As a child, growing up in segregated east Texas, I keenly followed his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. In 1962, when I joined an army that was only 13 years integrated thanks to President Harry Truman, I continued to follow King’s rise to prominence in the civil rights movement, celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and weeping over his untimely death in 1968.
Like many who admire him, I applauded the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr Day as a national holiday in 1986. I always try to make this a special day, not of remembrance and sadness but for celebration of the principles for which this great man lived and died. King’s greatness as a leader and role model came from the fact that he lived, as well as preached, these principles at every opportunity. King believed that all people, especially including religious leaders, could and should make a positive difference in their nations and communities.
This is the lasting lesson of his life and this holiday observance. It’s not just for African-Americans, for it was not just for people of colour that King worked so hard. It was his belief that the entire population of the United States, and in fact, people all over the world, would benefit from the application of these universal principles.
I believe sincerely that King’s views are just as appropriate today, and here in Zimbabwe, as they were when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Last week, I spoke to a group of Zimbabwean religious leaders at Arrupe College seminary in Harare, and that was the core of my message. To them I said that, like King, religious leaders here have taken a principled stand on political and human rights issues, and I applaud them for that. Their churches in many ways mirror the black churches of the south during the days of the civil rights struggle, and I encouraged them to never let their voices fall silent.
King didn’t change America’s racial situation overnight. We had many years to travel and grow as a nation between the start of the civil and voting rights movements and the election of our first African-American president. Similarly, no single speech or movement will suddenly change the political landscape in Zimbabwe. But like many here, King had a vision. “I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the Promised Land,” were words in a sermon he preached shortly before he died. Like, King, I too have a dream. I have a dream that the peoples of Africa –– in fact, the peoples of all the developing world –– will someday enjoy the fruits of democracy and open government.
That someday, they will no longer have to live in fear under the yoke of selfish dictators, or watch their children die in infancy of preventable diseases. And, like King, I commit myself to doing as much as I can, as a diplomat, as a believer in democracy and civil rights, and as my president’s chief representative in Zimbabwe, to pursue that dream, whether or not it becomes reality in my lifetime
Charles A Ray