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The March on Washington, FDV Gallery, opening of the exhibition, 11 December
Opening address by Petra Roter, Assoc. Prof. of International Relations
Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Excellency, Dean, dear Students and Colleagues.
Let me first thank the Gallery of the Faculty of Social Sciences and for the US Embassy in
Ljubljana for organising this exhibition and for inviting me to reflect on the March on
Washington and Martin Luther King – a day after we celebrated the international human
rights day.
Martin Luther King was one of the individuals who were not certain what reactions were
going to be caused by their actions. But he was one of the individuals who understood that
“the time is always ripe to do right”, as Mandela – whose passing away we mourn these days
– once said.
Martin Luther King was born in 1929 as Michael King, but to honour German reformer
Martin Luther, King’s father changed his son’s name. Martin Luther King was a Baptist
minister and we all know him for his human rights activism – to be precise, civil rights
activism. The March on Washington, which he led in August 1963, was a culmination of his
previous civil rights actions, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 – the protest
against racial segregation in public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. King as well as
some other prominent public personalities took part in that protest, which started with the
arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955 because she refused to surrender her seat to a white
person, and lasted until 20 December 1956 when the US Supreme court ruled the
Montgomery’s segregated buses unconstitutional.
In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King organised – inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s peaceful
resistance to the British colonial rule – non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. These
protests in 1962 attracted national attention through media coverage of the brutality of the
police. A year later, in 1963, King helped to organise the March on Washington, where he
delivered his famous I have a dream speech. This event is widely understood as one of the
defining moments in modern US and world’s history. King received the Nobel Prize for Peace
in 1964 – for his non-violent protest against racial segregation. Martin Luther King is one of
those individuals that fundamentally affected human rights in the 20th century.
It may be clear what King was fighting for, but it may be hard to imagine what he was
fighting against. The March on Washington happened in 1963 – so 15 years after the UN
General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a short but vitally
important document that declares (in Article 1) that “All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights” and (in Article 2) that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth
in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion,
political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”, and that (in Article
7) “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the
law.” In America, this was not possible in the 1960s. Racial segregation in the public domain
according to the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ was – although forbidden by law since the mid-1950s
– still wide spread in practice. Hospitals, schools, and housing were all divided: some were for the
dominant European-American white population, and others for minorities of whom the most notable
was also the largest group of African-Americans. Segregation was de facto promoted and carried out
by politicians, supported by some scholars who were scientifically ‘proving’ the necessity of such
The March on Washington in August 1963 was a collective response to discrimination, segregation,
racism. Some quarter of a million Americans demanded civil and economic rights – basic human
rights therefore, for everyone. On 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King delivered one of the ground
breaking speeches in the history of the struggle for the protection of human rights. His speech and the
march itself are important for the United States and – although they paved the way for important new
legislation in the USA – they are still as relevant as they were 50 years ago. For, the fight for equality
and full respect of human rights of every human being is far from over – although the terminology
used in such a fight has changed in the meantime.
In the shadow of Lincoln’s memorial, King was clear why the March was needed: “the Negro is still
not free. /…/ the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains
of discrimination. /…/ the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of
material prosperity.” The March on Washington happened, he said, to “dramatize a shameful
condition.” It happened because the marching crowd refused “to believe that the bank of justice /was/
bankrupt.” The crowd came to, as King put it, “demand the riches of freedom and the security of
justice.” There and then, urgently. In King’s words: they had no time for “the luxury of cooling off or
to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism.” They came “to make real the promise of democracy. /…/
to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Martin Luther King called for a peaceful but persistent resistance. He raised his voice to call his fellow
marchers “not to seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and
hatred.” This struggle for freedom and equality needs to be conducted “on the high plane of dignity
and discipline.” Violence against the white people was not a solution. Many joined the March – it was
those who realised “that their destiny is tied up with our destiny”, as King concluded.
This basic realisation that all human beings are equal and that we should not look away in cases of
inequality, discrimination, or – in worst cases – physical insecurity, is such a basic but such a crucial
idea. My freedoms and rights depend on freedoms and rights of others, and vice versa. Just yesterday
night, I watched Tomo Križnar remind us of a quote from the movie titled Schindler’s List – about the
holocaust during the Second World War: “When they took my neighbour, I said nothing. When they
came for my other neighbour, I said nothing. And when they came for me, there was no one else left to
hear me.”
Martin Luther King had a dream. He had a dream that his children would “one day live in a nation
where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He had
a dream that one day freedom will ring from every corner of the land.
We need to realise – over and over again – that his dream is not over. We still need to dream this
dream. Not just in the United States where the election Barack Obama was hailed as historical – not
because of his education, experience or ability – but because of his ethnic origin, the colour of his
skin. Where de facto segregation still occurs in many cities, where persons belonging to ethnic
minorities still face unequal opportunities. Where a woman is yet to be elected as the President of the
United States.
Of course and unfortunately, this is not occurring only in the United States. On the contrary. The
March on Washington and King’s ‘dreams’ are just as relevant outside American borders where ‘we’
compete with ‘them’, or where ‘we’ are entitled to some rights but ‘they’ are not – because they are
lazy, they do not want to work, they came to our country to take advantage of our benefits, they steal
our jobs, their culture is incompatible with ours, their religion does not fit in our environment… and so
on and so on. ‘We’ think that way – we who seemingly cherish and take for granted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights with all its key ideas, including the already mentioned one that all
human beings are born free and equal. The anniversary of the March on Washington is a reminder that
the fight is far from over.
It is also a reminder for our understanding of where and how the change needed can be brought about.
In International Relations, many scholars focus on states when they attempt to explain developments
in the contemporary international community. But what the March and Martin Luther King teach us
over and over again is about the power of the civil society. It is about the power of individuals who –
as Mandela once reminded us – “use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe
to do right.” King was one of those individuals who understood, as Mandela explained so
wonderfully, that to “be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that
respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Martin Luther King paid the final price for his
endeavours to enhance the freedom of everyone.
Because education is, in Mandela’s words, “the most powerful weapon which you can use to
change the world”, we need to learn, think and think again about such historical events as
happened 50 years ago in Washington, DC. These are not events that happened somewhere
else, to someone else because someone else had no access to rights, was discriminated against
or lacked fundamental freedoms. These are events that should remind us of inequalities and
discrimination that happen right here and right now – in the richest and most democratic
part of the world where children are hungry and deprived of equal opportunities in life, where
the elderly are marginalised and deprived of dignity, where the Roma are segregated by walls,
where migrants die trying to reach a safer environment, where persons belonging to –
particularly visible – ethnic minorities are less likely to get a job, where the rich are coming
out of this financial crisis richer, where institutional corruption profoundly decreases access of
the majority to economic and social rights, and where the political elite serves hardly anyone
but itself. And the list goes on. It is events such as the March on Washington – alongside with
the timely reminder that “the time is always ripe to do right” – to entrust us with hope and
duty to actually – do right – together, persistently, to finally realise his and at the same time
also our Dream.
Thank you.