The Dream Heard ‘Round the World


"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

(Excerpt of ''I Have a Dream'' translated in Haitain Kreyol.) Mwen gen yon rèv yon jou chak vale pral monte byen wo, chak kolin, chak mòn pral desann ba, kote ki rèch yo pral vin dous, kote ki kwochi pral vin drèt epi laglwa Seyè-a pral parèt aklè epi tout je pral wè sa ansanm. Sa se espwa-nou. Sa se lafwa m pral pote avè-m nan Sid-la. Ak lafwa-sa-a, nou pral kapab fè mòn dezespwa-a tounen yon gwo wòch espwa. Ak lafwa-sa-a, nap kapab transfòme vye bwi zizani nasyon-nou-an an yon bèl mizik tèt ansanm.


When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous 1963 speech about his dream for a better, more just, America, I was four months old and living with my family under a brutal dictatorship in Haiti.

Of course, I was too young to remember that speech or any of the others he made during the period between my birth and his death on April 4, 1968. But for my family and many people living in troubled corners of the world at the time, his speeches transcended geographic boundaries and had deep resonance.


King's words spoke to them, and for them, in the midst of their own suffering. It gave them hope that if one man could lead masses of people to prod a nation to live up to its stated ideals, maybe they could do the same in their own countries. His broader messages were as relevant in South Africa as they were in Selma, as vital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti as in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

At home and abroad, King embodied the spirit of possibility. Even 40 years after the tragic end of his short but extraordinary life, his speeches and positions on U.S. foreign policy have had an enduring legacy in countries that were locked in their own social struggles during his time.

Whether people lived under the yoke of dictatorship, colonialism, or other forms of political oppression, whether their government was at war with a neighboring country or at war with its own people, whether they were battered by crippling poverty or brutal and dehumanizing forms of racial apartheid, King echoed their longing for freer, safer, more prosperous lives.

As an immigrant reared in the U.S., I have experienced the appeal and universality of King's message from two very different perspectives and have watched with amazement how far that message has traveled, undiluted by time or distance, defying ethnic and national borders, roaming unchecked around the world.


Now as a journalist in my adopted home, a nation poised to possibly elect its first black president, I feel proud, and incredibly lucky, to be witness to the fruits of King's labor. When I see Zimbabweans trying to finally rid themselves of dictator Robert Mugabe; Sudanese fighting for their lives in the face of ethnic genocide; Kenyans agitating to restore a fragile democracy, I can't help but think that somewhere deep inside them, King's spirit is moving them forward too, even as those countries' corrupt and venal leaders ignore his adherence to non-violence.

When masses of dispossessed black people descended on the National Mall during the March on Washington to demand equal rights in the world's most powerful country, King's "I Have a Dream" speech gave disenfranchised people abroad reason to persist in their own battles against injustices at home. He made them believe that fairer political systems where within reach whether their oppressors where white, black, or brown.


King recognized that by speaking to a larger audience he was putting the U.S. on the hook by putting its racial hypocrisy on the world stage. He also knew he could influence events in other countries, where political leaders might look to follow America's lead, or masses of people might follow the lead of black American civil rights activists. He used moral persuasion at both ends.

"Something is happening in our world," King said on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the night before he was gunned down. "The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.' "


Today streets are named for King in Bonn, Germany, (Martin Luther King Strasse) in Nantes, France (Rue Martin Luther King), in Cambridgeshire, England (Martin Luther King Close ), in Calcutta, India (Martin Luther King Sarani), in Port-au-Prince Haiti (Avenue Martin Luther King), and in Mexico, Brazil, and countless other countries.

"I Have a Dream" has been translated into Chinese, Arabic, Deutsch, Spanish, French, Italian, Indian, Korean, Marathi, Nihongo, Porteguese, Po-russki, and Haitian Kreyol, among others languages.Wall murals in teeming urban slums honor him in developing countries.


"The beloved community," that he often referred to in his speeches and sermons was, and is, spread far and wide.

In Haiti, a mountainous country where people speak a lyrical amalgamation of West African tongues and French, the language is filled with proverbs and religious imagery. "Behind every mountain, there is another mountain" is one adage Haitians viscerally understand. Despite being the first black country to gain independence from white colonialists in 1804, daily life in Haiti in King's time was one of depravation and struggle, and political repression. So when King spoke of hills and mountains being "laid low," and of getting "to the mountain top" and seeing "the Promised Land," Haitians understood he was talking about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


Before the Internet, and email, and 24-hour news cycles, King's mountain top was a metaphor for social struggle that resonated loudly and widely, transcended ethnic and color boundaries, and struck a profound moral chord.

At a time when the U.S. standing in the world is greatly reduced and American foreign policy is widely considered just another example of "ugly American" arrogance, it's comforting to know that King's legacy is one American export that people abroad still welcome.


Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.

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