As we prepare to celebrate the annual collective memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to reflect upon the symbol of his legacy and its relevance to democracy. The theme of this year’s celebration of Dr. King as honored by the King Center is “It Starts with Me: Setting Priorities to Create the Beloved Community.” The campaign is driven by the late Reverend's concept of a Beloved Community, which holds that “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we…must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a “person oriented” society.”
Dr. King’s Beloved Community embodies the very tenets of democracy. Democracy starts with me. It starts with you. It begins when all of us – leaders, candidates, activists, advocates, journalists, organizers, developers, academics, mentors, technologists; people of all backgrounds, races, genders, religions, cultures – fulfill our respective roles in the cycle of reform. It takes everyone to make it work. And it takes more than just a tool or a process; it requires an understanding of the culture and perspective by which each of us as individuals come to the table to fight for our convictions. It takes seeing that there are different modes and methods for engaging in effective reform. It requires knowing that no one individual is better than or less than because of where they come from, what they believe, and the color of their skin. It means being willing to show up and to listen. Democracy underscores the notion that every single person deserves the agency, opportunity and access to engage in debate that enables basic freedoms and human rights. And it recognizes that we all have a role to play.
Today’s democracies are at a crossroads. Two years into a global pandemic, governments continue to face pressure to deliver on citizen needs. Trust in public institutions remains low, especially as authoritarian leaders continue to build momentum around power vacuums in countries lacking empowered and capable democratic institutions. Divisions between and among parties are resulting in boycotts and are sowing public disagreements and uprisings. The threats of climate change continue to increase, as well as record levels of inflation and debt, leaving women and other marginalized communities on the front lines of resulting impacts. In the U.S. we are reminded that deep divisions can threaten even the most long-standing democracies and result in the needless loss of innocent life.
Dr. King rose in similarly arduous times becoming an activist for race relations and the advancement of black lives in the 1950s and 1960s. Leading efforts that resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the development of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Historic March on Washington, King used the power of the black spiritual community and nonviolent teachings to promote collective understanding and action in the fight for equality. Also inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi following a trip to India, King was dedicated not only to raising awareness of the plights of black lives in the U.S., but also to addressing discrimination and violence abroad. King's iconic work was pivotal in progressing core democratic advances to address U.S. segregation, including the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. As the U.S. continues to grapple today with violence against BIPOC communities and the fight to ensure equitable voting rights for all, we are reminded of the foundation built by Dr. King's legacy.
King’s work also inspired the rise of others, such as the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who left a legacy as one of the most influential forces to end South Africa’s apartheid. Similar to Dr. King, Archbishop Tutu used his foundations as a spiritual leader in combination with beliefs in nonviolent demonstration to engage actors across South Africa on the injustices and crimes committed under apartheid. Tutu was the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and later named archbishop of both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Tutu also mediated divisions among rivals within the black and white communities, and raised awareness among international leaders to develop solutions that eventually resulted in apartheid’s end. In the years after, Tutu oversaw the country’s Truth and Reconciliation process, and worked with all those impacted – armed forces, guerilla leaders, citizens, individuals of both races – to expose apartheid’s vast crimes. By seeking diverse perspectives, he underscored that everyone is vital in the solution to end such events in history. Tutu earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, at which point Senator Edward Kennedy called him the “Martin Luther King of South Africa.” In 1986, Archbishop Tutu was honored in Atlanta on the first occasion of the MLK National Holiday with the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize. NDI was proud to honor Archbishop Tutu with our Democracy Award in 2008 for his efforts and as a true champion of global democracy.
NDI as an organization remains committed to building upon the legacies of Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu to strengthen international resilience through the promise of democratic delivery. After the establishment of its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council in 2020, the Institute continues to engage in conversations with its global staff and partners on the importance of enabling more inclusive decisions and programming. The Council has taken on several initiatives, including a Distinguished Speakers Series with experts in the DEI field to provide NDI’s global staff with foundational understanding in DEI terminology, concepts, and practices in international development. Recently, a discussion was held with leaders in the “Decolonization of Aid” movement, which recognizes the inequitable power balances that often exist in the delivery of international assistance, and the resulting failure to enable development outcomes through locally-led and driven solutions. The Council has also developed an outline of DEI-sensitive lexicon for use by staff, partners and in NDI’s materials; and is working to ensure institute hiring practices embody DEI values.
Further, the opportunity presented by the Biden Administration in the global Summit for Democracy’s Year of Action presents a critical time for NDI at all levels to engage global leaders, parliamentarians and civic actors through international conversations on the importance of DEI principles in carrying out commitments that uphold and advance democracy in the goal of protecting and advancing human rights for all. In particular, the Institute’s 2022 “Why Democracy Matters” campaign will focus on the importance of these global conversations. We will promote the people and the policies that advance democracy everywhere.
The globe continues to face unparalleled challenges, and yet such moments also remind us of the promise of heroes like Dr. King. His dedication to addressing these challenges head on for the sake of creating a Beloved Community – one that enables freedoms, justice, equality and access for all regardless of who you are and where you come from – remains inherent in the principles of democratic development. As we remember the legacy of Dr. King this year, we are reminded of the power of democracy, and the solutions that are possible. It starts with me. It starts with you. It takes all of us.
Author: Frieda Arenos, Democratic Governance, Member of the NDI Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.