Lagos | February 8, 2015
Thank you, Pastor Paul Adeferasin, and thank you to Church on the Rock for co-hosting this remarkable event with us. It’s an honor to meet this evening David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo and everyone else involved in the production of this very timely film which brings to life the story of Dr. Martin Luther King. I know that many of Nigeria’s political, economic, social and spiritual leaders are here in the audience today, so to use my favorite Nigerian expression: all protocols observed!
So, this evening we gather to celebrate the legacy of one of America’s, and indeed the world’s, greatest citizens: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader who expanded the reach of American democracy to Americans of African descent.
I think it is timely to reflect on Dr. King’s life as Nigerians prepare to go to the polls next month for I believe that his legacy is tremendously relevant to your democratic exercise.
Dr. King rose to national prominence in 1955 after Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Throughout 1955, Dr. King led the peaceful boycott of Montgomery buses. In the decade that followed, he became a leader and spokesperson for the civil rights movement, as millions of people struggled peacefully for equal treatment in all aspects of American society.
As you will soon see in this film, this was a dangerous time for Americans who advocated for racial equality in the American South, but Dr. King and courageous civil rights advocates persevered—by placing black and white passengers on interstate buses, by sitting next to each other in segregated restaurants and at department store dining counters, and through programs to register black voters in southern states. Many were verbally abused and physically assaulted. Some of them were killed.
Throughout this period, Dr. King nonetheless continued to advocate the practice of non-violence. In his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” delivered in Washington, D.C. in August 1963, Reverend King offered a caution which, while not one of the most well-known quotes from that famous speech, has always stuck with me: “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
The next year, the Congress of the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed many of the rights to social equality that Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement had been fighting for, and Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. Indeed, he was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient until last year, when Malala Yousafzai won it at the age of 17!
But Dr. King was not satisfied since, although African Americans constituted more than half the population in some voting districts and were a large minority throughout the South, most of them had effectively been blocked for exercising their right to vote for over one hundred years. Dr. King recognized that only through the ballot box could the voices and desires of African Americans truly be heard. When it became clear that, despite President Johnson’s instruction to his attorney general to draft the toughest voting rights act possible, that the U.S. Congress was reluctant to pass additional legislation so soon after the 1964 legislation, Dr. King responded. In March 1965, Dr. King undertook to lead a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. As we shall see depicted on the screen, that although the protestors were peaceful, many of the police and bystanders were violent, and as a direct result, Congress took up and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the White House signing ceremony, President Johnson remarked, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” Dr. King also spoke, stating that “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.”
Now, the events I’m discussing are much more than abstract historical issues for me. My father was an Air Force officer and we moved around a lot while I was young. In the early 1960s we lived in Montgomery, Alabama. I remember Dr. King coming to town for the Selma marches. I remember African Americans being attacked in the streets as they demonstrated for their civil rights and for the right to vote. Seeing things like this when you’re young etches them in your soul forever.
What lessons do I draw from my experiences in Alabama during that period? First, and this has been reinforced by many things I’ve seen in my 34 years of being a U.S. diplomat around the world, is the precious nature of the right to vote. All over the world, including in my country, people have struggled and in some cases died to obtain the right to vote. When we have the right to vote but don’t use it, we disrespect and tarnish their memory. So, I urge all Nigerians who are eligible to vote to do so. Vote. It’s one of the most powerful weapons in the world. Vote.
Second, having seen African Americans attacked in the streets and now, fifty years later, having the privilege of working for an African American President of the United States, I am convinced that genuine change through the democratic process is absolutely possible. I know this because I have seen it in my own lifetime in my own country. It may not happen overnight, it may take decades, but it is absolutely possible.
The third and final lesson I draw from those experiences as a young boy is the power of the manner in which Dr. King devoted his life to non-violence. As Dr. King taught Americans, and as he taught the world, “nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
It is in that non-violent spirit of Dr. King’s that I have been so outspoken over the past year on the importance of non-violence in Nigeria’s upcoming elections. I’ve been delighted to see Nigerian media and civil society and entertainers like 2Face with his “Vote not Fight” campaign take up the cause. Whenever I meet with a politician or a candidate here I ask him or her to publicly take the non-violence pledge. That is, to state clearly in front of their fellow Nigerians that they will not condone, foment, or endorse violence before, during or after the elections. When I do that, I frequently get the response, and I’m talking about representatives of all parties, of something like “Well, of course I would never instigate or call for violence but if my opponent starts it or if I’m not happy with the results, I may not have any choice.” That, my friends, does not constitute a legitimate non-violence pledge. Committing to non-violence, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., means that you will not engage in or support violence for any reason, no matter what others do, and if you see it starting, you will do everything in your power to stop it and you will speak out against those who advocate violence and otherwise engage in hate speech. That, and no less than that, is what Dr. King would expect of all of us.
As the representative of a fellow democracy that is a great friend and partner of Nigeria, I look forward to your massive democratic exercise next month with eager anticipation. I have no doubt that it will be boisterous, loud and hotly-contested and that’s all good. But all of us must do everything we can, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to ensure that exuberance does not descend into violence.
Inclusion and non-violence: That is the vision and the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. brought alive in my country and for which he sacrificed his life—and to which brave people all over the world still give voice. I believe Dr. King’s dream also was the dream of Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Nigeria’s first prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. All of them would certainly have heard the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is up to all of us to make real our commitment to inclusion and non-violence. And in that endeavor, cloaked in the spirit of Dr. King, the United States remains Nigeria’s most committed partner.
Thank you very much.