08/31/2013 01:48 EDT | Updated 10/31/2013 05:12 EDT

50 Years Later, MLK's Voice Still Resonates

I am proud to say that I was present in Washington on August 28, 1963. We all stood rapt with attention as King told of his dream of an America where his four little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged "by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "March on Washington" - its full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - is a poignant moment of remembrance and reminder for us all, of the universal struggle for freedom and equality still being fought today, and of the courage and commitment of a human rights hero whose "I Have a Dream" speech has been immortalized in history. I speak of this milestone event and the person at its core not only because of their historical significance, but because of the impact of that day, that march, and that speech on me personally. Indeed, I am proud to say that I was present in Washington on August 28, 1963, and the day's images and voices have left an indelible impact not only on my memory but on my being.

The day itself was an incredible experience, as all those present can attest. Mahalia Jackson's stirring spirituals - including "I Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" - electrified the crowd, and her rendition of "We Shall Overcome" has become my own private anthem, as my family well knows. A. Philip Randolph, the legendary black labour union leader who had proposed such a March back in 1941, inspired this one as well - led the March while emphasizing that racial justice was inextricably bound up with social justice - and introduced Martin Luther King Jr. as the "greatest moral leader of our time." Bayard Rustin - the legendary civil rights leader and long-time Randolph associate - was the organizational genius behind the March, and his strategy of non-violent mass protest, in which he tutored King, has endured as a model for effective citizen advocacy to this day. I had the pleasure of subsequently meeting and working with him and I am pleased that he has just received (posthumously) the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom - just as his equal justice "Demands," which he read out at the end of the March, remain as a standard for the pursuit of justice today.

I recall as well John R. Lewis - then a young 23-year-old black student leader, and now a leading U.S. Representative from Georgia - chanting "Let Freedom Ring," which, appropriately enough, is the name of this past week's commemorative events; while King's speechwriter, Clarence Jones, whom I recently met at a conference, told me that the famous "I have a Dream" portion was actually improvised by King at Mahalia Jackson's suggestion - "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin" she shouted out - a fact not apparent to those of us hanging on King's every word.

I attended the rally then as a young law student of 23 - and then-editor of the McGill Daily - who had earlier that year written about Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle. I stood in the crowd of 250,000, which the black man standing next to me referred to as "the brotherhood of humanity," while humming "We Shall Overcome".

Even 50 years later, Martin Luther King's voice still resonates with me today.

We all stood - amidst this brotherhood of humanity - rapt with attention as King told of his dream of an America where his four little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged "by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character".

In his uniquely melodious and spiritual voice, he spoke movingly: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" King spoke of the Constitution as a promissory note.

He continued - and I can still hear these words as if they were just spoken yesterday - "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood [...] I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

Though speaking primarily to the American reality of racism and the struggles of the civil rights movement, King's message was a universal one of common cause wherever we may be - of the struggle against racism, against hate, against injustice - and the struggle for human rights, for human dignity, for respect and recognition.

Ultimately, King's lesson is one that we have sought to - and need to - internalize in Canada in terms of developing a culture of human rights and human dignity in place of any culture of racism, or hate, or contempt. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be seen as metaphor and message of this struggle - of his recognition that we are all one human family; that we have all been created in the image of God, and that this is the foundation of equality; that respect for the inherent dignity of the human person requires respect for the equal dignity and equal worth of all persons; that this is what human brotherhood is all about; that the struggle for human rights and human dignity, for equality and respect, are, in the most profound and existential sense, the struggle for ourselves. For in what we say - or more importantly, in what we do - we make a statement about ourselves as a people; we make a statement about ourselves as people.

Clearly, inequality, discrimination, racism, and hate are still with us, whether it be the plight of the Baha'i in Iran, the Copts in Egypt, violated women in the Congo, or gay rights in Russia - or even in our own country with the tragic inequalities that still haunt First Nations and minority communities.

On this 50th anniversary, let us recall, then, that Martin Luther King Jr., like Nelson Mandela, who later invoked him as well, was the embodiment and expression of the long march towards freedom - of the great struggles of the 20th century for equality, for human dignity, for social justice and for the brotherhood of man - a struggle that continues today.

Martin Luther King was l'espoir and l'esprit - the hope and inspiration - of one of the great moral, political, legal, and spiritual uplifting projects of the 20th century. He was the architect of the politics of inclusion, of equality, of respect, of recognition - not only for black Americans - not only for America - but for all of humanity. As he expressed in the immortal words of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, also 50 years ago, in 1963 - words we ought to recall, affirm, and act upon, particularly on this most momentous occasion: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." As he then said in Washington: "1963 is not an end but a beginning." May this clarion call to action - as memorialized in the "I Have Dream" speech which shaped America - inspire us as we continue to strive toward realizing King's vision in the next 50 years and beyond.

Irwin Cotler is the Liberal Advocate for Rights and Freedoms, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award.

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