By Eric Whitaker, U.S. Ambassador to Niger
Every year on the third Monday of January since 1986, Americans have honored the life and achievements of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace laureate and the individual most associated with the triumphs of the African-American civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. As a political organizer, supremely skilled orator, and advocate of nonviolent protest, King was pivotal in persuading his fellow Americans to end the legal segregation that prevailed throughout the South and parts of other regions, and in sparking support for the civil rights legislation that established the legal framework for racial equality in the United States. King’s dedication of his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality has inspired millions to join movements to effect social change.
Born on January 15, 1929, to a long line of Baptist ministers, King grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when Jim Crow laws made segregation and discrimination a daily reality for blacks. King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he came to view religion as a powerful catalyst for social change. He received his doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology before returning to the South, where he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After the Supreme Court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws in 1956, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promoted nonviolent action for civil rights throughout the South. He was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and traveled to India in 1959. In a radio address during his visit to India, King said: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” His philosophy, inspired by Gandhi, in turn inspired others to change their societies through nonviolent means, from the Solidarity movement’s cracking of Soviet occupation in Poland to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
Joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King continued to use his oratorical gifts to urge an end to segregation and legal inequality. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested during nonviolent protests in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. While incarcerated after one such arrest, in 1963, King penned the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, outlining the moral basis for the civil rights movement. That August, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, where he declared that all people should be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In 1964, in no small part thanks to King’s efforts, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and other aspects of life. King continued to press for a law to ensure that blacks could not be denied the right to vote by discriminatory practices such as literacy tests. Following a march begun six blocks away from the Edmund Petus bridge in Selma, Alabama, where voting-rights marchers led by King were beaten back by state troopers and civilians as they tried to cross, King called for an 87-kilometer march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Less than five months after this march, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Tragically, on April 4, 1968, an unknown assailant assassinated King as he stood on the balcony outside his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room.
Part of King’s legacy is his call to work together for a better tomorrow. King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others today?” That’s why in 1994, MLK Jr. Day was redesignated as a national day of service. It’s now a “day on, not a day off” for Americans to give back to their communities. Service can be anything, from tutoring to preparing meals, visiting seniors, painting or picking up trash. Volunteering has become America’s way to reflect on King’s life and his teachings.
Americans from the U.S. Embassy here in Niamey have also taken MLK’s message to heart. For example, in September when the rising Niger river waters threatened to flood the Sahel Academy, security personnel spent part of their weekend protecting the school with sandbags. There is also a women’s association that meets on a regular basis and donates time and other resources to improving the lives of Nigeriens. The association’s most recent activity was to paint and raise funds to refurbish seven classrooms of Niamey’s Deaf School in December. Our Marine guards visit the Notre Dame orphanage each month to spend time with the children there and collect donations of clothes, shoes, and toys for them. During their most recent visit in December, they dropped off more than 70 brand new toys that had been given by the Embassy community.
In December, our military colleagues stationed at Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez held a dental clinic for school children, covered a dry well that was a safety hazard, and organized a craft fair that raised $20,000 for local vendors. These activities don’t even cover the countless hours that Americans volunteer within the community on an individual basis to help those in need. I encourage you, too, to take some time on January 20 to help out a family member, friend, colleague or even a stranger. Through our collective action, King’s vision of a free and equal world dedicated to expanding opportunity, fighting racism, and ending all forms of discrimination can be a reality for all.