By Jonn Bass
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey
On Jan. 19, the lives and tragic deaths of two men – Martin Luther King Jr. and Hrant Dink – were commemorated and honored in the United States and Turkey. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the modern civil rights movement in the United States, tirelessly advocating for equal rights and opportunities for African-Americans and all citizens until he was murdered in 1968. From the civil rights movement that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to later campaigns against poverty and segregated housing, Dr. King’s consistent embrace of peaceful, non-violent protest earned him widespread admiration and respect. Hrant Dink worked as an activist and journalist here in Turkey. Meanwhile, he, too, was a champion not only for the rights of his own immediate community – Armenian citizens of Turkey – and for Turkish-Armenian relations, but also for democracy and human rights for all of Turkey’s citizens. Like Dr. King, Hrant Dink faced a series of death threats as a result of his work and he, too, was ultimately assassinated in 2007. Despite their differences, as I reflect on the legacies of both men I am also struck by a number of remarkable similarities.
Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Hrant Dink dedicated their lives to advancing peace, achieving equality, promoting justice, and securing and protecting basic human and civil rights. Both men were kind, compassionate, virtuous; qualities that also enabled them to establish deep and meaningful connections with all aspects of society. Both men rejected violence and hatred, embracing instead peace and love as a way to bridge differences and bring communities together.
Both men possessed clarity of speech – as exemplified by Martin Luther King’s electrifying speeches and by Hrant Dink’s penetrating newspaper editorials – that gave voice to countless others who lacked the courage to speak out against injustice. Both men were true patriots who believed firmly that rectifying injustices would make their countries stronger.
Dr. King may be best remembered for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and for the 1963 March on Washington, when he stood and spoke before the Lincoln Memorial to an assembled crowd of 200,000 people. Decades later, a similar crowd of hundreds of thousands of mourners thronged the streets of Istanbul to pay their respects after Hrant Dink’s brutal assassination. Thousands of people, of all ethnicities of the Turkish Republic, still remember him every year.
Those crowds were inspired by the many remarkable qualities shared by these two men – dedication, compassion, justice – but also by their vision. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hrant Dink both inspired their many admirers with a vision of a future in which people of all races and ethnicities transcend the painful memories and injustices of the past, a future in which they live in peace and share the same basic human rights and privileges.
As we reflect on their memories and their legacies, we should remember that these visions have still not been fully realized. Recent protests in the United States over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of the police are a stark reminder that there is still work to do in the United States to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality. And, here in Turkey, different ethnic communities continue to advocate for equal rights, as well as for more peaceful and harmonious relations within the Republic of Turkey. When you stop and think about it, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Hrant Dink shared the same “dream” of a future in which all citizens are truly equal. And King’s dream of “a future where people are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” is altogether in keeping with Hrant Dink’s appeal: “Come, let us first understand each other … Come let us respect each other’s pain … Come, let us first let one another live.” In 2015, we must continue to embrace the legacy and sacrifice of these men, and work towards making their dream a reality.