This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most powerful political speeches in history. Here we celebrate the unforgettable words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
As 250,000 Americans gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August 1963, few could have known they were about to witness one of the greatest speeches in history. Not even Dr King himself, then 33, could have possibly imagined the impact his words would have as he spoke of the day race would no longer divide society. That all would be “guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that children, including his own, would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by their unique character.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s historic address, Stylist asked four campaigners for their personal call to arms for a better world.
Here Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE, founder of Kids Company, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion and Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now, outline their own versions of the "I Have A Dream" speech:
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
"I’m honoured to have the chance to commemorate one of the greatest ever calls for freedom and justice. King’s voice still echoes down the decades. If we were given a moment to rest in his shadow, what should we dream?
If the arc of history bends towards justice, we’ve swung through many landmarks since 1963. There’s a black man in the White House and black women in Parliament. In the UK, gay people will soon be able to marry. We’ve resisted ID cards, indefinite detention and indiscriminate DNA retention. And, since 1998, our rights and freedoms have been enshrined in law by our modern Bill of Rights – the Human Rights Act.
King calls the American constitution a ‘promissory note’ to every citizen. The Human Rights Act is one for us. 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 life.
But as we work to make these promises reality, calls come to tear them apart. We’re told our rights are wrong by politicians and certain sections of the press waging war against the Human Rights Act. Our values are labelled a sign of weakness; a tool for ‘unelected’ judges to ignore Parliament’s will. And the darkest practices of the never-ending “War on Terror” are excused by assurances that our freedoms must be sacrificed in freedom’s name.
Others, worn down by wave after wave of scandal – engulfing Parliament (MPs’ expenses), financial institutions (the banking crisis), the police (from Hillsborough to Steven Lawrence) and our newspapers (phone-hacking) – see no reason to engage anymore. Why raise your voice when you don’t trust the powerful to listen?
But we can’t let cynicism stop us calling for change or disappointment distract us from the fight for justice. The Convention on Human Rights, drafted in response to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and from which our Human Rights Act sprung, was paid for with the blood and courage of everyone who fought and defeated Hitler. We owe it to that brave generation, and those yet to come, to honour their work with our own.
Because the fight for justice continues and needs us all. It goes on as long as young men face suspicion on our streets just for the colour of their skin. It will go on until our security services stop spying on the whole population. It will last until no one is priced out of our legal system by devastating legal aid reforms. Until every rapist, not one in 30, is brought to justice, it will go on. And it will continue until the last child is freed from a forgotten immigration prison cell; forgiven of the crime of being born behind the wrong border.
Our Human Rights Act gives us the tools to win this fight. And it gives me tools to shape my dream.
I have a dream that one day we will all be afforded equal dignity and respect.
I have a dream that one day our compassion and care for others extends beyond our borders so that we become human everywhere and foreigners nowhere.
I have a dream that soon, on the streets of London and Bradford, where racial tensions have run high, actions will finally sing louder than skin colour and police forces will join with the communities they protect.
I have a dream that one day women will walk shoulder to shoulder with men in all spheres of life, without fear or obstruction.
I have a dream that the state’s insatiable hunger for our private lives will cease and we will be left to live as citizens not suspects.
Freedom can be fleeting and equality hard to secure in the sands of day-to-day difficulties. But on this ground we stand or fall together – our rights are only as strong as they are universal. So this is a call to action: Let’s celebrate each day we can make freedom ring. Let’s make those days now and let’s make them last."
Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE, founder of Kids Company
"When 14- year old Annabelle first arrived at Kids Company she was violent and cruel. Her school used to punish her for her bad behaviour and, eventually, Annabelle was permanently excluded at the age of 11. But as a 10-year-old she was raped by her dad at home. Her mother couldn’t bear to notice what was happening, having seen too much in her own family home as a child. So, Annabelle slept in a stranger’s house, the 60-year-old parented her and had sex with her like a partner. And until she turned 14, Annabelle lived in the underbelly of London where pimps dressed her up in provocative outfits, prostituted her and then collected the money.
Britain needs to wake up. There are too many children being brutalised by individual and systemic abuse in this country and no-one is telling you the truth about the extent of our failure to protect exceptionally vulnerable children.
Official figures indicate that annually 1.5 million children are being maltreated in Britain, social work and child mental health departments are too under resourced to meet needs appropriately. Consequently, perversions develop in the work force. Either workers burn out or they shut down their ability to feel so that they don’t have to face the shame of leaving maltreated children unprotected. That’s when sexually abused girls cared for by the Local Authority, when seeking help, are described as child prostitutes who’ve made a ‘lifestyle’ choice. An entire police division, as well as social care officials, fail to act, leaving children at the mercy of paedophile rings. Not only do they fail to act, but they fail to tell you the truth, unless they are forced to. I wish I could tell you that Annabelle’s was an exceptional case but, sadly, it is one of many. Despite there being some brilliant workers, our model of social care doesn’t work and is too often harming our children.
Repeated governments continue to ignore the suffering of our most vulnerable. They rely on the voter not knowing the facts. So currently our education department tinkers with GCSEs and makes pronouncements about Latin and doing maths without calculators. If only they were so enthusiastic about tackling the broken model of child protection for which they are entirely responsible. The trouble is, ministers want easy answers to easy jobs, so that at the end of it they can present themselves as having succeeded. It’s a clever trick; only define the policy that you’re guaranteed to deliver on with ease. Who wants to talk about the rot in our children’s departments when they lack the vision to resolve it? As long as the public are not aware, there is no outcry and therefore no risk of losing your vote. Abused children are not able to hold politicians accountable, neither can they write policy or the front pages of our newspapers.
Someone should have noticed that Annabelle was missing from school, from home; someone should have been responsible and cared enough to intervene. Annabelle will carry the burden of her trauma for the rest of her life but when she was finally able to disclose her horrific childhood and began to trust that she was valued, she started to believe she had a future. At least she has begun to build a life for herself. Under the current system, over a million children in this country may never get this chance.
Politicians who don’t prioritise her and children like her, in the end, are as bad as the abusers who harm. Martin Luther King began with a dream. He imagined a positive possibility and then drove to achieve change. We should do the same. Dream up a social care system fit for purpose, sensitive to children’s needs and then with passion, turn it to reality. Some 1.5 million maltreated children are waiting."
To make a difference to disadvantaged children’s lives, visit kidsco.org.uk to donate and find out how to volunteer
Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion
"As the world lurches closer to catastrophic climate change, and as inequality grows, it’s more urgent than ever to make change happen.
I believe we all have a responsibility to imagine the world as it could be, and to do what we can to achieve that vision. For me, that means fighting for a fairer society, for resilient local economies, and for a sustainable future that doesn’t sell out the next generations. It means everyone being paid a living wage, new jobs being created through investment in green technologies, and vital public services being protected.
The problem is 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.
We hear it a lot about ‘austerity’. The three traditional political parties tell us there’s no alternative to the slashing of vital public services. That it’s an unavoidable reality that pensioners are living on the poverty line, and that increasingly desperate families are forced to use food banks. That providers of NHS services should be put under massive pressures to achieve cost savings, resulting in hospital beds and staff numbers being cut.
At the same time they tell us that that billions in taxpayers’ money has to be spent on an outdated nuclear submarine system. And if you dare to suggest that we might want to invest instead in countering the real threats we face today, like climate change, you’re apparently dangerous, or out of touch.
We hear it about inequality in society. We’re told that it’s just the way of the world that the rich of this country should be allowed to keep getting richer. That it’s just sensible financial policy to award a £100,000 tax break to millionaires, while struggling families are hit by more cuts.
We hear it a lot about the casual sexism we see and hear every day. Apparently, it’s just the way of the world that children should be exposed to pictures of topless women in so-called newspapers. And if you question that you’re not living in the real world. Or worse – you’re a bitter feminist.
We hear it about our antiquated drug policies, which cost the taxpayer £3 billion a year but do little to address the root causes of addiction and instead treat people who need help as criminals.
We hear it about bankers’ bonuses. Even now – after everything that’s happened - there are those who still argue that it’s fine for the individuals responsible for Britain’s financial collapse to continue to receive massive bonuses while nurses, teachers and cleaners are subject to pay freezes.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are alternatives – all that’s needed is the people to fight for them. Like Martin Luther King, we shouldn’t be scared to imagine a different, better future. He left us with a dream, not a nightmare, and it’s our responsibility to make our dreams real."
Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now
"Working for equality for women and girls around the globe is the key to fighting poverty, terrorism, political instability and social injustice.
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and have witnessed firsthand the destruction of the fibre of society through the introduction of so-called ‘Islamic laws’ in 1979, which effectively made women second-class citizens.
The feminist and race equality movements have very similar agendas. What Martin Luther King fought for in the early sixties is similar to what we are fighting for today – nothing more complex than the ability to fully participate in and contribute to society, without the threat of violence or discrimination.
I was influenced in my childhood to add my voice to the many others calling for equality for women and girls and the end to the oppression of half the world’s population. Over the last twenty odd years, our struggle to get women’s rights integrated into the general human rights framework and to have key decision-making institutions (including bodies of the UN, the World Bank, and various regional and national level bodies) recognise the importance of - and work on - the issues relating to women and girls, has been very fruitful.
Every major institution and government has at the very least acknowledged discrimination and violence against women and many have committed to working on these issues.
We had a hand in not only getting many national laws passed, but also in helping grassroots women’s rights groups ensure that these are used to create an impact on the ground. We continue in this effort to make equality a reality for women and girls on the ground, and while our struggle is far from over, as a global movement, our achievements are inspiring.
However, the last few years have been challenging in many respects. With the global economic downturn and with political instability in many parts of the world, including internal and cross border conflicts, we are looking at a significant backlash on women and girls rights.
At the same time, significantly, the 2012 World Development report recognized gender equality as a core development objective in its own right, as well as “smart economics”. A ground-breaking study “Sex & World Peace” established that the level of peacefulness in society is directly linked to the treatment of women – the more equally women are treated, the less likely there is internal strife or external aggression. These are critical markers establishing what we in the movement have known forever – that working for equality for women and girls is not only the right thing to do, but it is essential to poverty alleviation, development and peace and security.
While the attack on women’s rights continues – from attempts to take away in countries emerging from the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, to the attack on reproductive rights in the United States and elsewhere, a beacon of hope is women and girls who raise their voices against injustice and strive, often against the odds, to change the world for the better.
Eleven year old Wafa fought for and won a divorce from her adult husband in Yemen, where there are no laws against child marriage; fifteen year old Mary took on the Zambian government when it failed to do anything when her teacher raped her in school and got a landmark ruling in her case; and fifteen year old Mariam successfully took her father – who raped her – to court in Pakistan, despite many difficult legal hurdles.
These young girls are changing the world, not only for themselves but also for future generations.
I am honoured to have been able to play a role to ensure that these girls – as well as the many other change-makers around the world – are supported, so that change in one girl’s life can be translated into legislative change at a national and international level, impacting millions.
Our challenge today is to make everyone understand that ensuring equality for women and girls is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do and a solution to many of the world’s problems. It is the best investment we can make to ensure that the world is a better, happier and safer place."