Turkmenistan is a long way from Alexandria, geographically and culturally. But Elbert Ransom is bridging that distance by talking to Turkmens about human rights, community organizing and nonviolent activism.
Ransom, who retired and moved away from Alexandria 18 months ago, is living in the city again. He is also continuing his work with the U.S. State Department, traveling around the globe to promote human rights. Turkmenistan is the 13th country he has visited in the past 10 years.
It is by far the most interesting trip I have made, Ransom said. I spent 11 days traveling to several cities talking to different groups about my experience working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in this country. The question I was most often asked was how much things have changed here. I told them that we have come a long way but still have work to do.
Turkmenistan is about the size of California and is located on the Caspian Sea. It shares a border with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The former Soviet block country gained independence in 1991. The previous president, who was elected for life, recently died. There is only one legal Party.
Before I went, I visited the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Washington because I wanted to learn more about the people and the country, Ransom said. I wanted to know what to expect and to respect the culture and rules of the country.
There are few freedoms in Turkmenistan, according to Ransom.
I was very warmly welcomed. I went to one auditorium and people greeted me by standing and applauding like I was a rock star, Ransom said. It was unbelievable. They had been told that I was coming and was told about my presentation and they were so eager to hear about America and Americans.
They had many misperceptions about us [Americans], mostly provided by Russia. They were very surprised that Americans are friendly and that I really wanted to know about them as much as they wanted to know about me, said Ransom.
It was a bit unusual for me, though, because I was probably the only black person in the entire country and the only black person that many of them had ever seen. They obviously dont have a racial issue but they are working to gain basic human rights, Ransom said.
Large array of audiences
While in Turkmenistan, Ransom spoke to university students, community activists, government officials and other interested professionals. U.S. Embassy staff in Turkmenistan evaluated his efforts saying, At a watershed moment in Turkmenistans modern history, Dr. Elbert Ransom energized and inspired audiences in Ashgabat, Mary and Dashoguz during his visitDr. Ransoms bold oratory style, unusually warm personality and gripping retelling of key events of the U.S. Civil Rights movement had its greatest impact with large student groups at universities in Ashgabat and Mary with U.S. government alumni and civic activists. A meeting with members of a government Trade Union provided a stark contrast revealing local government officials lack of confidence in, or basic understanding of, the role of unions, schools and civic groups in a democracy, wrote one official.
Ransom said he hopes to return to that country. I really think I could do some good there and they have told me that they want me to come back, he said.
Where would he like to visit that he has never been? Some of the African countries, he said. I think we ignore the dire circumstances in which many of the people in these tiny countries are living.