January marked an important moment in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Seeing and hearing the congratulatory messages for the 30 women selected to be full members of the Majlis Al-Shura brought me great joy. These messages came from various parts of the Kingdom, resounded on social media and were delivered from leaders throughout the region, and from around the world. My wife, Dr. Janet Breslin-Smith, and I have had the opportunity to meet some of the distinguished and talented new members, women and men alike, and I am looking forward to the many contributions they will bring through their service and leadership.
I applaud the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz for opening this new chapter in the Kingdom’s history. I am reminded of a part of my own country’s past that involved important changes, the history of black Americans. In the United States, the month of February is Black History Month, a celebration of America’s rich cultural history, the traditions, and contributions that have come from black Americans.
The history of black Americans includes grave mistreatment and inequality, but also encompasses progress and great achievements over the past 250 years. One of the greatest achievements came when black Americans were enfranchised with the full rights of citizens. There are some who ask why we still celebrate Black History Month, especially now that the United States has reelected its first black president. My answer is that we must continue this month of remembrance and recognition until the day we embrace and enjoy the history, music, and culture of black Americans just as much as we have with other cultures in America. Only then, will we have arrived at a state of inclusion and respect for our cultural richness, diversity, and common hope that is built upon each individual’s unique story. Each nation’s history is marked with important milestones. Last month, President Barack Obama stood on the steps of the capitol in Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office for his second term as President of the United States of America. This year, his second presidential inauguration fell on the same day that is dedicated to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most prominent black American leaders of the civil rights movement. Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago in Washington, D.C., only two miles away from the place where President Obama was sworn into office.
Dr. King is often best remembered for that moving speech, but as a student of history, I am even more intrigued by a letter Dr. King had written four months earlier. While locked in a jail cell in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King wrote a message to white religious leaders who criticized his strategy for ending segregation and racial injustice in order to create a better life for his fellow black Americans and strengthen the United States as a whole by ending generations of division. They told Dr. King that his goals were “unwise and untimely,” that he was bringing strange ideas from the outside, and that he should continue to “wait” for the right time. He chose to persevere.
As a leader, Dr. King pushed boundaries to create change while facing countless critics. He held to his beliefs and worked to make the United States a better place, not just for black Americans, but for all Americans by helping to broaden and enrich the nation’s culture. He did this all with a dream of creating a more united and inclusive country. When I read the words that he wrote, I am inspired by his perseverance and the strength that it took for him to stand by what he knew to be right, even when other influential leaders, who could have been his greatest allies, advised him against pursuing his goals. Dr. King was a true optimist, and his words show his deep belief in the movement seeking equality for black Americans: "We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one indirectly, affects all indirectly."
He had an ambitious dream to make the United States a better place for everyone, no matter their race, by improving the status of black people and making the United States more inclusive and accepting of its own diversity. He worked tirelessly toward this goal, and I admire his tenacity and the positive spirit of his message rooted in peace and non-violence. Dr. King dreamed of an America where his children would have the same opportunities as white Americans. It was a dream to make the United States a more welcoming country for all people and to bring an end to centuries of division.
As I read Dr. King’s words, I see his message of encouragement and hope, but his weariness and frustration are also evident. He holds on to the “hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away,” while looking forward to “a not too distant tomorrow” in which “the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation.” Though his mission seemed insurmountable, he carried on with his dream to make America a better place.
Throughout history, those wanting to create positive change have often faced the same messages that were used to criticize Dr. King. We hear people telling others to be patient, to wait for the right time for change, and to avoid being influenced by what they describe as “strange ideas.” Dr. King’s words remind me that even in difficult times, the human spirit can prevail when doing good work to better the lives of others. This is the message of optimism, strength, and hope that I celebrate during Black History Month.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 25, 2013
(James B. Smith is the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prior to his appointment, Ambassador Smith had served in a variety of executive positions with Raytheon Company involving corporate strategic planning, aircraft manufacturing, and international business development. Smith was a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy’s Class of 1974 and received the Richard I. Bong award as the Outstanding Cadet in Military History. He received his Masters in History from Indiana University in 1975, and is also a distinguished graduate from the Naval War College, the Air Command and Staff College and the National War College. Smith spent a 28 year career in the United States Air Force.)