January 20, 2014
On January 20, the United States celebrates one of our most timely and relevant national holidays – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. For me it is a holiday that focuses national attention on some of the founding ideals that make America strong as a democracy. Like all countries, the United States is not perfect. But we are more inclusive, more democratic, and more just because of the extraordinary contributions of Dr. King and the other leaders and activists of our great civil rights struggles.
This year is a special year to reflect on Dr. King as we mark the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ensures equal rights and freedoms for all American citizens. This also of course coincides with the 50th anniversary of Zambian independence, which secured freedom of the Zambian people from colonial rule. Thus, the United States and Zambia, as democracies, have much to celebrate together through our historic commemorations.
In many ways, Dr. King was America’s Mandela — an extraordinary soul who helped his country navigate a narrow path to justice rooted in messages of reconciliation and justice, inclusion and forgiveness, hope and courage. Many today take for granted that America is a multi-cultural democracy, with Barack Obama as our president and equal rights guaranteed to all. Similarly, some take for granted that South Africa is now an inclusive nation that threw off the shackles of apartheid. But it was brave civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela who resisted a destructive status quo and made sure our countries upheld democratic principles for all.
Like Nelson Mandela, Dr. King imparted to us the belief that the strength of a democracy is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable, how it accommodates dissent, how it opens itself to self-criticism as a way to make the country better, and how it pulls itself up to its highest ideals as expressed in its aspirational founding documents. Dr. King pushed for the Government of the United States to uphold democratic principles and transparency that led to an increase in confidence in our government. He advanced the respect for a Constitution and Bill of Rights that enshrine our freedoms, and he pushed for the respect of human rights for all people. He pressed for our country to uphold judicial independence and showed that the courts have an important role as neutral arbiter upholding the principles of the law. Dr. King’s legacy also demonstrates the vital role played by legislation ensuring free speech and free assembly that allowed groups to freely speak out about how to make the country more inclusive and just. Our government was not brought down by Dr. King’s protests but was reminded of its obligations to defend the rights of all citizens, which ultimately resulted in greater unity and equality.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a reminder that we should embrace those voices, including dissenters, who push for accountability and government responsiveness to the population. Respecting the rights and freedoms of all people does not equate to a loss in power. Rather, when we listen with respect to dissenting voices and respect the separation of power in government institutions, a nation can be strengthened and unified.
Like former South African president Nelson Mandela who also fought for freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenges all of us to live out the principles of democracy and freedom for all. On this day of observance of Dr. King and his legacy, the Government of the United States of America urges reflection upon this legacy.
Embassy of the United States of America