Ambassador Hans Klemm at the University of Suceava: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bună ziua tuturor. Rector Valentin Popa, Profesor Luminiţa Turcu, stimaţi profesori şi studenţi ai Universităţii Ştefan cel Mare din Suceava, vă mulţumesc pentru disponibilitatea de a mă primi. Sunt foarte mulţumit să mă aflu aici pentru a discuta despre viaţa şi activitatea lui Martin Luther King Jr. şi despre impactul său asupra Statelor Unite şi a lumii în general.

And now, please allow me to continue in English.

On Monday of this week, the United States celebrated the birthday of Dr. King. This is a holiday across the United States. The federal government, other institutions, and indeed the US Embassy in Bucharest were closed in order to honor this great American.

What made him such a great man? He saw that America was not living up to its founding ideals and principles written in our Declaration of Independence in 1776, that all are created equal, and he challenged us to do so. He also realized and firmly believed that one of my country’s greatest assets was, and remains, our diversity.

He was a humanitarian, spiritual leader, community activist, and Nobel Laureate, who continues to inspire and motivate us all today, Americans and Romanians alike.

Dr. King was born to a religious family in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He grew up in the church where his father was a minister. He went on to serve in that same church as pastor after earning his PhD from Boston University. He married Coretta Scott of Alabama in 1953 and had four children.

Dr. King’s religious convictions led him to be socially active and concerned with the plight of his fellow African-Americans. During his time, African-Americans were not treated equally in the United States where the practice of segregation in education was legally enshrined. This meant that separate facilities existed for blacks and whites and the result was that anything for blacks was by far less than equal to what was in place for whites.

This was particularly obvious in the educational system. White Americans and African-Americans did not attend the same schools in the racially divided South and as crazy as this sounds, this was legally protected by laws allowing for segregation. In the 1954 landmark case, Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that such practice of segregation of education was in fact unconstitutional and was therefore illegal. Despite this tremendous change in American law, enforcing it and altering people’s mindsets was a huge challenge.

In 1955, despite the fact that segregation in education had been declared illegal, the widespread practice of it still continued, and many laws requiring segregated facilities in other areas of private and public life remained in force. A young woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white person, as had been the law. She was arrested and the African-American community was outraged. The response was an organized boycott of the bus system for 385 days in Montgomery and this was economically crippling to the city. In the end, segregation on the bus in Montgomery was brought to an end and the modern civil rights movement in America had begun.

During this time, an unknown preacher from Atlanta emerged as the spokesperson of this movement and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott he became a national figure– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King, as previously mentioned, was a Christian Minister who espoused the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He promoted social engagement, protest, and even civil disobedience. However, he did all this by encouraging the use of non-violence. His thoughts and writings on justice, particularly his poignant “letter from a Birmingham jail”, where he noted “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” remain as valid today as the day he penned them.

Reverend King also said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Imagine that after almost 100 years since the abolition of slavery, what our former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has referred to as “America’s Birth Defect”, African-Americans were still being treated grossly unfairly. But light was beginning to shine. Finally, there were signs of change, but there remained resistance to that change. Tensions were high and anger on both sides of the issue was plentiful.

Along comes a man, who, drawing on his religious convictions and moral compass, advocates change, but, like the Mahatma, through non-violent civil disobedience.

Dr. King, as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led thousands in protests and other organized events throughout the United States, primarily in the South. He was seen as one of the greatest orators of the 20th century and never strayed from his mission of promoting equality through nonviolence.

On August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC, he made his most famous speech on the steps of the memorial dedicated to President Lincoln who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years before freeing those enslaved.

Before a crowd of approximately 250, 000 fellow protesters, the largest Washington had ever seen at that time, he spoke of his dream for America, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Interesting to note that on August 28, 2008, 45 years to the day, then Senator Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to be their candidate for President. He of course would go on to win that election and become America’s first African-American President.

The “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington put civil rights on the forefront of the domestic agenda. Months later President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally and fully outlawed discrimination based on race, color, creed, gender or national origin.

This was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement and undeniably made our country better. The laws that once enshrined segregation were now being torn down and replaced with ones that champion equality.

In 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in using non-violence in America’s struggle with civil rights, diversity, and equality. King continued his efforts up until the very moment an assassin’s bullet took him from us in 1968. He was martyred for what he believed in, but his legacy endures and inspires the belief and hopes of subsequent generations, not just in my country, but around the world.

Truly Dr. King gave all he could for creating what he called the “beloved community.” This was his vision where inclusion and tolerance reign supreme.

All social evils, such as poverty and hunger are non-existent because, as the King Center in Atlanta states, “international standards of human decency will not allow it.”

Today, almost 50 years since his death, we are still inspired by the work and legacy of this amazing man. His call to action, to serve his fellow humanity, and to hold America to its founding principles, and to do so through non-violent ways, still captivates us today. Americans and indeed others throughout the world look to him for spiritual encouragement when challenging the problems of today’s world.

Here in Romania, I witnessed something in early November of last year only a few months ago, that I think Dr. King would have been very proud of. Tens of thousands came together throughout the country in peaceful solidarity to demand change, as the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. teaches us to do.

I was especially impressed by the passion of the youth who seek a brighter future, one where rule of law prevails and anti-corruption is the norm. I hope those same protesters and more will march again to the ballot boxes when it is time to use their ultimate power, their vote, to put in place individuals who will serve as responsible leaders of this nation and stewards for her people.

Let me end with one of my favorite quotes by Dr. King. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” I believe Romania recently has taken a giant step toward an incredible future, and although we cannot see what lies ahead, I have full faith in the people of this great country during this election year and their desire to have a government that will serve them well.

Thank you very much and now there is time for questions and comments.