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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