The year was 1963. I was a first grader in New York City and the country was electrified. Buses were being chartered by the hundreds for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. And they came — hundreds of thousands of people from across the country.
My grandmother and I watched on television, as my parents and neighbors headed to the March. Even in black and white, it was clear the atmosphere was charged. Meanwhile, like many of my peers, I was attending Freedom School in the basement of the local church, learning Dr. King’s principles of non-violence. His teachings continued when, on Human Rights Day 1965, I listened on at Hunter College as Dr. King proclaimed, “We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations.” That issue remains vital 50 years on — and in it, I found my life’s work and passion.
Following that speech, I asked Mrs. King for her address, and wrote her a letter about how the encounter affected me. Her hand-written reply showed me that leaders can also be personable. Fast-forward 10 years and I’d become Mrs. King’s “other daughter” — best friend to their eldest Yolanda, with whom I went on to teach non-violent techniques throughout West Africa in 1981.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic event that continues to galvanize generation after generation in the pursuit of equality for all mankind. Now, as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, appointed by the first African American President of the United States, I work only a few short blocks from where it all started. I have the tremendous honor of continuing — and living — the dream of helping people claim their inalienable rights, in every nation across the globe.
Two years ago, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, the very framework that envisioned the more perfect union at the heart of Dr. King’s dream. Its hallowed words guide me each time I take up the fight for international religious freedom and remind me how proud I am to be an American — to live in a system that exposes wrongs and allows us to correct them.
About the Author: Suzan Johnson Cook is the third Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (AAL), appointed May 16, 2011. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 designated the AAL to be the Principal Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on religious freedom worldwide. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Twitter.
- President Obama, President Clinton, and President Carter To Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Wednesday, August 28
- Cross posted on DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State