Thank you. It is a pleasure to welcome you here tonight on behalf of the U.S. Mission to the European Union, the U.S. Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium and the U.S. Mission to NATO. One of the many privileges I enjoy is to work with my fellow ambassadors Denise Bauer and Doug Lute – colleagues and friends.
We are grateful to the support of our partners in presenting tonight’s premiere, especially to Valerie Depreeuw and the team at EntertainmentOne Belgium, and to Karen Davies and her team at the United Nations Regional Information Centre here in Brussels.
On Saturday, President Obama, former President Bush, and other American leaders will meet in the town of Selma, in the state of Alabama, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior led thousands of nonviolent marchers from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.
They were marching to bring attention to the need for legislation to guarantee voting rights for African Americans, particularly in the South where the so-called “Jim Crow laws” had segregated blacks and whites since the 1870s. Those laws had reinforced a rigid social order relegating black Americans to inferior public services and educational and other opportunities. This social order was often maintained by the very real threat of lethal violence. The events leading up to that march are the subject of tonight’s film.
The marchers from Selma walked 87 kilometers on their five-day journey. When Dr. King spoke to the marchers that day, he quoted a seventy-year-old participant in the Montgomery bus boycotts ten years earlier: “Our feet are tired, but our souls are rested.”
The men and women of the civil rights movement didn’t ask for much. They asked only that the United States live up to its basic principles, enshrined in Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” They held a mirror up to the face of the nation, reminding us to live up to the best version of ourselves. They had the courage to speak truth to power. As President Johnson said of the protesters, they “awakened the conscience of this nation.”
I have been asked why we have chosen to show this film; after all it depicts a dark chapter in our history. There are several reasons. It is a good film. One of the reasons I am proud to represent my country is that, despite its mistakes, it does not shrink from looking itself critically in the mirror. The messages in this film – the search of human beings for dignity and equality – are timeless; they are universal; they know no borders. And they are being challenged today, not only on the frontiers of Europe and beyond but also in our own societies where tolerance – of other religions, races, beliefs — is being attacked by the messengers of hate.
In speaking to the crowd at the end of the march, Dr. King reminded them of that the journey must continue. “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” he said. “That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”
All of us in this room, Americans, Europeans, from every country, must continue to commit ourselves to the goal of a society at peace with itself. This is not the journey of a day or a year or a decade. It is a commitment that we make as individuals and as societies, to ourselves and to future generations. As Dr. King said in Montgomery, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And those of us who are fortunate enough to hold positions of some influence have the obligation to help bend that arc.
Every year in the United States, we mark February as Black History Month to celebrate the enormous contributions of African Americans to our country. The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Missions in Brussels are proud to sponsor the premiere of “Selma” tonight in celebration of the heroes of the civil rights movement.
Thank you for joining us tonight, and enjoy the film.