By Ambassador Joseph Stafford
August 27, 2013 - It was a speech that the world cannot forget. On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC where they heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech destined to resonate through the ages.
In what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, King gave an impassioned voice to the demands of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement — equal rights for all citizens, regardless of the color of their skin.
Some historians maintain that King’s speech, delivered at one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history, was one of those rare moments that changed a nation — paving the way for a transformation of American law and life.
Less than a year after the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public facilities, such as hotels and restaurants, and also prohibited employment discrimination. The following year, passage of the Voting Rights Act ensured African-Americans could freely exercise their franchise.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act sought to remove discrimination in buying and renting of housing. That legislation was complemented by new policies, such as affirmative action, designed to counter the legacy of discrimination.
The sweeping legal changes seemed abrupt to some Americans, and U.S. communities struggled to catch up. In a 1963 Newsweek poll, 74 percent of whites said racial integration was “moving too fast,” a viewpoint that seems shocking today when attitudes are very different. By 2000, a New York Times poll reported 93 percent of whites said they would vote for a qualified black presidential candidate (and many did in 2008). More than 60 percent approved of interracial marriage. And 80 percent said they did not care whether their neighbors were white or black.
The dream King expressed at the March on Washington is now part of the U.S. political mainstream. His birthday is a national holiday on which Americans honor his ideas and his memory. His legacy is commemorated with a memorial in the nation’s capital, near those dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
King’s dream of racial equality and fight for justice transcended U.S. borders. He traveled the world proclaiming his vision of the “beloved community” and defining racism as a worldwide evil. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Even on the day of his “I Have a Dream” speech, when he was addressing Americans in particular, King was conscious of the worldwide impact of the march and its message. “As television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the borders and oceans,” he said, “everyone who believed in man’s capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race.” One eyewitness present that historical day said, “The march touched the world, as well as America.”
Fifty years later, I personally am still moved by Dr King’s words. I have spent my career as an American Diplomat sharing my country’s experiences with the world hoping the American story would inspire others.
As I look around Sudan, I see many activists and particularly youth, also inspired by Dr King working for the “beloved community.” Many are taking up the causes of the physically or mentally challenged or trying to eradicate the suffering from lack of basic human needs, such as food and water. Many are pushing for greater access to education and working to improve the quality of education, itself. Others are concerned with gender equality issues, ensuring that both men and women are treated fairly. I am convinced that Dr. King would be proud of those Sudanese taking up his call for implementing the change they would like to see in the world. Fifty years after his eloquent and moving speech, they are not just reflecting on a dream of social and economic equality, but working to make it happen. Fifty years after his stirring remarks, we are called upon not just to remember the dream, but to be the dream.
The author is the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy Khartoum, Sudan