January 25, 2008
Distinguished panelists and guests.
All protocols observed.
It is an honor to be today to help commemorate the memory of one of America’s greatest champions of civil and human rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born on January 15, 1929, and died on April 4, 1968.
On the third Monday of January Americans honor the life and achievements of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace laureate and the individual most associated with the triumphs of the African-American civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
As political organizer, supremely skilled orator and advocate of nonviolent protest, King was pivotal in persuading his fellow Americans to end the legal segregation that prevailed throughout the American South and parts of other regions, and in sparking support for the civil rights legislation that established the legal framework for racial equality in the United States.
Champion of justice
King was among those champions of justice whose influence transcended national boundaries. A student of the philosophy and principles of nonviolence enunciated by Mohandas Gandhi, King in 1959 traveled to India, where he studied further the legacy of the man his widow, Coretta Scott King, later would call his “political mentor.” South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, accepting the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, similarly credited King as his predecessor in the effort to resolve justly the issues of racism and human dignity.
King came to prominence in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama when Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress, was jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated municipal bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which the city’s African-Americans refused to patronize its segregated bus system. King led the organization directing the boycott and became the movement’s public face, appealing to white Americans’ spirit of brotherhood. When the U.S. federal courts declared the bus segregation law unconstitutional, King emerged as a national figure.
In 1957, King was among the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was an alliance of black ministers and churches organized to pursue nonviolent direct action against segregation.
During the early 1960s, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference initiated a number of peaceful protests against segregated institutions. In May 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses against peaceful demonstrators, many of them schoolchildren. The images horrified our nation. King was arrested during these demonstrations and from his jail cell produced a great piece of writing entitled the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in which he argued that one who breaks an unjust law to arouse the consciousness of his community "is in reality expressing the highest respect for law," provided he acts "openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty."
That August, African-American leaders organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Here, before an estimated quarter million civil rights supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, King offered one of the most powerful orations in American history.
Perhaps his most stirring words were, "When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children -- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics -- will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last'!"
Generations of schoolchildren have learned by heart lines from the I Have a Dream speech, in which King prayed for the day when people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The images from Birmingham and Washington helped crystallize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. In 1965, the violent Selma, Alabama, police response to a voting rights march sparked a similar surge in support for King, the civil rights movement and for legislation guaranteeing the right of political participation. Consequently, the Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965.
With the passage of these civil rights laws, King continued to employ his strategy of nonviolent social protest even as some younger leaders at times argued for more radical means. King also broadened his agenda to encompass efforts to focus attention on African-American poverty. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking black garbage workers when, on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the age of 39.
According to President George Bush, “On the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, Americans honor the memory of a man who stirred the conscience of a Nation. We also recommit ourselves to the dream to which Dr. King devoted his life -- an America where the dignity of every person is respected; where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character; and where the hope of a better tomorrow is in every neighborhood.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., came to America’s Capital in the summer of 1963, he came to inspire America and to call on our citizens to live up to the principles of our founding. His dream spread a message of hope, justice, and brotherhood that took hold in the hearts of men and women across our great land and it continues to speak to millions here at home and around the world.
We honor Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember his strength of character and his leadership. We also remember the work that still remains. America has come a long way since Dr. King's time, yet our journey to justice is not complete. There is still a need for all Americans to hear the power and hope of Dr. King's enduring words so that we can hasten the day when his dream is made real. Our Nation will continue to build on the legal equality championed by Dr. King and all the heroes of the civil rights movement, and we will continue our work to protect the promise of our Declaration and guarantee the rights of every citizen.
As we observe Dr. King's birthday, let us honor his legacy and go forward with confidence as a Nation united, committed to destroying discrimination, and dedicated to extending the full blessings of liberty and opportunity to all Americans.
Dr. King was a vital figure of the modern era. His lectures and dialogues stirred the concern and sparked the conscience of a generation. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes in eh fabric of American life through his courage and selfless devotion. This devotion gave direction to years of struggle to achieve civil and human rights for all. His charismatic leadership inspired men and women, young and old, in America and around the world.
His actions, his words, his legacy are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. In America the struggle for equality for people of diverse backgrounds continues to this day. Nigeria faces similar issues as people of diverse cultural backgrounds, religions, and political perspectives struggle to find common ground to live and work together in peace, and build what Dr. King called a beloved community.
Let me close by quoting Dr. King again. Just a year before his death -- in his book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community" -- King voiced his plea for unity even more fully, words as relevant today as when they were written. He said, "We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu -- a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."