We have come here today to celebrate and remember the life of a fine Minster, a leader in America’s civil rights movement, a symbol of protest for racial justice, a husband, a father and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. If he were alive, he would have celebrated his 84th birthday on the 15th of January 2013. More than four decades after his assassination, his noble work, legacy and remarkable speeches resonate around the world and he lives with us daily. His non-violent resistance to injustices is followed by many civil rights activists around the world.
He was a man full of love, passion, and hope who sought co-operation and togetherness from those around him to achieve his dream. He was an excellent orator with the ability of convincing and mobilising his people with his speeches and lobbying. His dream was to achieve equality among white and black, to set the black American free and give them the same rights as their white compatriots and to end poverty.
He was one of the founding members and the first leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a powerful American civil rights organisation in 1957. Under his leadership, they mobilised millions of black Americans in many states and fought for the civil rights of blacks, such as the right to labour, the right to vote, the right to equal treatment, the right to the same services. Thanks to their hard fight and willpower, these rights were incorporated with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965.
He was instrumental in organising big marches like the Washington DC in 1963, where thousands of protesters from diverse backgrounds attended to demand for the end to racial separatism in school, abolition of racial discrimination in employment, minimum wage for all workers, and where Dr King delivered his outstanding speech “I have a dream”. Even though 44 years after his assassination we cannot say his dream came to materialize in its entirety, it came close when President Obama became America’s first black president. My favorite line from his remarkable speech is where he says, “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.”
Before he was killed, he did see changes and the fruit of many years struggles by so many including himself.
During one of the protest marches, on 5th of December 1955, Dr King said “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest… this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communist nation, we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime, we couldn’t do this, but the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for rights.”
This very meeting we are holding today would not be possible in Eritrea because there is no such freedom of speech and assembly there for anyone, let alone any protest. Nothing said here today will be quoted in an Eritrean newspaper unless it is misquoted deliberately by a despotic government to repress our people.
My dear brothers and sisters,
African Americans have suffered a great deal, from the time they were brutally and inhumanly uprooted from their ancestral home, sold as objects and subjected to life time servitude against their will. After so many years of suffering and struggle, they have asserted their rights and they are now treated as free and equal human beings in their country. But even this fight still continues in this country because there are always those who will restrict your rights unless you fight for them.
To do so, at least, they were allowed to protest. If they were arrested, they were brought to court, charged, or released on bail. Not everyone was brought to court; many were killed without qualm by government agents, police and security. This is now happening every day in Eritrea where there is no court process, and no rule of law, no constitution to protect people’s rights.
If I do bring up our own case, our people, our country, our suffering, where do I begin?
We Eritreans, who struggled for over 30 years for our independence, hoping that we would at last be free, are still living in a big prison.
We have no right to protest, no rights of movement, no rights of education, our youths are held indefinitely against their will under the pretext of national service, no right to vote, no elections, no civil rights movement, no human rights organisation, no independent judicial system, no civil institutions, no independent media, no right to form opposition parties, no-religious freedom, no freedom of expression, no rights whatsoever.
We, in Eritrea, are not able to conduct peaceful struggle from within. This is why so many, as those who are in this room right now, have had to leave for a better life and fight for their fellow Eritreans from diaspora. But even from such a distance, the civil rights movement’s effective use of economic boycott has been a valuable lesson to us. When the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was conducted, one of the reasons why it was effective was the economic ramification to the bus company. It is true no such boycott can be conducted from within Eritrea. But the UN sanction and the latest focus on the mining companies by Human Rights Watch are meant to accomplish just that.
We know that it was Dr King’s determination, and those like him, that set the process in motion, and laid the groundwork for what seemed at the time to be no more than a dream. It was a dream in King’s day that the president of the United States today would be black. And it came to be, proving that determination and persistence can bring about great change even against terrible odds.
Dr King was a man of peace, love and compromise rather than confrontation but we do not, in Eritrea, have the option of compromise since we are fighting a many-headed monster that eats up any kind of protest. But we must be like Dr King and hope that tomorrow will be better, that everyone in Eritrea will be free, and that all our problems will be overcome. In order to do this, like Dr King, we must have no fear.
Speech by Elsa Chyrum at Dr Martin Luther King’s Birthday Celebration
At the Eritrean Community Centre Boston, USA
19 January 2013