Thursday 27 June 2019

John Hennessy-Niland: Northern Ireland would do well to remember Dr King's dream

Martin Luther King waves to the crowd after his speech
Martin Luther King waves to the crowd after his speech

John Hennessey-Niland

Fifty years ago today, on August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where they heard Martin Luther King Jnr's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

The speech gave an impassioned voice to the demands of the US civil rights movement: equal rights and justice for all citizens. It was one of those rare moments in history that changed a nation, paving the way for a transformation of American law and life.

"I have a dream," he said, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal'."

At a time when the United States was sharply divided, Dr King called on a generation of Americans to be "voices of reason, sanity and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred and emotion".

His example motivated men and women of all backgrounds to actively strive for justice, and his leadership gave them the courage to refuse the limitations of the day and work to forge a more tolerant and inclusive society.

Because these individuals showed the resilience to stand firm in the face of fierce resistance, we are the benefactors of an extraordinary legacy of progress.

Neither the strivings nor the consequences of the civil rights movement were limited to the shores of the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, former Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume quoted Dr King, whom he called "one of my great heroes of this century", concluding with the words: "We shall overcome."

Inspired by the example of Martin Luther King Jnr, the young former seminarian led a non-violent civil rights movement in his home town of Derry.

In Belfast in June, President Obama commended the people and institutions of Northern Ireland for the tremendous progress that has been made since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Indeed, Northern Ireland's institutions are maturing and devolving authority in many areas.

In his remarks in Belfast, the President added: "For all the strides that you've made, there's still much work to do."

Although Dr King is remembered as a civil rights activist, his vision for society was broad and remains relevant throughout the world. He embraced forgiveness and forbearance while rejecting hatred and violence. He believed deeply in justice. He yearned for a society in which a person would be judged "by the content of their character, rather than by the colour of their skin". He once said: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

The United States believes in a shared future for all those living in Northern Ireland and, like Dr King, we believe this future is one of diverse, not divergent, communities within which everyone enjoys equal opportunity, where children can grow up without the threat of violence, and where separation and isolation are rejected.

For all those who are engaged in the peace process, such an ideal is achieved through the persistence of individual acts of decency, justice, and dialogue.

As the people of Northern Ireland once again set themselves to the task of tackling sensitive issues of parades, flags and symbols and the past, Dr King's ideas continue to be a source of inspiration and bear remembering.

John Hennessey-Niland is Charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Dublin

Irish Independent

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