Commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday

Louis, Mandela, and I are so pleased to have all of you here at our home today to join with the American Embassy community in honoring the vision, dedication, and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some of you who joined us for this occasion last year may remember that we spoke a great deal about Dr. King’s dream, made famous in his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the “Great March on Washington” in August of 1963.  This year we would like to focus more on the broader civil rights movement of which Dr. King formed an integral part and of which he became, in the eyes of many people, the preeminent leader.

First, though, I should clarify that the term “civil rights movement” is somewhat misleading as there was not a single, broad-based, cohesive movement.  As one sociologist has noted “…there was no singular civil rights movement.  The movement was, in fact, a coalition of thousands of local efforts nationwide, spanning several decades, hundreds of discrete groups, and all manner of strategies and tactics – legal, illegal, institutional, non-institutional, violent, non-violent.”

Certainly, Dr. King, along with the many hundreds of thousands of Americans who joined him in the civil rights struggle, helped change the course of American history.  And it can be tempting to think of leaders like Dr. King (or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela) as almost super human, far removed from the weaknesses, shortcomings, and everyday affairs of “average” men and women.  But they are not super human.  Nelson Mandela said himself, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”  But, besides being untrue, placing history’s great leaders on a pedestal can also tempt each of us to make excuses for our own complacency.  We might think, “Why should I step outside the relative safety and comfort of my daily routine, of the world that is familiar to me, to try to be the change I want to see or right the wrongs I witness around me?  Who am I to be extraordinary?”  But I would ask each of us here today, how can we afford not to be?

Dr. King and other great leaders like him are the faces and voices we recognize, but it was the tireless dedication and hard work of millions of people whose faces we do not know and whose voices we have not heard that literally carried the movement forward, changing things for the better, little by little, day by day.

This movement was indeed made up of many ordinary people who chose to do extraordinary things to bring about justice.  They included teachers, students, laborers, lawyers, religious leaders, unionists, human rights advocates, politicians, journalists, artists, housewives, as well as many with no work at all.

People like Rosa Parks, who I am sure never set out to become the “first lady of civil rights,” but who kicked off the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus.  She wasn’t trying to become famous; she just got tired of giving in.  And she suffered for her actions; she was fired from her job and received death threats for years afterwards.

People like Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist.  On June 9, 1963, Hamer was with other activists on her way back from a literacy workshop in South Carolina.  Stopping in Mississippi, the group she was with was arrested on a false charge and thrown in jail, where they were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death.  Though it took more than a month to recover and she suffered profound physical and psychological effects from the attack, Hamer went right back home to Mississippi and started organizing voter registration drives.  She is famous for her quote that “she just got sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

People like Ella Baker, a behind-the-scenes organizer whose career stretched over five decades and a key figure in establishing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  She was a firm believer in the power of individual citizens to make their own, informed decisions and fight for the rights and justice they longed for and deserved.

She urged activists to “take control of the movement themselves rather than waiting for leaders who would do it for them.”  As her biographer explained, “She recognized that the bedrock of any social change organization is not the eloquence or credentials of its top leaders, but rather, lies in the commitment and hard work of the rank and file membership and the willingness and ability of those members to engage in a process of discussion, debate, and decision making.”  She emphasized in particular the importance of young people and women in the movement.

These women, and millions of people like them, formed the backbone of the civil rights movement.  Ordinary people like these carried the movement forward, found a collective voice and did what they could wherever they were in order to bring about change.  And I’m sure that, much of the time, they lived in fear of the consequences of their actions and activism. But they pressed forward in spite of their fear which is what made them truly and remarkably courageous.

Some of you here today may wonder why this movement, this struggle, still matters more than sixty years later, with all the legal, political, social, and economic progress we’ve seen since the days of Dr. King.  But when you look back at the past year in the United States, there is no doubt that we are a country still grappling with a legacy of racial discrimination and injustice.  We are far from perfect.  As President Obama said in a speech he gave while running for the 2008 Democratic Party Presidential nomination, clearly “…the past isn’t dead and buried.  In fact, it isn’t even past.”  The events that have transpired in Ferguson, Missouri and New York, and in response to them in cities and towns across the United States, are disturbing and unsettling and remind us of just how far we still have to go.

But people are still struggling.  They are demonstrating and writing to their political representatives and having debates on the street and in the media.  As our Constitution reminds us, we are a people striving for a “more perfect union.”

Today we want to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with you, our friends and colleagues in Swaziland, not only because of the powerful message he gave and the example he set for Americans, but because Dr. King was also an internationalist who understood the importance of linking the struggles of people everywhere to fight poverty, disease and social injustice.  We want to pay tribute today to the universal values he and millions of others like him stood and fought for and which are as important for Swaziland as they continue to be for the United States.

I want to close with an acknowledgement of the importance of the music of the civil rights era.  During Dr. King’s time, music not only sustained the activists; it helped shape the messages of the struggle.  Across America, people sang as they marched for equality.  They used hymns to uplift their spirits, created folk songs that told the story of the movement, and put a new beat to the call for a new day.  From Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On, the O’Jay’s “Give the People What they Want,” to Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in their Game,” the artists of the 1960s produced some of the most powerful messages for social change.

Artists were an integral part of the civil rights movement.  And that tradition of social activism continues today in the jazz, poetry and, visual art that speak to the realities around us, and, of course, in the hip hop culture through which young people everywhere are redefining the power of the spoken word.  Over and over again, in countries throughout the world, we have seen that the arts serve as a powerful tool to promote positive change.

That is why it has always been important to me to incorporate music and art into our commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am thrilled that one of Swaziland’s finest poets, Black Note, and finest musicians, Bholoja, agreed to share with us their talent and help us remember the ideals for which Dr. King fought and died.  These ideals– freedom, equality, perseverance, and courage– are universal principles that underlie human rights and justice and I am certain that we will all come away inspired to do more to apply these ideals in our own lives.

Today we will have the privilege of viewing a brief excerpt from Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.’s documentary series, “The African Americans:  Many Rivers to Cross.”  Dr. Gates is a professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  He is also a filmmaker, literary critic, journalist, and cultural critic who has written seventeen books and produced fourteen documentary films.  His most recent documentary is a six-part series that first aired a little over a year ago on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States.  The series, which Gates wrote, executive produced, and hosted, has been critically acclaimed and earned numerous awards.  I wanted to share a portion of this remarkable program with you today because it demonstrates so clearly the potential and power of ordinary citizens to take a stand and create the change they want to see in their own societies.

With that I will turn the program over to our Public Affairs Officer, Ruth Newman, to get the show started.