Remarks for Martin Luther King Day Reception

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen welcome as we celebrate and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, a man whose movement dramatically changed America and has influenced the entire world.

The United States observes Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday.  We are the only Western country to have a national holiday for a person of African origin – a tribute not just to Dr. King but to the enormous contributions and sacrifices of the African American community in our history.  We observed the holiday this year on Monday, January 19, where here in the Congo it fell on a day of demonstrations, unrest, and violence.  The contrast between Dr. King’s vision of a peaceful reconciliation of differences and the violence that we witnessed that week was stark.

Dr. King left a profound legacy to the United States.  As we have seen significant improvements in race relations and inclusion in the United States. Much remains to be achieved, as we saw this year when  a 18 year old black man was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri,  sparking demonstrations in many cities of the United States.  Yet the African American community has made impressive  progress in the past half-century, both and economically and politically.  Although African-Americans are poorer as a demographic category, and regrettably still lagging in many social indicators, the 40 million or so African Americans nonetheless have a combined purchasing power of some $1 trillion and are increasingly visible in the highest positions in the land, including, of course, in the White House.

As part of the decor this evening, you may have noticed posters highlighting the American civil rights movement.  They are images of struggle and triumph.  The photos capture the bravery of these men and women in their collective effort to protest injustice and prejudice and end segregation in our country.  But the true impact of the civil rights movement extended far beyond the African American community.  When we speak of the civil rights movement in the United States, we are really talking about movement for democratic reform and good governance.  The objective of the movement was to ensure that all our citizens could participate fully in the life and decisions of our nation, and contribute to its success.

Dr. King was visionary, a brilliant orator, a courageous activist, and a principled proponent of non-violence.  But he didn’t achieve change in America by himself.  He worked within a framework of strong national institutions that ensured respect for the constitutional protections afforded all citizens.  Other Americans – even those who opposed him — helped ensure that his views were heard — even when those views challenged powerful interests.  Remember:   it was a Supreme Court composed entirely of privileged white men who ruled in the historic decision “Brown v. Board of Education” that separate facilities for blacks were inherently unequal and indeed unconstitutional.  Remember: it was a conservative president who sent in the National Guard to ensure the court’s ruling was respected in schools throughout the land. Remember: It was our first president elected from the Deep South since our civil war who championed landmark civil rights legislation.  The courts and a free media and an active civil society ensured the right to assemble, to protest, to speak out on these issues.  Those who sought to thwart those rights – whether turning the dogs on peaceful marchers at Selma or taunting black school children in Little Rock — have gone down in our history as figures of shame.

Dr. King’s achievements also show us that elections and rotation in office matter.  Programs to advance social mobility and equality for all Americans were achieved in large measure thanks to landslide electoral victories by their proponents in 1964.  Ultimately, Dr. King’s inspiring vision was painstakingly advanced and codified in law through national institutions that respected our constitutional norms.

Here in Congo, as the country faces many crucial decisions of national policy, we also believe democratic institutions are the best means of resolving such key questions for the good of the people.  In a constitutional democracy, this means respect for the constitution – even by those who may be personally disadvantaged by doing so.  It also means  regular rotation in office – even by political figures reluctant to forego their positions.  And it means ensuring the rights to assembly, free speech and access to media for all citizens.  All these are  hallmarks of a thriving democracy.

The United States has many interests in Congo, including the promotion of economic development and private sector growth and  advancing peace and security, particularly in eastern DRC.  But tonight, as we consider the legacy of Dr. King, this is a moment to focus on the central role of freedom of speech and media, freedom of assembly, rotation in office, and respect for the constitution in building a strong democracy – a democracy that can advance national aims for the good of the people.  In the history of the United States, no one used these freedoms to greater lasting effect than Dr. King.