Thursday, August 29, 2013

‘I have a dream’ - Remembering Martin Luther King

Atlanta in Georgia is where Martin Luther King was born and where he spent much of his life preaching. In March 2001 I had the good fortune of visiting Atlanta at the invitation of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Friends of Sinn Féin. I was there to speak at several fundraisers.

It is a city inextricably linked to two of the great struggles in American history: the Civil War and the Civil Rights struggle. In 1864, after a four month siege by the Union armies the city surrendered and it was ordered to be burned to the ground by the union general William Tecumseh Sherman. Only its Churches and hospitals were spared.

In the 1950s and 60s it was at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle. No visit to Atlanta is complete without walking through the Park and Preservation District. Martin Luther King’s home, where he was born in January 1929, is there. So too is the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It is an imposing brown brick building. Inside I had the opportunity to sit quietly and contemplate the efforts of all of those who marched and struggled for equality and civil rights.

This is where Martin Luther King Jr. preached his first sermon at the age of 17 and where he was co-pastor with his father for eight years. In 1957 an organisational meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was held there and Martin Luther King Jr became its first President. It played a key role in the Civil Rights struggle. It is a building which resonates with the words and deeds of freedom.

A short distance away is the King Centre with its impressive Visitors Centre and the graveside of Martin Luther King Jr.

I tell you all of this because it’s part of my history. Like many of my generation I was hugely influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States. ‘We shall overcome’ was adopted as the slogan for the Irish Civil Rights Association after its formation in 1967 and the courage and heroism of Rosa Parks and others inspired us in our opposition to discrimination in housing and jobs and our demand for the right to vote.

Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to sit at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama; her arrest and the boycott of the bus company was a pivotal moment in that historic struggle. It was also evidence that one person can make a difference.

During one of my first visits to the United States I had the privilege and honour to meet Rosa Parks, a small diminutive woman of tremendous strength of character and determination.

50 years later their efforts have brought about enormous change in American society. This has been most obvious in the election of a black President but intolerance and racism and inequality in employment still exist.

Yesterday – Wednesday August 28th – President Obama spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where 50 years ago Martin Luther King gave his seminal ‘I have a dream speech’. A quarter of a million people took part in that 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom.

In his historic address that day the civil rights leader reminded his audience that 100 years earlier Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation which gave hope to millions of slaves. But ‘the life of the negro is still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination’. Martin Luther King spelt out his dream, his vision, his aisling for the future. A dream in which no one will be judged by the colour of their skin.

Last weekend tens of thousands of American citizens took to the streets of the US capital to celebrate that momentous event.

But as Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the assassinated civil rights leader pointed out; ‘This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration, nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.’

And therein lies the great truth of all struggles for freedom and human and civil rights whether in the United States or Ireland or South Africa  – it is a constant battle for change, for improvement, for redefining our relationships with each other. And it’s about creating the conditions whereby people are empowered to make that change.

Speaking to the First Annual Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change in Montgomery in December 1956 King told his audience that freedom and justice and positive change are not inevitable. He warned that ‘history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power and the guardians of a status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.’

These words of warning apply as much today to the island of Ireland as they did 50 years ago. The peace process has brought about many changes. Ireland today is a country in transition. A lot of the old conservative influences have been weakened and progress has been made.

But it is equally clear that there is still huge resistance to change. We still have a lot of work to do to build the republic that is envisioned in the 1916 Proclamation – an Ireland free of division and injustice and fear; an Ireland in which the wealth of the nation is invested creatively and more fairly; an Ireland in which there is equality and justice and freedom.

As we continue our journey forward the words and deeds of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and others will continue to inspire us.

In his 1956 speech King concluded his remarks by arguing that we all must have the courage to ‘stand up and protest against injustice wherever we find it.’

He said: ‘There is nothing in all of the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for. I would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self respect.’


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