The great man we honour today said about two years before the end of his life:
"I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I am going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way because I heard a voice saying, 'Do something for others.'"
It is difficult to overstate today what Dr. King and the American civil rights movement achieved for America and the world. In the face of enormous obstacles, they changed thinking in the direction of human equality and democracy for all. King was called 'the American Gandhi' for their shared policy of non-violent protest and struggle. The two were major world leaders in pivotal decades of the twentieth century.
Reverend King nurtured and drew sustenance from, formed and was shaped by the rights movement. He moved from seeking more courteous treatment for African Americans on Montgomery city buses to struggling for the abolition of the entire `Jim Crow`system, with all its restrictions on black Americans, to advocating changing America and the world on behalf of the most neglected peoples everywhere.
It's easy today to forget what the civil rights movement achieved, including:
- abolishing the 'Jim Crow' system,
- ending legal segregation in America,
- restoring voting rights to black Americans in the South, which were mostly removed after 1876,
- a large drop in white violence committed against fellow citizens,
- the major increase in educational and work opportunities for African-Americans, and
- its major impact for human dignity on all continents.
The catalyst for much of this was Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white man as required by a city ordinance. Dr. King, then newly arrived as a pastor in the city, spoke up for her as ''one of the finest citizens in Montgomery'' and reminded Americans with unsurpassed oratory that their highest court had recently declared (Brown v. Board of Education) that state-mandated school segregation was unconstitutional.
What followed included the 1961 Freedom Riders; the campaign to desegregate Birmingham department stores with its horrific scenes of police dogs attacking women and children and King`s letter from jail; his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, broadcast to millions; the 1964 Civil Rights Act; his Nobel Peace Prize and acceptance speech, referring to Nelson Mandela and others then in South Africa`s jails; Selma`s voting rights campaign; the Voting Rights Act; the 1964 Watts riots in Los Angeles; the murder of King in Memphis on April 3, 1968.
Lessons for Canadians
What lessons from King`s life and work can be adapted to contemporary Canadians and the world? Let me suggest two:
First, no advocates for a human dignity initiative should allow themselves to be side-lined by local, national or international apologists for the status quo. If anyone had good reasons to give up often, it was King. For more than five years after Montgomery, he had to abandon an effective civil rights role, but when circumstances changed he was willing and prepared to continue. Regroup, re-think, restart, but don`t succumb to indifference. Never surrender. Keep in mind King`s famous thought in his letter from the Birmingham jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Get going locally, provincially, nationally or internationally if required.
Second, anyone in the advocacy communities should, like King, seek always to mobilize like-minded groups and individuals to join their cause. Coalitions and networks are often the key to success. The world coalition on climate change certainly did not achieve everything it sought at Copenhagen, but there is no doubt that working in common cause proved effective.
Dreamkeepers, the organizers of this sixth annual event, are entirely correct that Dr. King's " spirit was, and remains, universal, embracing all races and peoples and crossing all national boundaries: truly a man for all seasons. As a winner of the Nobel Peace prize Dr. King shows the whole world a way to peace with justice."