Carrying Dr. King’s Courage

“…Just before 1pm, they step off toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge,
which is named for a Confederate general and Grand Dragon
of the KKK. At the head of the line are two American flags
and the flag of the United Nations.”
From “The Selma Voting Rights Struggle & March to Montgomery
By Bruce Hartford

by Ban Ki-Moon

Secretary-General of the United Nations

From a speech delivered in Atlanta, Georgia
May 8, 2008

Ambassador Young, Members of the Atlanta Chapter of UNA-USA, faculty, students and friends, I feel deeply privileged to be here today. Let me thank the Robert W. Woodruff Library for this opportunity to see the priceless treasures in its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. collection.

Allow me to pay tribute to you, Madam Mayor, for leading the efforts to safeguard these invaluable papers here in Atlanta — the city that Dr. King called home, and the heart of the civil rights movement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

I am especially moved to have an opportunity to pay tribute to Martin Luther King here in Atlanta for the second time. The first was on a visit fifteen years ago, as a far more junior diplomat, while serving as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Korean Embassy in Washington, DC.

It was a unique experience for someone like me — from a land halfway around the globe, yet deeply influenced by this country, by its principles and ideals, and by Dr. King’s courage in striving to ensure they hold true for everyone.

Over the years, my admiration for Dr. King has grown even more profound, as I have grown older, the world more complex, and the rights he so valiantly fought for more acutely important than ever around the world.

Today, my admiration grew even further, as I saw the papers lodged in this library. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a profoundly awe-inspiring document. Just reading a printed copy, it is easy to get swept up by Dr. King’s shining vision, and forget that his powerful words were written under conditions of utter disempowerment. He couldn’t even send the letter; it had to be smuggled out. Seeing the original, with paragraphs that Dr. King wrote on scraps of paper, I could only imagine what intellectual courage and conviction went into the effort.

I was also struck by the deep bond that exists between the United Nations and this great man. The Library staff was kind enough to show me many artefacts that underline the connection. Take Dr. King’s acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He was only the second African-American to be Nobel Peace Laureate. The first was his steadfast supporter, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Ralph Bunche.

What I saw today helped me form a picture of their close relationship. A letter from Ralph Bunche, on UN stationary, asking Dr. King and his wife to visit him on the way to the Nobel ceremony in Oslo; an engraved invitation to the Kings to dine with the Bunche family at their home in Queens.

Dr. King and Mr. Bunche struggled together for the ideals they shared. Ralph Bunche was there at the Great March on Washington. He was at Dr. King’s side leading the procession from Selma to Montgomery. It was 1965, and Mr. Bunche told the crowd that the United Nations was with them. He said, and I quote: “In the UN, we have known from the beginning that secure foundations for peace in the world can be built only upon the principle and practice of equal rights and status for all peoples, respect and dignity for all.”

These words capture the conviction underlying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year. They are the tenets of the United Nations. And they are the tenets that Dr. King lived and died for. It is often those who most need their human rights protected, who also need to be informed that the Declaration exists — and that it exists for them.

When Ralph Bunche learnt that Dr. King had been assassinated, he was devastated. He said going to Atlanta for the funeral was the saddest journey he ever made.

He understood that this colossal tragedy reverberated far beyond the borders of the United States. As Mr. Bunche put it, and I quote, “The world has lost one of its most earnest, respected and commanding voices in the allied causes of peace, freedom and the dignity of man.”

The treasures I have seen here today validate these words. Dr. King remains an unsurpassed advocate of all the UN stands for: peace, economic and social justice, and human rights. We can be inspired by him as we pursue our overriding mission today to reach the Millennium Development Goals, the vision agreed by all the world’s Governments to build a better world in the 21st century.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I will leave here forever impressed by Dr. King’s courage. He could see the bridge between the terrible injustices in our world and the noble rightness that humanity can achieve. He spent his life building that bridge and marching across it, from despair to hope, from suffering to salvation, from war to peace and from hate to love.

As the United Nations strives to tackle the problems raging our world and to realize the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we carry in our hearts Dr. King’s unending courage and his unbending conviction.

So many people in this room have worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy. And all of us, especially the students here today, are challenged to carry it forward into the future.

Thank you very much.

Join the United Nations Association of the USA

From Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

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