EVERY JANUARY IN THE UNITED STATES, we celebrate the life of the civil rights leader and minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. These celebrations frequently focus on King’s dream of ending discrimination in America. But they rarely mention that MLK was also an avid traveler, and had a vision for justice that extended well beyond the United States. Through his visits to places like India and Ghana and his interactions with people around the world, here are six insights MLK learned:
1. Ending racism and colonialism is a global struggle.
King’s took his first trip abroad to celebrate Ghana’s new independence in 1957. According to Stanford University’s MLK Research and Education institute:
“King’s voyage was symbolic of a growing global alliance of oppressed peoples … his attendance represented an attempt to broaden the scope of the civil rights struggle in the United States on the heels of the successful Montgomery bus boycott. King identified with Ghana’s struggle; furthermore, he recognized a strong parallel between resistance against European colonialism in Africa and the struggle against racism in the United States.”
While in Accra, King met US Vice President Richard Nixon. He told him “I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom the Gold Coast is celebrating.”
King remembered crying for joy as the Ghanaian flag was raised for the first time, symbolizing the culmination of a long struggle for independence. He later reflected during a radio interview:
“This event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions–not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America….It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice. And it seems to me that this is fit testimony to the fact that eventually the forces of justice triumph in the universe, and somehow the universe itself is on the side of freedom and justice. So that this gives new hope to me in the struggle for freedom.”
2. Social justice efforts in other countries can serve as models. Learn from them.
In Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, Carnegie Mellon University history professor Nico Slate demonstrates how South Asians and African Americans learned from one another’s movements. Though the two never met, MLK studied Gandhi carefully. This was a visionary, spiritual bond across continents that celebrated the dignity of persons through multiple points of religious and secular insight. Though many criticized King for following a non-Christian, he brought Gandhi’s relevant insights to the US situation. Slate writes:
“King inherited and made his own a distinctly African American Gandhi. King’s Gandhi, rooted in the long history of Black anticolonialism and much more than a symbol of nonviolence, embodied the power of colored cosmopolitanism wedded to the liberation theology of the Black church.”
When King visited India, his respect for the struggle for freedom and justice there was clear. In his first Indian press conference he said: “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”
3. You can’t fight against one type of violence without also acknowledging other types of violence happening around the world.
As portrayed in Tavis Smiley’s, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, King’s commitment to justice and humanity everywhere — not only in America — led him to make one of the most controversial speeches of his life exactly one year before his assassination. After seeing photos of the effects of Napalm attacks on Vietnamese children, King committed to deliver the keynote address at the national conference of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. Many of his advisors urged him to stay focused on US civil rights, but King’s conscience told him otherwise. In the speech, King said:
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
4. Fighting racism and imperialism creates a common bond of worldwide fraternity.
In a 1959 account of that month-long India visit in Ebony magazine, King wrote that the Indian people greeted him with great hospitality:
“The strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.”
The Ebony article also demonstrates that King saw the struggle for economic and racial justice as a global effort. King wrote:
“In contrast to the poverty-stricken, there are Indians who are rich, have luxurious homes, landed estates, fine clothes and show evidence of over-eating. The bourgeoisie-white, black or brown behaves about the same the world over.
And then there is, even here, the problem of segregation. We call it race in America; they call it caste in India. In both places it means that some are considered inferior, treated as though they deserve less.”
5. Nonviolence is not a tactic, but a way of life.
Over many years of study and reflection, this distinction emerged for King during his trip to India. Many followers of Gandhi employed nonviolence for tactical reasons. They asked King, “Is nonviolence with you a creed or a policy?” He responded, “I have come to believe in it as a way of life. Perhaps most people in American will still treat it as a technique.”
6. Deep respect and understanding are essential for international cooperation.
In his Ebony piece, King’s closing reflections on what should be done to support poverty alleviation in India will sound familiar to anyone working regularly with best practices in international development:
“Whatever we do should be done in a spirit of international brotherhood, not national selfishness… It would be a boon to democracy if one of the great nations of the world, with almost 400,000,000 people, proves that it is possible to provide a good living for everyone without surrendering to a dictatorship of either the “right” or “left.” Today India is a tremendous force for peace and non-violence, at home and abroad. It is a land where the idealist and the intellectual are yet respected. We should want to help India preserve her soul and thus help to save our own.”