Op-Ed: What did King, a Black clergyman, know about foreign policy? He knew plenty
The popular narrative regarding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is often reduced to a simplistic nonviolent morality play of bad white Southerners versus noble Black ones. But King and his compatriots were far more radical than that. They saw a greater democratic struggle, with Black Americans at the vanguard, well beyond our borders. They aligned with independence movements in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.
King’s global perspective is seldom mentioned when we honor him during this national holiday. Principally, he viewed his fight and struggles abroad as demands to expand democracy: the right to govern oneself, the right of a people to choose who they’re governed by and how they might participate in democracy and the right to an economy that sustains people.
The civil rights movement developed as the concept of democracy was debated around the world. The Holocaust placed questions of human rights at the forefront of Western-styled democracies. This led to the formation of the United Nations in 1945. In the Cold War era, when nuclear annihilation felt plausible, democratic protesters in Britain, France, Japan and the U.S. were castigated as communists to delegitimize ethical claims for societal change.
At home, the horrifying murder of Emmett Till in 1955 — like the 2020 heinous murder of George Floyd — outraged Black communities and shocked the world. In the aftermath of Till’s slaying, the Montgomery bus boycott commenced within three months, similar to the Black Lives Matter-led protest movement.
In his work, King wrestled with democratic ideals. Was democracy a Eurocentric philosophy or was it pertinent to people across the globe? Was the state willing to deem the 14-year-old Till’s human rights as more important than tribal racism? The bus boycott that brought King to national prominence was stitched into a society that theoretically took into consideration ethical claims of human rights. Democratic freedoms made the U.S. preeminent, many claimed, even though U.S. involvement in the Belgian Congo, Iran, Guatemala, Korea, Vietnam — working with domestic state security apparatuses — undermined democratic protest.
King and his cohorts saw their efforts as being internationally significant. As a Baptist, King advocated a democratic spirituality. He believed that all human beings are equal before the divine and must have protection of a state. In the 1950s, Americans attended churches and synagogues in large numbers. King employed his role as a clergyman to explain his democratic aims. He appealed to the general population’s religious morality. Democracy was significant to their own spiritual well-being, he argued. In that context, King chose to give his most important foreign policy speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967.
In that speech, he argued that the real failure of U.S. foreign policy was a lack of moral imagination. The war in Vietnam served as a revelatory lens into the troublesome politics of race and social class within America.
Vietnam, he warned prophetically, undermined the sense of democratic fairness that must guide people’s faith in the country’s governing institutions. This speech was almost unanimously condemned by the American press.
What would a Southern Black clergyman know about foreign policy or the machinations of governing a divisive world, many asked. He knew plenty.
The core of democracy begins with faith — the faith that people can be protected inside their own communities. This faith is cultivated by assuring people have access to vote. King’s first major speech in Washington, in 1957 before the Lincoln Memorial, was “Give Us the Ballot.” His faith in the ballot allowed people to express their differences as they united in their commonalities. King understood when that faith was eroded through corruption, institutional bigotries and inequities in one form or another, it created a cynicism that hollowed out a uniting faith.
In the end, cynicism would allow the more powerful to manipulate despair to support self-aggrandizement through one-party rule or even dictatorial rule. That is a view we see today that is supported by new forms of imperial domination and the cult of personality by those who do almost anything to hold and take control. There is an interconnection between the xenophobic politics of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Chinese repression among the Uyghurs and the silencing of Hong Kong protesters, genocidal acts in Myanmar, political repressions across Africa, Vladimir Putin’s suppression of his domestic opponents and European neighbors and lastly, but not least, the politics of voter repression legislation and limits to the right of protest in state after state throughout the U.S.
King’s dream was radically democratic. His dream was that his country could serve as a beacon of hope for the world as a democratic society. All people — the Indigenous, descendants of the formerly enslaved, immigrant, laborer and elite, as well as the conservative, liberal, leftist, libertine, moderate — could struggle together to form a government for and by the people.
His words continue to challenge us. In our era of social media, climate change and a pandemic it’s even more of a challenge to hold governments transparent and accountable to standards of human rights. Yet as King eloquently offered in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Democracy is not defeated.
Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor at University of Kansas, documentary film producer and the author of “Letters to Martin: Meditation on Democracy in Black America.”
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