The tactic worked because we understood, as Gandhi and King had before us, that our adversaries could be influenced and shamed by public opinion, and could in this fashion eventually be compelled to relinquish power. That is how segregation was defeated in the South; that is how the Chilean people beat Pinochet in a plebiscite in 1988 that led to democracy in 1990; that is the story of the downfall of tyrannies around the world, more than ever today, from the streets of Burma to the cities of the Arab Spring.
King in the Age of Surveillance
And what of this moment? When I return to that speech I first heard 45 years ago, the very day King died, is there still a message for me, for us, something we need to hear again as if we were listening to those words for the first time?
What would Martin Luther King say if he could return to contemplate what his country has become since his death? What if he could see how the terror and slaughter brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had turned his people into a fearful, vengeful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What if he could see how that obsession with security has fed espionage services and a military-industrial complex run amok?
What would he say if he could observe how that fear was manipulated in order to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign land against the will of its people? How would he react to the newest laws disenfranchising the very citizens he fought to bring to the voting booths? What sorrow would have gripped his heart as he watched the rich thrive and the poor be ever more neglected and despised, as he observed the growing abyss between the one percent and the rest of the country, not to speak of the power of money to intervene and intercede and decide?
What words would he have used to denounce the way the government surveillance he was under is now commonplace and pervasive, potentially targeting anyone in the United States who happens to own a phone or use email? Wouldn't he tell those who oppose these policies and institutions inside and outside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, and not ever to wallow in the valley of despair?
That's my belief. That he would repeat some of the words he delivered on that now-distant day in the shadow of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. My guess is that he would once again affirm his faith in the potential of his country. He would undoubtedly point out that his dream remained rooted in an American dream which, in spite of all the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, was still alive; that his nation still had the ability to rise up and live out the true meaning of its original creed, summed up in the words "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
Let us hope that his faith in us was and still is on the mark. Let us hope and pray, for his sake and ours, that his faith in his own country was not misplaced and that 50 years later his compatriots will once again listen to his fierce yet gentle voice calling on them from beyond death and beyond fear, calling on all of us, here and abroad, to stand together for freedom and justice in our time.
Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean-American writer and professor at Duke University, has written many books and plays translated into more than 50 languages. Among them are his play and film Death and the Maiden and his memoir of the coup against Allende, Heading South, Looking North . His latest book is the second part of that memoir, Feeding On Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. He lives with his wife Ange'lica in Durham, North Carolina, and from time to time, in Chile.
Copyright 2013 Ariel Dorfman