Prof. Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, Political Scientist.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Junior made the famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington DC. What informed such a historic public outing?
The speech came at a time America was in the throes of a civil rights movement that was led mostly by blacks who were inspired by their faith in Baptist Christian teachings. Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Junior himself was a Southern Baptist minister who believed in the principles and philosophy of non-violence as conceived by the late Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. The philosophy teaches that in order to better your condition in life, you do not have to use violence. Martin Luther was a minister with strong faith who believed in an America without slavery and discrimination, equality of all races, equal opportunities for all, better future for everyone, and a nation where people are not judged according to skin colour. He appealed to American whites and blacks alike to rally together to oblige the Federal government, federated states and industry to change their discriminatory policies. He believed that the country would be better off if everyone was treated equally. The speech was therefore a defining moment in the African-American struggle for equality in voting, employment, social mobility rights, etc. “I have a dream” galvanized black and white Americans around the principle of equality and justice – including blacks all over the world.
Five years after, Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. What has since changed in terms of the wishes he listed in his speech in 1963? And what still remains to be achieved?
Because of the strength of Martin Luther’s charisma, his capacity to mobilize whites and blacks, the non-violence philosophy he preached and its attraction to people of all races, American laws began to change at the federal and federated state levels, giving voting rights to blacks. Equal opportunity laws were introduced in industry, social work and schools. America became desegregated in spite of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Discrimination was eliminated in public and private sectors. African-Americans began to be considered as equal to whites and saw themselves as belonging to their nation.
In all sectors, African-Americans began having the same opportunities like whites. All this was achieved through non-violence means. Remember, there was an alternative to Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement. For example, the Black Panther Movement believed in employing violence, but never succeeded. One of the biggest gains of Martin Luther’s campaign is that a black, Barack Obama, eventually became President of the United States in January 2009. Before Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s campaign, this could not be possible. It was therefore thanks to the end of racial segregation and discrimination that black emancipation became reality in America.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, what remains to be done from the wish list of his “I have a dream” speech of 1963?
There is much to be done because some 30 to 40 per cent of American whites still believe in discrimination. They do not seem to realize that American laws already provide for equal opportunities and rights for people of all races. Even amongst African-Americans, there is still some level of discrimination. There is a mentality change that needs to be worked on. Some corporations need to change their employment practices, while some federated states still operate discriminatory voting practices. A lot needs to be done to achieve all of Martin Luther King Junior’s dreams because anti-desegregation groups still exist in the country.
How do you see America 50 years from today – that is, 100 years after the death of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Junior?
America needs to accept and tackle its present challenges such as fighting groups that negate the desegregated and non-racial nature of the society, handle poverty and dissuade federated states that still discriminate. Fifty years from today, America should be able to stand up to the promises of its constitution and the gains of democracy - freedom, equality, equal opportunities for all, no division between the rich and poor, etc. America must accept to rise above these challenges by fulfilling the principles of its founding fathers in order to become a near-perfect society where people of all races perform unhindered to their full potentials. The non-violent method of ensuring change worked in America - just like it did in South Africa and of course India. The legacy of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Junior is that you do not need to be violent to change your lot in life. This is the great lesson people across the world have leant.