Thank you for your kind introduction and for inviting me to join with you in celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is, of course, fitting that the Akron Urban League hosts this observance. Bernett Williams and her staff do great work in helping to build relationships in our city, and in so doing helping to move all of us closer to the "Beloved Community" that Dr. King envisioned. Thank you, Bernett!
Dr. King was a remarkable person. At the time that I met him, back in 1964 on the occasion when the city of Atlanta honored him for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, little did I know how significant he was to become to all of us and to the world. That realization was to come much later, and I will tell you more about that in a few moments. For now, let me just say that the words of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech are as poignant today as they were in 1964 when he delivered them. He said:
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. (We) have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force, which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.1"
Powerful words, indeed; yet, all of us know that we have much more to do before this ideal is realized.
I cannot tell you the exact date when all of this was to come into focus for me, but I do know that it came about most unexpectedly. It happened about twenty years after I met Dr. King, somewhere in the 1980s. And it was unexpected because I was simply going to a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, when I chanced upon something that linked Dr. King to my own heritage in Mexico.
I was crossing Virginia Avenue, going from Foggy Bottom to the Kennedy Center, and walked across through the traffic circle there, when I first noticed a statue at its center. I must have seen it before, of course, since I often traveled along Virginia Avenue, but I had never noticed it. But as chance would have it, it is a statue of Benito Juarez, the first president of Mexico, my native country.
Juarez, who was a full-blooded Mexican native, served a total of five terms as president and helped to establish Mexico as a constitutional democracy, and here he was, much to my surprise, being celebrated in the middle of our nation's capital.2
I stood there for a few moments, still in my surprise, and then I read the inscription on the plaque - "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz"; "Respect for the rights of others is peace."3
It was as if all that I had forgotten about Mexico was suddenly part of me again. You see, that phrase - respect for the rights of other is peace - is as indelibly written in my memory as "I have a dream" is in yours. This statue, as I was to learn later, was dedicated 41 years ago this month as a gift from the people of Mexico in exchange for a statue of Abraham Lincoln given to them in 1969 by former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, just four years after Dr. King's Nobel celebration.4
"Respect for the rights of others is peace." It is a phrase fitting of Lincoln.
Dr. King often stated that Lincoln was a major influence in his life, along with other notables such as India's political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi. He easily could have added Benito Juarez to his list of influences, because - even though they were separated by more than a century - Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benito Juarez shared much in common.
Indeed, how aptly might Dr. King himself have uttered those words on the plaque: "Respect for the rights of others is peace."
And that is because, whether in the 1860s for Benito Juarez or the 1960s for Martin Luther King, the issues confronting humanity then are the same as those confronting us today: ignorance, intolerance, mistrust, oppression, hatred. These are struggles that can be traced back to the dawn of humankind and that remain with us today. And, at the root of these struggles, is the foible of human partiality-the mistake of assuming that one group, the one with which we identify, is better than others. It is why we assume that our family is right and that others are wrong, that our nation is good and others are not, that our belief system is true and those of others are false.
And Dr. King himself might well have cautioned us that as long as we are blinded by the premises of partiality, or its offshoot of identity politics, we will be blind to the one essential truth that enables civilization to progress . . . and that one truth was there before me, inscribed on Benito Juarez's statue in our capital - "Respect for the rights of others is peace."
For me, that statement not only embodies the ideals voiced by Dr. King in his immediate context of 1960s America, but also expresses an ideal that transcends time, place and individuals because it expresses the ideal of civilization itself. Yet, to this day, respect for the rights of others is not something easily practiced.
And so, we gather here this morning, all of us from different generations and different backgrounds, to rededicate our efforts to achieve mutual respect. We gather to commemorate the life of an inspiring and visionary leader. And we gather knowing that while Dr. King certainly was an advocate for black Americans, he was a gift to all Americans, a gift to all humanity.
For as he wrote from inside his Birmingham Jail cell: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly."6
History has taught us that, to improve our lot as a society, we must use our collective wisdom and our accumulated and emerging knowledge. Humanity flourishes in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the awareness of the connectedness of life, and in the quest to improve our common future.
And that is why our nation is valued above all others for people who seek the opportunity of freedom. Like me, those who come to these shores as immigrants soon learn that the opportunity of freedom is, in reality, more about the freedom of opportunity than about anything else. And that means being responsible to each other and to ourselves; because we can enjoy the freedom of opportunity only to the extent that we respect the rights of others.
Dr. King's dream has set into motion a challenge for generations to come -- a challenge to relentlessly move onward to the day when all of humanity universally respects the rights of others, the day when we can honestly call ourselves civilized.
Today, more than 100 nations join us in celebrating Dr. King's legacy. Across the world, they join us in seeking his dream.7
So let us honor his memory, and that of others like Lincoln and Benito Juarez, by journeying together toward the "dream."
Respect for the rights of others is peace.
1. MLK Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, www.nobelprizes.com
2. Benito Juarez, www.en.wikipedia.org
3. Washington, D.C. Foggy Bottom, Benito Juarez, www.flickr.com
4. Benito Juarez, www.en.wikipedia.org
6. Letter from Birmingham Jail, King, Jr., www.africa.upenn.edu
7. "More Than 100 Countries Celebrate Martin Luther King Holiday," U.S. Department of Defense news release
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