Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1959 Morehouse Commencement Address offered the young pastor an opportunity to tell the graduates of his alma mater the world-historical importance of the Civil Rights Movement into which some of them had participated and would, no doubt, continue to contribute to. “This world shaking revolution which is engulfing our world is seen in the United States in the transition from a segregated to an integrated society,” King wrote. “The social revolution which is taking place in this country is not an isolated, detached phenomenon. It is part of a worldwide revolution that is taking place.”
King’s ideological and political beliefs were always oriented toward the idea of “but a local phase of a world problem.” As we come upon another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, where much public discourse will focus exclusively on the “content of their character” line from his “I Have A Dream” speech, it is especially incumbent on all of those who cherish the legacy of Dr. King to re-emphasize his global outlook. As educators are dealing with the fallout of anti-Critical Race Theory campaigns, reminding them that their struggle is also global in scope fits in with thinking of Dr. King as a truly international figure.
King’s work and activism coincided with the high point of decolonization in Africa and Asia. He pointed this out to audiences and his church congregation at every opportunity. Dr. King’s 1957 sermon, “The Birth of a New Nation,” given at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church after his return from Ghana’s Independence Day ceremonies, was an example of his determination to place the Civil Rights Movement within a larger human rights campaign across the world. “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” King exclaimed in his address. He compared the struggle in the Gold Coast to the current fight in the American South for justice: “Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil.”
It is important to remind people of King’s outspoken use of the international situation in many of his speeches. It becomes easy to simply see the Civil Rights Movement as a domestic struggle to help the United States become a “more perfect union,” as opposed to a domestic manifestation of a global battle for freedom, justice, and equality. Not that these two interpretations are automatically opposed to each other—not at all. But we should see them as going hand in hand with one another.
King also understood how the federal government’s response to the Civil Rights Movement was usually predicated on the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The struggle for “hearts and minds” across the world often entered into the government’s calculus on how much to do for African Americans at home. When receiving the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1957, King remarked that “the passage of the civil rights bill which is now before the Senate will do more to increase the prestige of our nation in international affairs than all of the billions of dollars that we spend for defense.”
Reminding people of King’s international outlook also makes his opposition to the Vietnam War all the more understandable—indeed, makes it a necessary part of his life story as both a theologian and an activist. By the time King gave his “Beyond Vietnam” address on April 4, 1967, his thought process on America’s involvement in Vietnam had taken years to formulate. For one, King pointed out that the spending of billions of dollars on the Vietnam War could, instead, have been used at home to fight the War on Poverty. “It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor” with the War on Poverty, but it was quickly dashed by ballooning defense budgets at the height of the Vietnam War. Further, King saw the Vietnam War as manipulating racial and class divisions at home in favor of the cynical destruction of Southeast Asia. “So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens,” King argued, “as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” For King, the issues of racism at home and militarism abroad were never separate, but were always intertwined. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam,” King said.
The internationalist vision of King matters for two reasons. As historians, we must do everything we can to make sure that Americans understand that African American history has never been concerned merely with what happens within America’s borders but has always been internationalist in outlook. This has been an important critique of The 1619 Project, for example. As concerned citizens, King’s internationalist outlook reminds us to always look beyond America’s borders for inspiration and intellectual ferment. The fight for human rights in America has never been pursued in a vacuum. Contemporary Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations, however, erase much of this history.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a unique holiday on the American calendar. It is the only holiday that celebrates an activist. While so many other American holidays—Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day as examples—honor hallowed moments in American history, MLK Day is a stark reminder of how far the nation has been forced to go to ensure freedom for all. How we square divided memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the historical narrative of the man—and the movement in which he participated—will continue to be a critical part of MLK Day for many years to come.permission.