Remarks for Martin Luther King Day Reception

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome. As we begin 2016, I wish a peaceful, healthy and prosperous year for all of you and for this beautiful country. The United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have had a strong partnership for decades. We are committed to continuing and reinforcing that this year and in the future. And ours is a true partnership. Over the past year, Congolese health workers shared their capacity and expertise with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Congolese managers and technicians contributed to U.S. businesses operating in the agri-business, banking, and mining sectors, among many others. Congolese youth participated in the Young African Leaders Initiative, sharing  their vision for the future of our planet with young Americans. From health, education, and governance programs; to working with the Congolese military and civilian security forces; to English language teaching programs; to promotion of trade and foreign investment in the country, the United States works hand in hand with the Congolese to create a more stable and prosperous future for both our peoples.

Tonight we gather as friends and partners to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To my knowledge, the United States is the only Western country to have a national holiday honoring 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 nation’s history. Dr. King successfully employed a strategy of non-violent activism to overcome centuries of racial discrimination. He reshaped American democracy and profoundly influenced non-violent struggles around the globe—including to overturn South Africa’s apartheid regime. Dr. King admired the efforts of others, particularly on the African continent, to achieve political ends through non-violent means. After returning from the celebration of Ghana’s independence in 1957, he spoke movingly about the experience, calling it “a beautiful thing” that a new nation had gained its freedom without having taken up arms.

Throughout his life, Dr. King faced skepticism from others in the civil rights struggle who questioned his insistence on non-violence. Critics doubted his conviction that “the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” Dr. King warned that “the aftermath of violence is bitterness” while in contrast “[t]he aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.” Even when faced with violence against their peaceful demonstrations, Dr. King admonished his followers to resist reacting themselves with violence. In a tragic irony, it was the cowardly assassination of Dr. King in 1968 that unleashed an outpouring of anger, frustration and grief that quickly turned to violence and looting in cities across the United States. A generation later these neighborhoods and communities are still recovering, including in our capital, Washington D.C.

The triumph of Dr. King was also a testament to his abiding confidence in democratic institutions, the rule of law, and ultimately the responsibility of the state to protect all its citizens. As he organized non-violent protests, he was aided by independent courts, a free media, and an active civil society that insisted on his right to organize, protest, and speak out on issues of racial justice. National security forces were deployed to protect citizens in exercising their constitutional rights. In contrast, those state and local authorities and bands of thugs 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. Thanks not only to Dr. King’s courage, but also to many other leaders who insisted on respect for our constitution and our democratic institutions, the tide of public opinion and then the tide of history changed. In the end, it was Lyndon Johnson, America’s first president elected from the Deep South since our civil war, who championed landmark civil rights legislation adopted by our Congress and that remains the law of the land today. In a functioning democracy, government institutions, authorities and security forces must protect the ability of all citizens to exercise their constitutional rights. And those in charge of public security in a democracy bear a special responsibility to ensure that maintenance of public order does not come at the cost of abusive or excessive force, as such acts only weaken the state’s credibility in the eyes of the people.

Democracy will always be messy. As President Obama noted on Tuesday in his final State of the Union address before ending the two terms in office to which he is limited under our constitution, democracy and politics in the United States continue to be works in progress that could stand improvement. Most Americans would agree with that. Yet, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one that inspires hope for democracy. For, despite its imperfections, a system that allows for free speech, peaceful assembly, open political debate and electoral competition helps move society ever closer to justice, prosperity, and security for all its people.

On behalf of all of us at Embassy Kinshasa, may this New Year be one of happiness, peace, and progress for the Congolese people.