Martin Luther King changed US society forever, and his message is as true today in the Middle East.
King's universal message echoes today in the Arab Spring
'Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered a speech of such magnificence that it resonates to this day. As Martin Luther King Day was celebrated in the US this week, it is worth reading that speech in its entirety. Its universal themes could not be more relevant to the unrest across the Middle East.
The inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", which the US constitution had promised but not delivered to Dr King and other black Americans, are the same ones that Arab citizens have been fighting for ever since Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate protest in December 2010.
In exactly one week, Egypt will celebrate the anniversary of the start of its Tahrir revolution: the day that Egyptians decided that waiting for a better future was no longer an option. Those who think that, a year later, these demands remain unmet would identify with Dr King's words on the "the fierce urgency of now" and against taking "the tranquillising drug of gradualism". Now, Tahrir is calling for a second revolution.
In the absence of clear leadership, the "Arab Spring" has been questioned. Dr King, too, evoked the metaphor of seasons but warned against the kind of stagnation that critics of the Arab Spring accuse it of. "This sweltering summer ... will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality," Dr King told that audience in August.
And just as he deemed 1963 "not an end, but a beginning" for the civil rights movement, so should 2011 be seen as merely the first tentative step towards a democratisation process that could well take a generation to achieve in the Arab world. Dr King warned that the civil rights movement was not merely black America's need "to blow off steam" and that a rude awakening awaited "if the nation returns to business as usual".
In Tunis and Cairo a year ago, and from Sanaa to Damascus today, demonstrators would recognise that business as usual is precisely what their dictators hoped for with their insincere, empty promises of reform, delivered in increasingly delusional speeches. Even Bashar Al Assad and Syria's uncommitted middle classes must realise that Syria has passed the point of no return.
In calling for non-violent activism, as inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr King was still acutely aware of the risk of bottled-up anger turning into violence.
"Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he said. "Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
Predictably, in the face of continuous provocation and physical force, the anger of the Libyan people could not be contained, and there is danger of the same in Syria.
Other themes ring true. To "When will you be satisfied?", Dr King answered: "We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality." Barely a day has passed over the last year without images of police forces quashing demonstrations with obscene violence dominating the news: those demanding reforms on the streets of Cairo, Manama, Sanaa and Homs will not be satisfied as long as that remains a reality. And like Dr King, they must prepare to be patient.
Five years after that Washington address, Dr King delivered another stirring speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
"I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you," he said. "But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
The words proved prophetic. The next day, he was murdered. He may have become a martyr, but not before leading his people to the brink of the promised land.
The Arab uprisings have mourned thousands of martyrs. What we have been lacking is leaders like Martin Luther King.
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