Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society,
Members of the Media,
Good Morning and Welcome,
I am so pleased to be with you this morning to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., commemorate African American History Months, and also to witness the launch of the Human Rights Society of Swaziland (HURISWA). We wish great HURISWA great success as they work to bring human rights issues to the forefront in Swaziland. I also want to mention that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s core international human rights treaties. These treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – were both adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 16, 1966. Along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they represent the most ambitious and collaborative attempts at defining and upholding human rights in human history. Although the adoption of these treaties came as a direct result of the atrocities committed during World War II, the ideals they represent were also at the center of the civil rights movement in the United States.
As most of you here probably know, Dr. King’s impact on our society was so profound that each year we celebrate his birthday as a national holiday.
He is the only private American citizen to be honored in such a way — an indication of the respect Americans feel for him and his commitment to justice. What some of you might not know, however, is that in 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday as a national day of service. Taking place each year on the third Monday in January, the MLK Day of Service is the only U.S. federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off.” The MLK Day of Service is also part of “United We Serve,” President Obama’s nationwide service initiative, which is built upon the belief that ordinary people can come together and achieve extraordinary things when given the proper tools. “United We Serve” aims to both expand the impact of existing organizations by engaging new volunteers in their work and encourage volunteers to develop their own “do-it-yourself” projects. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges gaps, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved Community.”
What makes Dr. King such a powerful figure is not only his undying commitment to non-violence in pursuit of universal justice, equality and freedom, but also his willingness to serve the greater good, often at a tremendous cost to himself and his family. As the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr. King is someone who not only talked the talk, but walked the walk, literally, time and time again. He was at the forefront of marches to end the ugly, brutal, and dehumanizing system of racial segregation in the United States.
Dr. King believed that we would only achieve the kind of society we hope for when we all focus on what we can do to serve others. He once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” He is one of a small minority of leaders throughout history who consistently put the good of the people – and the country – above his own personal well-being. As a result, he was often met with violence and was jailed on numerous occasions, but he would not be deterred from pursuing the dream of a society where all people, regardless of the color of their skin (or gender or social class or economic background) were equal. As he told us in his most famous speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
We think of Dr. King as the face and voice of the civil rights movement, and with good reason. But 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 inaccurate, 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 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 other people like them, formed the backbone of the civil rights movement. They 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.
There is no doubt that it is because of the courage of thousands of these ordinary, everyday citizens that we have come as far as we have in the United States. The dream of Dr. King’s that people be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character is embodied in the election and re-election of President Obama. It was the relentless pursuit of justice by Dr. King and thousands of others which made it possible, as President Obama said in his first inaugural address, “[for] a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant [to] now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. “
We in the United States have come a long way, but several events of the last few years have shown us that we still have far to go in our pursuit of “a more perfect union.” Citizens must be ever vigilant in their efforts to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms. That is true in the United States, just as it is in every country around the world. And we all must be willing to ask ourselves continually, “What are we doing for others?”
Change is possible. It isn’t quick; it isn’t easy; but it can happen through dedication, selflessness, sacrifice, and commitment of people to define and pursue the kind of society in which they want to live.
That is why the model of Dr. King is so powerful and why he became the face and voice of a movement as diverse and disparate as the struggle for civil rights. He was not a politician. He was an ordinary husband, father, and Methodist minister who took action and encouraged others to take action to make the United States a more just society. He is an example of how, no matter who we are, we can create tremendous change by using our own talents and abilities to stand up for what is right.
We are honored to be able 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 and humanist who understood the importance of linking the struggles of people everywhere to fight poverty, disease and social injustice. We pay tribute to the universal values he fought for, which, as I think we’ll see from the Swazi presenters who will speaker after me, continue to be as important for the United States as they are for Swaziland.