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Martin Luther King and the Greeks

  • George Bistis

Ο Martin Luther King και οι Έλληνες

One of the most treasured possessions belonging to the late Archbishop Iakovos, was a 1965 black and white photograph taken in Selma, Alabama. The picture showed the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America walking side by side with civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a protest march through the city’s streets, which marked the start of the historic movement for racial equality in the United States. In a radio interview, granted a few years later, Archbishop Iakovos made it abundantly clear to us that he admired Dr. King for his beliefs and his courage.

Rev. Martin Luther King apparently had a similar admiration for the philosophers of classical Greece. It is reflected in a speech, known as “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, which he delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination. In this last speech Dr. King told his supporters that if he were to stand at the beginning of time, with the possibility of a general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to that day, he “would move to Greece, take my mind to Mount Olympus and I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality”. Analysts believe that this reference shows the influence classical Greece had on Dr. King although they admit his mental flight would only have kept him briefly to Greece for he felt destined to live in America in order to take part in what he described as “the human rights revolution” of his time.

Alexandros Mallias, the Ambassador of Greece to the United States says “the message of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream transcends geographic and cultural boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on the indispensable voice of our conscience.” He spoke at a reception in honor of The Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc., which, as its name suggests, is spearheading a drive for the creation of a Monument for the legacy of Dr. King, in a park setting between the U.S. Congress and the White House, known as The Mall, near Washington’s beautiful Potomac River. Several other national monuments, like the famous Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials as well as the newer WWII Memorial, are also in this area.

The reception, held at the Embassy of Greece, in our nation’s capital on the evening of Wednesday, October 31, 2007, was co-chaired by Mr. Mallias and Ambassador Andrew Young, a civil rights leader and former U.S. representative to the United Nations Organization, in New York. The Host Committee consisted of prominent lawmakers, including U.S. Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee and Jesse Jackson, who are also actively involved with the afro-American Caucus; U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe from the State of Maine; U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen; and the new generation of Greek-American Congressmen, Gus Bilirakis from Florida; Zachary Space from Ohio; and John Sarbanes from Maryland.

Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick thanked the Embassy of Greece and the Hellenic American community for their support in the effort to obtain the funds necessary for “Building the Dream”. She feels that the planned National Memorial for Martin Luther King would not only be a fitting tribute to one of the greatest figures of the last century but would also ensure that the legacy of Dr. King will live for ever. Congresswoman Kilpatrick believes that the Memorial will help remind the future generations of Dr. King’s Dream and will inspire them to work together for the elimination of all inequalities, the strengthening of the institution of family and the building of a better world.

Similar sentiments were also offered by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who expressed the hope that the elaborate plans outlined by the MLK National Memorial Project Foundation will soon become a reality, thanks to the generous support offered by several groups of citizens, including the Hellenic community in America. Ed Johnson, Executive Architect of the Foundation, said that the design for the MLK Memorial has been approved, the location where it would be erected has been designated and the project will move into the implementation phase as soon as all the funding required is secured. The Foundation has already raised about $84 million, according to Connie Mourtoupala, who coordinated the event at the Embassy of Greece.

Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis and his Democratic counterpart Zack Space said that they never had the privilege of knowing Rev. King personally but his life has been a real source of inspiration for them. Although they are members of different political parties, Representatives Space and Bilirakis work closely together through the Hellenic Congressional Caucus, on which the latter serves as Co-Chairman. Many other lawmakers of the Hellenic Congressional Caucus also support building a Memorial for Martin Luther King.

Ambassador Mallias first heard of Rev. King in the mid 1960s when the civil rights leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Ambassador was then a high school student. Living in the free and democratic Greece of 1964 he had some difficulty understanding the situations described by Martin Luther King. However, four years later, as a freshman in college, young Alexandros fully comprehended the philosophy of Dr. King and the power of his words. You see, when Dr. King was assassinated Greece, the cradle of Democracy, was ruled by a military dictatorship.

Ambassador Mallias, who in January of this year received the Martin Luther King Legacy Award for International Service, reminded his guests at Wednesday’s event of the words Rev. King once wrote inside his Birmingham jail cell. “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment… is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

These words of Martin Luther King spoke directly to the heart of college student Alexandros Mallias on that dark day of April 4, 1968. He identified completely with them because many of his own countrymen had been thrown in jail precisely because their conscience had determined that the laws of the colonels who had hijacked Greece were unjust.

The quote the Greek Ambassador offered shows that Dr. King had a profound understanding of the ancient Greek classics and often drew from them in his speeches. Mr. Mallias gave us some additional food for though. Consider this. Aeschylus, in Prometheus-bound described the cry of Prometheus, “I knew when I transgressed, nor will deny it. In helping Man, I brought my troubles on me.” Sophocles, one of Greece’s greatest playwrights, put similar words in the mouth of his reluctanct heroine, Antigone, who said: “I will not obey an unjust law, and if something happens because of it, so be it.”

Ambassador Mallias said that feels a great debt of gratitude to Martin Luther King and his non-violent civil rights movement, which he sees as an example that spirited many other ethnic groups, including the Greeks, to stand up against prejudice and bias all over the world.

Among the honorary organizers of Wednesday’s event was the Principle of the Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the American South. This is the school that U.S. Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice attended as a child. The Embassy of Greece “adopted” the Afro-American school a couple of years ago to indicate the very special affinities the people of Greece and the Hellenic American community feel for what is represented by Birmingham and its surrounding area, where Dr. King lived and died.

The message of Wednesday’s event is that Martin Luther King’s words are still relevant today and could be used as a guide for some of the challenges we are facing today. Ambassador Mallias urged his guests to always remember the following quote from the writings of Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin and end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Ambassador Andreas Kakouris of Cyprus and prominent community leaders, including Theodore Spyropoulos, Coordinator of the U.S. Region for the World Council of Hellenes Abroad and Nick Larigakis, Executive Director, American Hellenic Institute, also attended the event.

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