Martin Luther King’s legacy

An Irishman’s Diary: Civil rights speech evoked a different kind of promissory note

Martin Luther King III continues his father Martin Luther King Jr’s tradition of activism on behalf of the excluded and underprivileged. Photograph: AP Photo

Martin Luther King III continues his father Martin Luther King Jr’s tradition of activism on behalf of the excluded and underprivileged. Photograph: AP Photo


The term “promissory note” has been unavoidable in recent public discourse, displacing such Celtic Tiger favourites as “buy-to-let” and “feelgood factor”, not to mention “soft landing”.

The arrangement made about the debts of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide and the recent negotiations over restructuring that deal grabbed many a headline, but it’s not the first time promissory notes featured in political discussion.

A promissory note is an IOU, whereby one party makes an unconditional promise, in writing, to pay a fixed sum of money to the payee in the future; indeed bank notes and cheques are versions of this.

It can also be used as a metaphor, as was the case in the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King at the historic civil rights rally in Washington DC in the early 1960s. In that sonorous voice of his, he told the great crowd:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Dr King said this note was a promise to everyone, black as well as white, that their rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” could not be taken away.

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned,” the civil rights leader added.

He went on to say: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt . . . we’ve come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of that stirring speech delivered on August 28th, 1963. The present writer was impelled to look it up again after listening to the contribution from the civil rights leader’s son, Martin Luther King III to a recent conference in the United Arab Emirates on the relationship between politics and the media.

From his name you might assume he was a grandson of the great man but, in fact, his father called himself Martin Luther King Junior. The latter’s father, in turn, was Rev Martin Luther King Senior, who lived until 1984, 26 years after the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.

Martin Luther King III continues his father’s tradition of activism on behalf of the excluded and underprivileged. His presence at a conference in Sharjah, part of the United Arab Emirates, had a particular resonance in light of the current series of events known as the Arab Spring.

He recalled that his father, who adhered strictly to peaceful methods, often said “Violence is the language of the unheard”, but got arrested 40 times in his campaign to win equal rights for African-Americans.

In his contribution, he dwelt at length on the epoch-making stance for human dignity taken by Rosa Parks who, on December 1st, 1955, refused to give up her seat in the “coloured” section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to make room for a white passenger when the white section was full.

She was arrested and the resulting boycott of the buses by African-Americans was led by the speaker’s father. The boycott lasted 381 days and in December 1956 the US supreme court ordered the state of Alabama to desegregate its buses.

But his personal commitment to non-violence did not save the life of Martin Luther King Jr who was killed when his son was only 10 years old.

The event at which Martin Luther King III spoke was the second annual Government Communication Forum organised by Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE. It is a sign of the times that a fairly conservative place like Sharjah is taking an interest in the role of the media in communication between government and the public, with a group of journalists, including this writer, as invited guests.

Like ourselves, the UAE was formerly under British rule, but the two places have little else in common. Nevertheless there is a sizeable Irish emigrant population as seen from the existence of numerous GAA clubs, including the Sharjah Wanderers Ladies Gaelic Football Club, established in 2009 and mainly consisting of teachers from Ireland who are working locally.

The UAE has not been immune from the recession but seems to be weathering the storm better than many other places. Small wonder that Irish people have added it to their list of places to take refuge from the economic crisis at home and it is clear that most of them are getting a warm welcome or, as we used to say in the Celtic Tiger days, a “soft landing”.