On January 15, the U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland, Makila James hosted a special ceremony to celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy featuring guests from across Swazi society: government officials, members of civil society, artists, youth leaders, religious leaders, and members of the diplomatic corps to officially commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington. The distinguished guests included the Minister of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs, David Ngcamphalala, Catholic Bishop, José Luís Gerardo Ponce de León, and EU Ambassador to Swaziland, Nicola Bellomo.
Ambassador James opened the event with remarks that focused on the millions of average citizens who formed the backbone of the civil rights movement, of which Dr. King became a prominent leader. The Ambassador explained, “the civil rights movement was 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… 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 the carried the movement forward, changing things for the better, little by little, day by day.”
The program included a screening of a portion of a film called The African American: Many Rivers to Cross, a six part, critically-acclaimed documentary which examines the history of African Americans from slavery to the first black president. The excerpt shown at the commemoration covered the period from 1955-1968, a pivotal time in the civil rights movement during which there was a great deal of debate, even within the African American community, about the most effective way to end discrimination and ensure equal rights for all people under the law. Though often met with degrading insults, violence, and imprisonment, the majority of civil rights activists chose to fight for their cause using nonviolence, a philosophy of which Dr. King was a great proponent. Their determination, dedication and sacrifice paved the way for two major victories in the civil rights movement – passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Prior to the event, the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section sponsored a poster and poetry competition based on the theme “My Dream for Swaziland.” Four schools, Hereford’s High School, Herman Gmeiner High School, Kobe Advanced Learning Academy, and Enjabulweni Boys Centre, received art materials, copies of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s autobiography and other reading material about the civil rights movement. After the film screening ended, the Public Affairs Officer, Ruth Newman, awarded prizes, which included a laptop, digital camera, and gift card to CNA, to the top three poetry and top three poster submissions.
Music and art were an integral part of the civil rights movement and, throughout the world, have served as powerful tools to promote social change. The afternoon’s program clearly reflected that as gifted Swazi poet “Black Note” gave an impassioned performance of two original poems inspired by Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Legendary Swazi musician, Mbongiseni “Bholoja” Ngubane also gave a moving performance of several songs, including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”