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.