By Tewodros Abebe Although I was familiar with the name Martin Luther King Jr. during my teenage years in Ethiopia, I never had a full understanding of the man’s fascinating story or the level of his greatness. That understanding came during my undergraduate years at an American college.
As a young student who had always been interested in the art of writing, I decided to take as many literature courses as I possibly could. One course focused on styles of composition. One of the textbooks assigned for that particular course introduced readers to different writing styles and genres of the English language. I enjoyed every single essay in that book, but one stood out: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. King.
I still remember the stunning effect his 1963 letter had on me as I read it for the first time. It was an eye-opening document that illustrated the suffering, humiliation and struggle that African Americans had to endure in order to attain justice, equality and civil rights. I never knew!
The letter and its sobering contents were simply captivating. I felt like it was addressed to me and, at the same time, to every individual in every part of the world. I never anticipated that I would identify with his message so closely and with such intensity. The letter prompted me to reflect on the chronic political turmoil and persecutions in my own country and in many African nations. It provoked me to ponder on the grimness of life for African children and the unspeakable human rights violations that governments commit against their own people. It compelled me to think, solemnly, of my fellow Africans’ and the continent’s seemingly inseparable fate with poverty and injustice, which are the direct consequences of bad policies and corrupt leadership. Nevertheless, I tried to maintain an optimistic outlook as Dr. King did in the closing remarks of his extraordinary letter:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Dr. King’s eloquent remarks should serve as cautionary words to a world that chooses to focus on differences rather than the fundamental similarities of the human race.
The letter that introduced me to his writings inspired me to read more about Dr. King and his brilliant leadership in the civil rights movement. The speech that transformed American
society, which was delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., remains my favorite: “I Have a Dream.” It is simply one of the most important, thoughtful and emotionally stirring speeches of modern times. Just like his Birmingham letter, “I Have a Dream” also has a universal appeal that speaks truth to people of every nationality. Every time I watch the video of the speech or read its text, I am reminded of the necessity to speak against injustices around the world. It is a highly inspiring speech that gives tremendous hope to all people who are languishing under the brutal rules of wicked oppressors and ruthless dictators.
As we observe the fiftieth anniversary of the “dream” speech and the historic March on Washington this year, we must continue to be mindful of the human understanding and connection that Dr. King strived to nurture throughout his life. Like all great world leaders, the powerful message that he successfully transmitted through his writings and speeches is applicable today, and to all people. Let us recognize the fact that, with faith and determination, people around the world, to use his own words, “will be able to transform the jangling discords” of their nations “into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Dr. King had a phenomenal dream. As citizens of the world, let’s work on ours collectively.