Remarks by Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Hilton

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi on Non-Violent Teachings for Inter-Ethnic and Religious Harmony

[As prepared]

Good evening.  It is such a pleasure to join you tonight to discuss the legacy of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.  Thank you so much for participating in this important event.

I would like to thank our illustrious group of panelists for joining us this evening – Sonali, Saambavi, Yohan, and Asiff – the U.S. Embassy greatly appreciates you taking the time to share your perspectives.  And a special thank you to Dr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council, for serving as moderator.  Dr. Perera is widely known for his peace-building and advocacy efforts related to uniting communities throughout Sri Lanka.

On Monday, January 16, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  This U.S. federal holiday falls on the third Monday of every January, and is an opportunity for people to commemorate the values Dr. King taught through his example – values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, and service.  U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation in 1983 to create a federal holiday honoring the life of Dr. King.  In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service, and many Americans use this time to serve their communities and promote the teachings of Dr. King through volunteer work.

Every year, the United States and individuals around the world take time to pause and reflect on the extraordinary contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We do this not just to honor his legacy, but perhaps more importantly, to highlight how relevant his teachings are today.  From an early age, Dr. King devoted his life to ensuring equal rights for African Americans and other minority groups.  He fought against inequality and discrimination through nonviolent civil disobedience, often in the face of very violent and decidedly “uncivil” resistance.  Through his courage, example, and work, he helped change American society and create new U.S. laws protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed.

Dr. King drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, who served as a pioneer of the nonviolent protest movement.  Mahatma Gandhi dedicated his life to the peaceful empowerment of Indians of all backgrounds.  He inspired hope and peace among many, and set a powerful example for future change-makers to follow.  As we know, Gandhi and his methods of peaceful protest were instrumental in helping India achieve independence in 1947.

In 1959 when Dr. King was just 30 years old, he traveled to India for a month to study Gandhi’s philosophy and methods.  He toured the country, met with leaders in politics and government, and talked with citizens and young people.  He brought the lessons he learned back to the United States, renewing his faith in the unmatched moral force of nonviolent resistance and its ability to achieve social change.

Today, Gandhi and Dr. King continue to inspire people worldwide.  Gandhi’s and King’s teachings on inter-ethnic and religious harmony are extremely relevant today, in both our countries, with our diverse religious and ethnic populations.  We support the efforts in Sri Lanka to move towards a peaceful, reconciled, and unified country, where every citizen has a fair chance to build a better life.  Where, to paraphrase Dr. King, children will live in a nation where they will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin (or their ethnicity, their language, or their religion).  This is no doubt a lofty goal for all of us, whether we live in America, Sri Lanka, or anywhere else, but certainly a goal worth pursuing.  Today, through discussions such as this, and through your work, you can help move your communities even closer to this objective.

Dr. King learned a great deal from Gandhi, and now we are learning from the legacy of both of these champions – to bring people together from all backgrounds, races, faiths, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity.  As Martin Luther King stated so eloquently, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Thank you so much for coming to this event at the American Center to listen to our esteemed panelists talking about what Gandhi and King’s teachings mean to them, and to hear their personal vision for reconciliation among diverse communities.