Affirming an audacious faith
When Martin Luther King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on
December 10, 1964, declaring that he had an 'audacious faith in
the future of mankind' he did so with immense humility.
At that time,
the civil rights movement of which he was indisputably the leader,
was moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and
danger towards its goal of establishing America as a country in
which justice and equality prevailed.
Even at that
point, Dr. King had a profound faith in his belief that non-violence
is the answer to crucial political and moral violence of the times,
underscoring the need for people "to overcome" violence
without resorting to violence in turn. He reasoned that these beliefs
were in fact, why he had been honoured with the Nobel peace prize.
Thus, his refusal
to "accept despair as the final response to the antiquities
of history". Thus, his belief that "wounded justice, lying
prostrate on the blood flowing streets of our nation, can be lifted
from this dust of shame, to reign supreme among the children of
men," as he accepted the prize, while African-Americans were,
even then, back in America, being met with fire hoses, snarling
dogs and even death for insisting on the right to vote.
later, Dr. King was assassinated, shot down while leaving his motel.
This week, a beleaguered America, as well as the entire world remembers
his celebrated "I have a dream" speech delivered on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, to 200,000 peaceful
protesters, comprising whites as well as African-Americans gathered
to commemorate the 100th anniversary of he Emancipation Proclamation.
later years saw friction between Dr. King and other African-American
leaders on fundamental issues. Thus, while Dr. King increasingly
embraced a wide philosophy, urging that inequality was common to
Hispanics and Asians as well as African-Americans, his colleagues
preferred to limit the struggle to racial inequality of the African-Americans
King also protested against the involvement of America in the Vietnam
war, saying that the war poisoned the atmosphere of the whole country
and made solutions of local problems, unrealistic.
It is useful
in this context, to note the two specific philosophies that influenced
Martin Luther King in his formative years. These were respectively
the Gandhian ideals of 'Satyagraha' and the writings of Henry David
Thoreau, urging civil disobedience against unjust laws.
It does not
augur well for us, that these philosophies would seem to be quaint
and outdated today. At that time, Dr. King's belief was that America's
people will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the
content of their character. He thought, in fact, that these ideals
were rooted in the concept of the American dream itself.
From one perspective,
this was correct as the American Dream, in that sense, was based
on fundamental precepts of equality and justice, and the notion
that an individual, regardless of colour, creed or class, could
become a honoured and valued citizen.
From another perspective, the bastardized version of this dream
which posits the almighty dollar as the final goal worth achieving,
regardless of the means, is the very opposite of what Dr. King preached.
In yet another
sense, the manner in which America is now viewed by many countries
in the world, with all the dark undertones of might, arrogance and
brute strength could not be more anti-ethical to Martin Luther King's
'visionary dream' articulated forty years ago.
As far as racism itself is concerned meanwhile, this has merely
gone underground in America in many respects, thus becoming harder
to fight than when it was overt and forceful. These are then, saddening
reflections on the fortieth anniversary of the "I have a dream"
address, despite the glorious memories and the very real gains of
the civil rights movement in America.
with regard to a country unique as it still remains despite her
current convulsions, are of interest to Sri Lanka unlike the American
Civil Rights Movement, we have not had parallel strivings towards
justice and equality. Instead, what we have manifested is a fundamental
inability to come to grips with issues that go to the heart of our
existence as a nation.
of the judiciary in this context, is very apt. We saw the conflict
between the judiciary and the executive in the seventies, when attempts
were made to intimidate judges. We saw this in the eighties when
judges' houses were stoned following the delivering of decisions
perceived to be against the government at that time. And we saw
this most notably in the nineties when judgments on rights issues
were disparaged by politicians and judges criticized openly in Parliament.
In recent times, disputes revolving round the judiciary and the
office of the Chief Justice have been unsurpassed in the history
of this country.
then centres on the responses of rights activists in this country
to these issues. While we did not assuredly have leaders of the
calibre of Dr. King to guide us, were protests of a lesser nature
pointed out by the Asian Human Rights Commission, in a statement
issued this week, the decision by one of Sri Lanka's most respected
judges of the Supreme Court, Justice Mark D.H. Fernando to send
in papers for premature retirement to President Kumaratunga, whilst
having two-and-a-half years to continue in office, is yet another
adverse notch on the wall.
The AHRC statement
points out that the decision by Justice Fernando, long noted for
his independence and integrity, to retire prematurely can only have
an negative effect on citizens' trust in public institutions meant
to safeguard the Rule of Law.
As far as Sri
Lanka is concerned now, it is appropriate to remember that shortly
before he was assassinated, Dr. King said memorably "We have
got some difficult days ahead. But, it does not matter to me now.
Because I have been to the mountain top. And I don't mind".
These are inspiring
sentiments indeed. We would be fortunate if we could glimpse even
the glimmerings of a similar hope for us, at least at some point
in the future.