On 28th August 1963 as 250,000 Americans gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, few could have known they were about to witness one of the greatest speeches in modern history. Not even, the then, 33 year old Dr Martin Luther King could have possibly imagined the impact his words would have on the world. Dr King spoke of a time when race would no longer divide society and of a day when all would be “guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but instead by their own unique characters.
Today, on what should have been Luther King’s 84th birthday, he will be celebrated in the US as one of the most demographic men of all time, with his ideas and beliefs being all-encompassing regardless of gender, skin colour or position in the world. Those legendary words from Dr King’s booming voice still echo down the decades and I can’t help but wonder if we were given a moment to rest in his shadow, what should we dream?
We have swung through many landmarks since 1963 and the arc of history appears to lean towards justice. Today there is a black man in the White House, a black woman in Parliament and gay couples in the UK can now legally marry. We have resisted ID cards, rejected indefinite detention and opposed indiscriminate DNA retention – these things along with our rights and freedom have been enshrined in law by our modern Bill of Rights – the Human Rights Act – this is something that Dr King could only have imagined five decades ago.
The Human Rights Act to us in the UK is what Dr King called the American constitution; a ‘promissory note’ to all. It promises liberty, equality, freedom from torture and the right to hold and voice our own beliefs. It promises respect for our privacy and protects our right to live. We work hard to makes these promises a reality, yet there are appeals all around us trying to tear them apart and I find myself wondering if the arc of justice is all it appears.
Politicians have started to say our fights are wrong and our old fashioned values are labelled as a sign of weakness; a tool for ‘unelected’ judges to ignore Parliaments calls. The darker practices (basically war crimes) of the never-ending “War on Terror” are excused by assurances that our freedoms must be sacrificed in freedoms name. Is this really what the dream was all about or has it become a nightmare? The press in recent times have also waged war against the Human Right Act, ridiculing it from all angles. The papers seem to be filled with wave after wave of scandal, be it engulfing Parliament (MP’s expenses), financial institutions (the banking crisis), the police (from Hillsborough to Steven Lawrence) and even the newspapers themselves (phone-hacking). Due to this constant stream of disparagement when it comes to speaking out today, people no longer see a reason to engage. Why raise your voice when you don’t trust the powers that be to listen?
We cannot allow our cynicism to stop us calling from change though or our disappointment in today’s society to distract us from the fight for justice. The Convention of Human Rights was drafted in response to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and from which our Human Rights Act sprung. These rights of passage were paid for with the blood and courage of everyone who fought to give us the freedom we have today. We owe it to that brave generation, and those yet to come, to honour their work with our own.
The problem is, despite all we have achieved in the last fifty-two years, politicians are still telling us that we should be satisfied with the way things are. That there are no alternatives, that we have to keep doing things the same way. Why should we accept this though? The long fight for justice continues and needs us all. I believe, that the fight will continue until every rapist (not one in 30 as per current stats) is brought to justice, until no one is priced out of our legal system by devastating legal aid reforms and the fight will continue until the last child is freed from a forgotten immigration prison cell and forgiven for the crime of being born behind the wrong boarder. Our Human Rights Act gives us the tools to win this fight, we must use them.
Though we have made great leaps since that speech, I think we all have a responsibility to imagine the world as it could be, and to do what we can to achieve that vision. Like Martin Luther King, I hope that one day we will all be granted dignity and respect. I hope that on the streets of our cities, where racial tensions still run high, actions will one day finally sing louder than skin colour and police forces won’t be attacked by the communities they are trying protect. Above all else I hope that one day our compassion and care for others will extend beyond our countries boarders so that we become better humans everywhere and foreigners nowhere. I hope that the countries insatiable hunger for others private lives will cease and we will be left to live a citizens not suspects.
We shouldn’t be scared to imagine a different, better future with a fairer society which won’t sell out on the next generations. Martin Luther King began with a dream and left us with hope to continue that dream. He imagined a positive possibility and then drove to achieve change. We should do the same.