January 19 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Events are held all over the country commemorating the life and legacy of this great American.
In the small town of Northfield, where I live, we are having several commemorative events this weekend. We had the first one yesterday titled "Arts for Martin." People came together to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., including community singers, school children, college students, drummers, and dancers. I was the featured speaker, making short speeches at three intervals between the performances.
As the director had suggested, I spoke about Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, and what those two mean for us. I said that though we honour Martin so much, almost looking upon him as a supernatural being, he was an ordinary human being, who worked hard in school, struggled with life's challenges, and personal challenges, including struggles with matters of faith.
He came from a family of preachers, stretching all the way from his great grandfather and including his grandfather and father. All these were preachers, part of a tradition that preached the social gospel, not confined to theological matters and matters of worship alone, but deeply involved in addressing the needs of the disenfranchised, working with the poor, active in civil rights, voter registration, and so on.
The image we have of Martin Luther King Jr. leading demonstrations, such as the 1963 March on Washington, is part of this story, a story which permeates his speeches and writings. I mentioned, in particular, the famous "I have a Dream" speech and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail".
I mentioned Martin's statement that he dreamed of the day when "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers." Martin dreamed on the day when his children would "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
I stressed that though this message was addressed to Americans, it speaks to the whole world. Though it appears to address whites, it applies equally to all of us; we should all judge people on the basis on their character, not their race, religion, ethnicity or other category.
Martin is known all over the world, and I focused on Africa, on Africans who judge and discriminate against others on the basis of religion, ethnic group, clan, and so on. Why do these Africans claim to be honouring Martin?
Like Martin, Obama was brought up in the African American religious tradition that stressed the social gospel. Upon graduating from Harvard, Obama became a civil rights lawyer and a community organizer in Chicago. In his writings and speeches, Obama has stressed the need for unity across races, genders, religions, ethnicity, and other categories. His message has been to affirm the dignity of every person, and belief in the potential of human beings to be the best they can.
I talked again about Africans, who have joined in such an euphoric manner in celebrating Obama's electoral victory. I wondered whether they are really honouring Obama. Do they celebrate him simply because he has African roots, or do they share Obama's values and vision? The paradox is that even Africans who are obsessed with their ethnic group, for example, and who despise and discriminate against other ethnic groups, claim to be celebrating Obama. How can Africans who are so obsessed with their clan or village or religion that they look down on others, claim to be honoring and celebrating Obama?
At this point, I saluted the Americans. At least they, in electing Obama so overwhelmingly, have taken a step towards realizing Martin's idea of judging a person by his or her character. America has not thereby become a perfect society, but the Americans can claim to have taught us a lesson.
To highlight the challenge that lies ahead, and to be true to the legacy of Martin, I invoked another statement of Martin, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That way, Martin highlighted for us the need to stand with any oppressed person anywhere in the world, and fight for justice everywhere in the world.
So, while the Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day of celebrating the legacy of Martin, it is also a day for asking ourselves some serious questions and reminding ourselves of the challenges that lie ahead.