August 28 was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Attended by hundreds of thousands, it was a most memorable day not only in American history, but for all nations. Arguably, what was perhaps regrettable about that inspirational speech and the great gathering was that it overshadowed decades of dedicated struggle and suffering. Civil rights were not acquired by a speech nor by one march only. With all respect to the great memory of that day and Dr. King, we, the new generations of the twenty-first century, have to remember that the great heroes of the civil rights movement did much more across many years, all of which John Lewis summarizes in a single phrase: the art and discipline of nonviolence (visit the link to listen to Krista Tippett’s fascinating interview with him).
Looking back on what Congressman John Lewis and his legendary friends like Dr. King managed to obtain, these two qualities prove to be very pivotal for civil and citizenship rights. Lewis said they trained themselves for non-violence; they gathered regularly and rehearsed the worst scenarios and how they would stand strong without retaliation in the face of violence:
“We did go through the motion, the drama, of saying that if someone kick you, spit on you, pull you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, yes, you may beat me, but I'm human. Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign in a city like Nashville and so many other parts of the American South, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back… We would act out. There would be black and white young people, students, interracial group, playing the roles of African-Americans, or be an interracial group playing the roles of white.”
How many of us today, after 50 years of that speech, remember what it signifies? People who are marching these days for their freedoms, are they able to unite around a single cause? The real change comes when a nation is united to march together for the same purpose in the same square. If Rabiah square is rivaled by Tahrir, true freedom is then still far in the distance. We can confidently say Dr. King’s dream has been realized extensively enough to pave the way for an African-American to be the President – and get re-elected – yet racial inequality is not over in the world or the US.
Congressman Lewis says the way of peace has to be taught. In this world, which is a great test for humankind, we are being tested whether we will learn to live in peace, or whether we will fail and give in to violence. I think his advice is worth listening to, for the compassion embedded therein is the key for all freedoms:
“It's just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don't have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don't give up. You never give up on anyone.”
We, as humans, have qualities that are potentially superior to those of angels. Lewis’ call is to be faithful to this innate essence which will enable us to see that potential in every human being and will urge us to think a second time before we hurt anyone. Then we might be able to wake up to the reality of " a dream worth the entire world" in the words of Fethullah Gulen:
“When we were ourselves, our homes, streets, and walkways exchanged warm glances with their inhabitants; their demeanor was so meaningful that those who could observe them from the angle of their spirit could feel as if these places were intoning things that were unique to our realm. Almost everyone in this realm was intoxicated with a kind of music originating in their heart and refined in their beliefs, dreams, and subconscious. Every moment thrilled them with a different breeze of meanings and they were overjoyed.
There were occasional occurrences of frustration and sorrow, but they did not last for long. Such moments were immediately followed by the victory of this realm’s unique character, texture, and ever-enchanting nature that would overcome all the tumult in people’s conscience and convert the darkest autumns into the brightest springs. Our days and nights were always cordial, our months and years were all resplendent.”
Hakan Yesilova is the editor of The Fountain.