveal " … multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head."

What Biko left behind was a legacy of righteous perseverance. His leadership and philosophy would lead to the formation of the BCM and later the South African Student Organisation, which were instrumental in the Soweto uprising of June 1976.


According to reports, some 10,000 students marched to protest an oppressive government and were met by heavily armed police. The police fired on peaceful protesters and the images made national news, putting South Africa in the spotlight and exposing the brutal methods of the police. Those protests would have a significant impact on South Africa's history, with the movement spreading countrywide and carrying over into the next year. 

With the BCM, Biko would argue that the " … basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity." Biko believed that the principles of the South African government were unjust, and having been influenced by the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he fought for a new face of South Africa.


Before his death he would write this:

We have set out on a quest for true humanity and somewhere in the distance we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth drawing strength from our common plight and brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon Africa the greatest gift possible, a more human face.


Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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