Remarks for Martin Luther King Day Reception

Good evening, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues.  Daphne and I are honored and delighted that you could join us here this evening to celebrate and remember Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement to which he dedicated his life.  Dr. King’s powerful message—perhaps most memorably expressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech—is one that has touched the lives of every American here tonight—indeed, that of every Congolese as well.  The vision of a shared future that Dr. King embraced extended beyond the divisions of ethnicity, race or nation.  Tonight, Americans and Congolese alike come together to remember the legacy of this great man and enjoy the fruits of a rich culture that has its roots here in Africa.

In the foyer of our home tonight you may have noticed posters highlighting the American civil rights movement, including several depicting Dr. King.   They are images of struggle and triumph which at first glance one might think belong to another era.  The America of that period–in which legal segregation pervaded the common experience of many Americans–is indeed history.  Schools, restaurants, universities and workplaces across our country no longer tolerate racial segregation, and in 2008, the United States elected its first black president, Barack Obama.  Yet these images resonate nevertheless.  The common thread between us today and those who witnessed these events firsthand is an innate recognition of the best and worst in human nature.  Man at his worst humiliates and ostracizes those different than him.  Man at his best seeks to instead understand, share commonalities with and love his fellow man.  The latter was the case with Martin Luther King.

Dr. King’s biography says as much about the times in which he lived as it does about the convictions and accomplishments of the man himself.  Martin Luther King, born in 1929 as Michael King, was a son of Georgia, raised in the segregated deep South.  An astute yet humble student, after deep reflection King decided to pursue a divinity degree and become a Baptist minister.   He saw both the problem and the solution to the social injustice around him through the lens of his faith.  His religious convictions would permit neither the hatred that stems from racism nor the use of violence to correct it.  It was this dual conviction that led him to support Rosa Parks during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.  It was the source of his struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia in 1957, and later during the 1962 nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was his inspiration for the famed 1963 March on Washington and his involvement in the civil rights movement in the years that followed.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington, Dr. King described his vision of a future where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  With these words, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement as a whole, transformed America into a better place, a fairer place, a more moral and more unified place.  Their collective efforts brought America closer to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that all men are created equal.  Dr. King’s words and deeds inspired—and continue to inspire—generation after generation across the world.

Indeed, Dr. King’s voice has brought change to this continent as well.  I find it remarkable that of the Nobel Peace Laureates of African descent, three were Americans— U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche in 1950, Dr. King in 1964, and Barack Obama in 2009.  All three triumphed over the obstacles presented by racial barriers in society, and all three did so as advocates for peaceful reconciliation.  This approach of a non-violent struggle for freedom calls to mind another great man and Nobel Laureate recently lost to us, Nelson Mandela.  Both Dr. King and Mandela had a dream of a society where blacks and whites were equal, and through their leadership and belief in peaceful means to reconcile society, they saw that dream became a reality.  Mandela in particular relied on Dr. King’s statement that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as he sought to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Therefore tonight, as you see the images of Dr. King in the poster show and in the March on Washington video footage playing out back in the garden, as you enjoy the rich culinary and musical traditions of African-American culture, remember that above all we celebrate what Dr. King stood for, a common triumph over adversity and division, a shared humanity.  This evening’s festivities are more than an acknowledgment of Dr. King’s realized dream, but an opportunity to us to come together in the spirit in which he lived.

So again, welcome, Daphne and I are honored to have you with us this evening.  We hope that you enjoy this occasion to share in the life of Dr. King.  Thank you.