United States of America: Slavery, Racial Discrimination, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, Monday, 19 January, is a national holiday in my country to recognize the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. toward making our society more just and united.  He was the most prominent human rights leader in the United States from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968.  His career focused on ending the vestiges of slavery in the United States, which included in at least twelve of the fifty states laws strictly separating the black and white populations and denying opportunity and justice to the black population.  In many of the other states, social attitudes, rather than law, had the same effect of denying the equal rights of black citizens.

Africans arrived in British North America in the early 1600s under labor contracts for a specific period, after which they became free.  However, by the mid-1600s a system of lifetime slavery evolved, with slave status passed on to children of slaves.  The United States outlawed slavery two hundred years later, after a bloody civil war fought largely over that issue, and which nearly led to the country splitting in half.  While slaves were legally free following the war, the tragic heritage of slavery continued in discriminatory economic, legal and social practices oppressing the freed slaves and their descendants to varying degrees throughout the country, including the often exploitative agricultural practice of share-cropping.

Dr. King’s method to promote freedom and equality before the law for this oppressed minority was non-violent civil disobedience against unjust laws, such as laws banning black citizens from using certain public facilities.  When the authorities refused to permit protest marches, he would lead such marches nevertheless.  Among these was a series of three marches from Selma to Montgomery in the state of Alabama in 1965 to promote voter registration among the black population.  These marches resulted in mass arrests and police violence against the protesters, which in turn attracted worldwide media coverage and a flood of new supporters for Dr. King’s movement.

Dr. King always insisted that his supporters refrain from any violent response to the violence inflicted on them.  Engaged politically, he emphasized the right to vote as a means of achieving social progress through peaceful means.  He often publicly acknowledged that he was likely to die from an assassin’s bullet, which, tragically, is indeed what happened.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the writings and speeches of Dr. King:

  • If America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizens.
  • 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.
  • Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • Nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors, but against oppression.
  • We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
  • We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
  • In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
  • Violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral.  It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.  The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.  It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.  Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love.  It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.  It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.  Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

Working whenever possible with three often supportive Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), Dr. King and his fellow civil rights leaders achieved dramatic progress in dismantling the legal structures of racial discrimination through legislation, court rulings, and enforcement by both the United States military and the national police.  These civil rights leaders also changed social attitudes, gaining widespread acceptance of the notion that the nation is strengthened by recognizing and applying our shared values while embracing our cultural, ethnic and racial diversity.

Since serious disparities and injustices in American society remain today, Dr. King’s ideals and philosophy continue to have relevance and positive influence for us.  During recent demonstrations against perceived police bias in the use of deadly force, those calling for a violent response were countered by those who urged peaceful protest and greater voter registration of African Americans; a true testament to Dr. King.

Ambassador Larry E. André.