Jobs and Freedom for Northern Ireland

20130828 MLK NIA WIP

Sponsored by the US Consulate Belfast, the Washington-Ireland Programme and Politics Plus, Chris Lyttle MLA hosted a remembrance event at Parliament Buildings for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “I have a dream”.

Chris recalled his experience as a participant in the Washington-Ireland Programme, including a project that investigated the organisation of the 1963 March for Jobs & Freedom. He was particularly honoured to meet Walter Fauntroy as a result.

Mr Lyttle spoke of the need to be passionate and direct about one’s ambitions. For example, the East Belfast MLA mooted what would have been the impact if Mr King, instead of proclaiming “I have a dream”, instead said, “I have a suggestion for slow, gradual change”?

Chris underlined King’s emphasis on dignity and respect for everyone, and no violence against anyone. Mr Lyttle also applied to Northern Ireland MLK’s standard on the content of one’s character being greater than the background of the community you come from: “We can build trust across all communities so that no one is left behind.”

Gabrielle Moseley (Acting US Consul General) stated that MLK’s “I have a dream” speech was the turning point for equality and justice in the US.

While much progress has been made, Ms Moseley said that this is a moment for us to contemplate the work that “we still have to do in the United States”, which includes women’s rights, immigration and health care reform.

Furthermore, what was significant, she said, was to have optimism and conviction that King’s aspirations were not just a dream, but an expectation of what can be achieved: “The spirit of brotherhood is just as important then as it is now.”

A short documentary was shown, followed by the full speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. The events took place a few years before I was born. While I watched the videos, I was challenged by the fact that what we were remembering tonight took place half a century ago.

Formal remarks were made by Alfred Abolarin, who has spent over a decade working on improving community relations among the black and minority ethnic sector, as well as the indigenous communities in Northern Ireland.

He cited MLK’s letter written in a Birmingham jail — “Injustice anywhere is a threat for justice everywhere.” — and applied it contemporaneously, stating that we are all interdependent in our global village, where our freedom is inextricably linked to others’ freedom.

Mr Abolarin argued for civic and political leaders to exercise transformative moral leadership, by taking major steps for societal progress, especially where the interests of the masses are greater than that of any political party.

He made specific reference to the Government’s community relations policy. For example, in regards to removing peace walls, he said that the barriers that will be more difficult to remove are those in the hearts and minds of those within communities.

He then cited some sad facts about the current situation:

  • 91% of social housing is segregated
  • >50 peace walls at 88 interfaces
  • 4,000 flags are displayed in the month of July
  • only 8% of pupils attend integrated or shared campus schools

Mr Abolarin asked, “Isn’t it time to lift our national policies from the quicksand of segregation?”

Bryan Patten (Executive Director, Washington-Ireland Programme) made reference to John Lewis, a 23-year-old volunteer who was instrumental in the organisation of the 1963 march. Mr Lewis is a serving US Congressman from Georgia, and Mr Patten announced his forthcoming visit to Northern Ireland in April 2014.

To mark the commemoration, two participants in the Washington-Ireland Programme ceremoniously rang a bell.

This was followed by the audience watching a live stream of US President Obama’s speech on the same spot where Martin Luther King made his, all those years ago.

I was struck by a sense of surrealism as President Obama’s voice echoed throughout the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, deafening any complaints from the ghosts of this assembly’s original creators.

In his tribute to Martin Luther King, President Obama said that his genius was in presenting a path of salvation “for the oppressed and oppressor alike”.

Likewise, in the face of hatred, those who believed in a better future “prayed for their tormentors”.

The President applauded all those who kept the flame of justice alive: “Debts are owed to all those who put the steps in for the victories.”

He made a familiar quotation about the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice, “but it doesn’t bend by itself”. It is the courage of many, those “on the battlefield of justice without rank”, who bring change to Washington.

“That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. (Applause.)

“That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck — he’s marching. (Applause.)

“The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son — she’s marching. (Applause.)

“The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father — especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching. (Applause.)

Chris Lyttle’s final remark was that he wanted to mark this event annually, within individual communities and locales throughout Northern Ireland.

As President Obama said today, “The promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together.”

The promise of Northern Ireland is one of peace and prosperity. Likewise, it will only be realised when everyone works together for it.

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  • Scáth Shéamais

    MLK Jr 1963 – “I have a dream.”
    Obama 2013 – “I have a drone.”

  • For people who have actually marched in Civil Rights marches, it must be very gratifying to see the Martin Luther King honoured in Stormont.
    Thru the links provided in the article above, it is a reminder that the Washington project has some success stories…Leo Varadkar, Sharon Haughey, Peter Cardwell have public profiles….and some other people clearly have careers (not yet public) as staffers.
    Obviously a good thing…if not overdone….and merely producing young people with more in common with each other than the parties to which they belong.
    Of course it is right and proper that such think tanks explore the things we “share”…the essence of democratic politics is the things that we DONT “share”.
    Taking the politics out of politics can be taken too far and produce a kind of blandness.
    The Washington-Ireland programme is of course excellent. And transparent.
    But the link above mentions “Politics Plus”.
    The website there does not look particuarly informative.
    They do seem to do excellent work and can be contacted at Room 105 at Stormont.
    But the “About Us” page seems a bit sparse. There are no names at all.
    Can anyone tell us more?

  • leftofcentre

    MLK was a fantastic leader and it is right that we celebrate his legacy. BUT I really hate it when yanks come over and lecture us. Yes I know we have to be nice to them because we need their jobs but how about some facts from our friends over at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

    Incarceration Trends in America

    From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people

    Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.

    Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control

    Racial Disparities in Incarceration

    African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
    African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites

    Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population

    According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%

    One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime

    1 in 100 African American women are in prison

    Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

    Drug Sentencing Disparities

    About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug

    5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites

    African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

    African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)

    MLK must be spinning in his grave about how politicians use his good name and still treat his people like crap. Replace peace walls with gated communities, replace segregated schools with private white colleges. As for flags don’t get me started, as anyone who has ever been to the US the stars and strips is plastered everywhere, they are the most nationalist people going.

    I like Americans, they are generally a friendly lot, I even married one. But their tendency to lecture the rest of the world is extremely irritating, as the good book says “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’

  • Rory Carr

    I have to say, Scáth Shéamais that I was think along similar lines when I read this above: “The President applauded all those who kept the flame of justice alive…

    Yesterday in the New York Times I read of a presidential aide arguing that even if it was a rogue Syrian Army unit who launched a gas strike unknown to Assad, then Assad was still guilty because as Commander-in-Chief he was responsible for evey single action of his men on the ground. This was said with disarming ignorance by a representative of a nation who gave us My Lai, the Contras in Latin America, the murderous drones and helicopter gunship malicious civilian murders…I could go on, but you get the picture, such a made-up-on-the-spot piece of applied responsibility could never possibly be expected to attach to POTUS. The US is in a different category. When Obama speaks of injustice and tyranny he does so on the understanding that his audience takes for granted that he as president and the United States are the great champions of the fight against these evils when in fact the whole world and half of Americans are awake to the fact that when the Ayatollah named the US, “The Great Satan,” he wasn’t so far off the beam as we then marked him.

    Martin Luther King was sincere in his espousal of equal rights and equal opportunity for all and, like Marx before him he foresaw that the breaking of the chains of the oppressed would also lead to the breaking of the chains wound around the minds of the oppressor. If it was not to be it is because the oppressed were never really freed. Unemployment, ghettoised housing, the direct importation of ruinous drugs into the black and Hispanic ghettos mainly by the DEA, the very agency charged with the responsibility for eliminating the importation of such drugs, all are designed to keep non-caucasian Americans from progressing in life as King had hoped and their oppressors grow even more sick each day as evinced by the distasteful hypocrisy of Obama’s speech which rattles Dr King’s bones, not in the cause of freedom and justice, but rather to falsely adorn himself with King’s mantle as he plots to commit even more atrocities in the name of freedom.

    If King were to return today instead of, “I have a dream,” I fear he would more aptly cry, “I have a nightmare.” As Colonel Kurtz muttered at the conclusion of the film, Apocalypse Now, “The horror, oh the horror !

    I also wonder why there seem to have been no parallels drawn between the US Civil Rights movement and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement which it inspired. Maybe an appropriate commemoration of the Burntollet march might be for a march from Belfast City Hall to Stormont where the marchers would be met by the joint First Ministers and other members of the executive as it would be a great opportunity for unionist politicians in particular to demonstrate how far they have come in the championing of civil rights for all since those dark days of yore when they played the role of Northern Ireland’s Bull Connor, the vicious Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, Alabama whose response to civil rights protests was to set the dogs and cops with billy-clubs loose upon the peaceful protestors. Now surely the advent of civil rights is something we can all jointly share and that would be our best gift of remembrance to he who inspired us.

    p.s.

    Martin Luther King = MLK = Maze/Long Kesh.
    As Dame Edna would have it, “Spooky, possums, what ?”

  • Rory Carr….sadly we get a certain re-writing of History in the Decade of Centenaries and in the case of Martin Luther King, half-centenary.
    In 2008, QUB actually held a conference to mark its role in the Civil Rights movement.
    Clearly Chris Lyttle of Alliance was hosting the event in his role as a former Washington-Ireland intern, not as a partisan politician.
    but just what Martin Luther King would have made of an arrangement which gave a Party a disproportionate share of Executive seats is clearly something nobody noticed.

  • “but just what Martin Luther King would have made of an arrangement which gave a Party a disproportionate share of Executive seats is clearly something nobody noticed.”

    @FJH,

    Alliance only had a disproportionate share of Executive seats because Sinn Fein and the DUP both asked Alliance to assume the extra seat because neither could trust the other to sit in the seat.

  • Yes….Alliance….selfless champions of Decency.
    I wont hear a bad word against them.

  • Coll Ciotach

    I agree – america has its MLK march and we have our Burntollet – surely a day marking the striving for equal rights here would be more appropriate. Burntollet Day. Now that is something for Chris Lyttle to run with.

  • Reader

    Coll Ciotach: I agree – america has its MLK march and we have our Burntollet – surely a day marking the striving for equal rights here would be more appropriate. Burntollet Day
    Burntollet was a fringe event, not supported by NICRA, and it happened after most of the Civil Rights demands had already been met. Some of the earlier marches would make more sense, so long as it is intended that the emphasis should be on Civil Rights rather tham mopery.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Yeh – I don’t know what they were complaining about – sure they were treated well