Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Washington, on August 28, 1963. This remarkable speech that touched many people’s hearts was delivered on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation introduced by President Abraham Lincoln. It reminded the great values of human life and created hope for a better society to live in harmony with dignity and without racial segregation.
Just a few days ago we witnessed a horrific, suspected chemical attack in Syria; more than two hundred and fifty people have already been killed in Egypt; and only weeks ago a religious place in Iraq was attacked killing many innocent civilians.
These are just a few stories we hear from across the globe and this all occurs due to the disharmony that is prevalent among different groups. One may wonder whether the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had, was a dream that is destined to remain unfulfilled. Even today we look back at this great speech and wonder if we, as humans, have made progress towards cashing the cheque of unity in our society? As Dr. King so eloquently says, America has given the coloured people a cheque that has come back marked “insufficient funds.” In that difficult environment he created hope among all groups and emphasized that it was the beginning, not the end. A new hope with promise was echoed and the moment to fight for individual rights was emphasized by deep, meaningful phrases such as “it is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, to rise from the dark to the sunlight path of racial justice, from quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood, make real the promise of democracy.”
"There are numerous instances in history, where a leader has managed to change the political culture of a country with an iconic speech"
In a world where racial and religious disharmony is evident, we can draw parallels with his words of wisdom. His dream that the white and coloured children will hold hands and sit together to build that great nation, and where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character has on a level been fulfilled today with the highest executive office of the country being held by a black man.
The symbolic shadow of Lincoln where this speech was delivered is now remembered by President Obama, and he pays homage in the symbolic shadow of two great individuals. Here he has the chance to reflect upon great values on this day and create hope once again for the suffering nations of our world.
There are numerous instances in history, where a leader has managed to change the political culture of a country with an iconic speech. An appeal to secure individual freedom and equality regardless of race, religion, cast, class or skin colour was the central theme of King’s dream, and to achieve his dream he had to transform the thinking pattern of the American people.
In many countries including ours, the right mindset to pursue the goal of ethnic harmony is required. It is time we rise together to rebuild our community with the right mindset. We could choose the path of division or we could work towards national reconciliation and find solutions to the problems we humans have created.
Fifty years ago this iconic speech sent a ripple of hope towards the idea of freedom of mankind, and continues to be a shining example to many nations going through a difficult time now. There should be a universal dream in all of us to create a harmonious society, which respects all religions, races, ethnic backgrounds and views. And I hope that one day we can pay tribute to this great human being by fulfilling his dream. Fifty years ago King had a beautiful dream, and now it is up to us to keep his vision alive.
(Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the Executive Director Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies)