By Ambassador Jonathan S. Gration, Maj Gen, USAF (Ret)
Sunday, January 15, marked the 83rd anniversary of the birth of American clergyman and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia. Each year, Americans honor Dr. King with a federal holiday on the third Monday of January and invite the people of the world to join us in celebrating his legacy.
Martin Luther King, Jr., embodied the quest for justice for oppressed people by using peaceful means for peaceful ends. He became famous for his contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, but his impact and legacy extend around the world and have influenced subsequent non-violent movements from Tibet to Wall Street.
It was his non-violent actions that continue to inspire us today. Dr. King possessed remarkable courage to face dangerous adversaries without a knife or gun, bear death threats against his wife and children without threatening others, even face prison and insults without striking a blow. He never stopped fighting for justice, but he also never abandoned his commitment to the principles of non-violence.
Dr. King also acted with urgency, imagination, and persistence to achieve his admirable goals. He did not wait for others to act first or for unjust laws to change: he and many of his generation risked their lives to organize boycotts and marches which, over time, caused attitudes and laws to change. In his famous “I have a dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King talked about the “fierce urgency of now” to achieve democracy, justice, and racial equality. If he were in Kenya today, he would enthusiastically support the democratic reform process and call on Kenyans to “urgently” put aside negative ethnicity and come together as one people to achieve a common destiny of justice and peace.
While Dr. King lived most of his life in the American South, his struggle transcended America’s shores. He recognized a connection binding all non-violent human rights movements in what he called our “world-wide neighborhood.” His struggle against specific unjust laws in the United States was based on a fierce opposition to civil rights violations in general, and he took responsibility for speaking out against injustices wherever he saw them.
Dr. King had this world view because he believed all life is inter-related. He said: “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Dr. King believed that the destiny of one person—an Indian, a Russian, a Kenyan—was linked to his own destiny, and that the destiny of any one country was inextricably tied to the destiny of the United States.
We are all even more inter-related in the age of the Internet and instant communication. That is why the United States is working with Kenya to support this country’s efforts to achieve its destiny. We firmly believe this can be a nation where good governance and justice prevail, a nation where corruption and violence have no place, a nation with an educated population with good jobs. Only then can the United States realize its own destiny—a safer and more prosperous nation, interacting with Kenya—a proud nation that shares in this security and prosperity.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would join us in unwavering condemnation of militants and terrorists who, out of frustration with their current condition, resort to violence. He would join us in support of basic human rights for everyone, including the right to free speech and the right to assembly. He would defend these rights for everyone regardless of gender, religion, nationality, tribal affiliation, or sexual orientation, to deny belligerent citizens an excuse to incite violence against others. He would reiterate that “non-violence is more than the absence of violence,” and reinforce the notion that conscientious, persistent work towards peace is the only way to defeat violence and war permanently.
We celebrate Dr. King’s legacy every January because the lessons that we learned from him are universal and timeless. Yes, we still confront poverty and injustice in this world, and we still use violence too often to resolve our grievances. However, as we remember him, let us actively support the ideals for which he stood and died, and apply them to our lives and our world today.