We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day not only to commemorate King’s historic role in overcoming racism and other injustice, but because his work and vision remain relevant.
Today’s persistent racism in policing, health care, housing, and elsewhere, and attacks on voting rights — particularly for Black Americans — show that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just about the past or the South.
King got arrested in Alabama. He marched in Chicago. He spoke truth to power in Washington. He worked with countless activists and ordinary people to take action that transformed the Jim Crow South and impacted this whole country.
But his outlook went well beyond our borders. Martin Luther King was an internationalist.
He spoke out against the U.S. war in Vietnam, appalled by a government that came up short when it came to investing money to end poverty but found endless funds for destruction.
But beyond opposing the war on the grounds of its violent misuse of the national wealth, King was compelled to speak out because of the suffering of the people of Vietnam. “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops,” he said in 1967. “They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees.”
King’s anti-war stance is painfully relevant today.
Describing the false belief that an American invasion would make life better for the people of Vietnam, King said that “we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” Those words could tragically apply to U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other places, especially over the past 20 years.
But King’s global perspective was not limited to condemning war — it was also about making change. He took inspiration from struggles for freedom around the world and used it to fuel campaigns for civil rights and against poverty here.
King was inspired by the Indian anti-colonial movement, studied Gandhi’s strategies, and brought lessons to fellow activists as they crafted campaigns against racism and poverty in the United States. He was also present in Ghana for that country’s declaration of independence from British rule and the inauguration of its first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah.
As an active observer of struggles against colonialism around the world, King brought lessons from freedom struggles elsewhere to the U.S. to motivate change here. Writing in 1963, King lamented that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
We face any number of injustices and social problems in the U.S. today. To solve many of them, it would help to expand the conversation beyond our own country.
After all, the United States is not the only place where conflicts rage about how to overcome racism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ people, and other forms of division and oppression. It is not the only country where there is deep disagreement about national history and how to teach it. And it is far from the only place where there are battles over basic democratic rights.
And then there are problems that truly demand an international perspective and collaboration because they extend across borders — such as pandemics and climate change.
People around the world confront these problems, and we should join them. As we celebrate Martin Luther King and his legacy, we should be sure to honor his internationalism, and see its urgent relevance today.