“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. This is one of the most quoted lines from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and probably best highlights King’s vision of a society where a person’s race isn’t a factor in how they are treated. 28 August marks the 54th anniversary of the day King delivered his speech in front of over 250 000 people who marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., to protest for civil and economic rights for African Americans.

The speech is one of the most defining moments in American history as it inspired change in the United States. It specifically led to an increase in support of President Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964 and brought an end to segregation, as well as banned employment discrimination based on race, religion, colour, sex and national origin. Despite his speech being aimed at his fellow Americans, his message was one that was received globally, as countries that had gone through struggles for independence, and those that still had their own struggles for civil rights to overcome, took his words to heart. The evidence of his impact can be seen in the various roads, parks and monuments that have been named in his honour in countries such as India, France, Zambia and South Africa.

King was a supporter of South African anti-apartheid activists, such as Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, and gave numerous speeches and sermons in which he connected the fight for freedom and equality in the US with the struggles that other countries, like South Africa, were facing. He also called on the British and American governments to aid activists in bringing down the apartheid regime – a regime he strongly denounced, and described as being “a medieval form of segregation organised with 20th century efficiency and drive”. Speaking about how Martin Luther King’s speech would have been received in South Africa, Ms Heather Thuynsma, a UP lecturer, said that “the Apartheid government dismissed it with derision, and the liberation movements stationed both inside and outside South Africa embraced the sentiment and essence of the speech, but they probably didn’t agree that a non-violent approach would be successful in the South African context. After all, this was given some three years after the Sharpeville Massacre.”

Although King’s dream of an equal society has been mostly praised, it hasn’t become a reality, as there are some who still have strong, hate-filled and racist views. The events that took place in Charlottesville on 11 and 12 August highlighted this. Hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis were allowed to legally march in a “Unite the Right” rally, carrying Confederate and swastika flags. Violence erupted as counter protesters clashed with the white supremacist group, which left many injured and one woman tragically killed when a car was driven into a group of counter protesters. The incident in Charlottesville is just another in a string of recent public displays of racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination. A lot of the blame has been laid on the poor leadership of President Trump, who has failed to denounce the white supremacists and neo-Nazis that endorse him. Not only do these incidents divide a country and spread hate, they also undermine the work that civil rights activists have done in the name of equality and freedom.

According to Ms Thuynsma, King’s message is as relevant today as it was 54 years ago. She said, “Its reconciliation message is also pertinent for South Africa especially after the Marikana Massacre and the recurrent xenophobic or, as one of my third year students renamed it, Afrophobic attacks”

Ms Thuynsma also stated that “The speech speaks of racial reconciliation both within and outside the US. its hopeful undertones helped embed a damning indictment of segregation as a policy and racism as a mind set. And his passionate delivery stirred the consciousness of [the] broader public while tapping into and, in many ways, re imagining the clichés which form the cornerstones of the American Dream; the idea that ‘all men (both black and white) would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’”

Image: The Stanford Freedom Project

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