By Dionne Gravesande (UK) Deborah Burton (UK) and Yolande Cadore (USA) #MLK GLOBAL
Dr. King was – and remains – beloved of peoples around the world. His critique of economic exploitation, racism and militarism remains universal, contemporary and relevant to 21st century social justice movements in the global south and north. He exemplified – and exemplifies still- the spirit of global solidarity.
One of the recent international commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was that held by Christian Aid(*) at Westminster Abbey in London.
Above the main door, beneath the statue of Dr. King, passed many hundreds of people of all ages from the British and diasporan Caribbean and African communities. They came to the service as a mark of their love, respect and remembrance of one of the most outstanding faith leaders and social justice figures of the 20th century.
Dr. King lives in hearts and minds with such a strength that it spans five decades and affects generations who have only come to know him since his death. He was – and remains – beloved of peoples around the world. And his critique of economic exploitation, racism and militarism remains universal, contemporary and relevant to 21st century social justice movements in the global south and north.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies….This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.” Dr. King. ‘Beyond Vietnam’ Riverside Church 1967
But 50 years on the USA in particular and the world more generally remain light years away from King’s vision. This 2018 anniversary offers a deeply sobering moment of reflection for the USA as it realises how far it is from coming close to King’s goal of racial equality, redistribution of wealth and a reined-in USA military. And we who live in other parts of the world (in our case, the UK) are also prompted to think ‘there but for the grace of God go we’. We may not have Trump but we too are (as are many other European nations) experiencing vast inequality, rising racism and far-right sentiment and deep political alienation, Brexit being an expression of that. We can but hope that the promise of the Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called out neoliberalism as a failed ideology, will manifest at an election win and – hopefully – start the UK on a new course. But even then, the bind of the UK being tied to (bad) USA foreign policy decision-making will be a hard one to fight free of.
And this extends globally. Rich and poor nations alike are as profoundly affected by the actions of the USA political class as they were 50 years ago – possibly more so. It may be through military interventions and ever rising military spending levels; economic policy; popular culture or mass media – the USA shapes our world-view, for good and bad.
And so to the towering figure that was Martin Luther King Jr and why his analysis is arguably more globally relevant now that ever.
Throughout – from the bus boycott to his last ‘mountaintop’ speech – King was, for all the world to see, the conscience of America, increasingly being seen a global moral leader. And this was in no small part due to Dr. King’s internationalism. He was aware of, informed by and spoke about, the many and varied independence movements of the global south; he spoke out in support of Nelson Mandela and the boycott of apartheid South Africa; he spoke often of the dangers of a new USA neo-imperialist foreign policy – and not just in Vietnam but more widely (Central and Latin America included).
It was therefore no surprise on news of his death that millions of men and women around the world joined with their brothers and sisters in the USA, as they grieved for the loss of this towering figure whose life was cut short at 39 years of age. MLK biographer Jason Sokol writes in a recent Time article marking the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s murder that
‘In Africa and Asia, and on both sides of the Cold War, King was regarded as a leader in the struggles against racism, poverty, colonialism and imperialism.’ Sokol goes on to describe the impact of Dr. King’s murder around the world. ‘On every continent, throngs of people gathered in public squares and places of worship to honor Martin Luther King. At St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Nairobi, Tom Mboya, Kenya’s minister of planning, read King’s final speech to an overflow crowd that included members of parliament…The Pope hailed King during Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In Paris, hundreds gathered at the Cirque d’Hiver, including labor leaders, intellectuals and heroes of the French resistance during World War II. They mixed homages to King with denunciations of the United States, so enraged were they by America’s racial injustice at home as well as its waging of the Vietnam War. In London, the House of Commons passed a motion expressing outrage at King’s assassination. Soon the Labour government introduced a piece of anti-discrimination legislation known as the Race Relations Act. Thousands of Britons gathered on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where King had spoken in 1964, and spilled out onto the street to hear tributes to King. Speakers reflected on King’s life and performers led the crowds in song’.
King had set the bar high for fearless truth-speaking, refusing to compromise his faith and his principles. Through his 13 years of protest and resistance, he had faced down racist southerners; he had taken on LBJ to secure civil, voting and housing rights; he had used the commercial boycott to change America, from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955/56 to his last speech April 3rd 1968 where he called for a boycott of Coca Cola.
Were Dr. King alive now, he would be 89 years of age. Had events of the summer of 1968 been allowed to play out differently such that both MLK and RFK had lived and continued to play their roles in at least trying to re-make America – then maybe, just maybe, we might not have been led down the neoliberal path. But even if we had, we can only imagine what MLK’s ongoing resistance to four decades of this global neoliberal catastrophe would have looked like, because on every score that MLK spoke of in 1968 – poverty, racism, war machine, whether for the USA or globally – the facts speak a terrible truth. We are worse off now than then.
The neoliberal project, which took hold as a USA/UK ideological endeavour in the 1970s, has indeed been successfully globalised. The goal to privatise, deregulate, destroy organised labour and roll back the state has triumphed. Government primarily functions to serve private wealth, offshore interests and corporations. During this period, the global south has also had to apply the same policies and to the same end – only without the safety nets that western economies had developed in the immediate post-war period to fall back on. Safety nets (public service health and education, social security, public housing) they have been prevented from developing, thanks to decades of odious neoliberal policies enforced upon them in exchange for western aid or loans.
None of this would have come as a surprise to Dr. King. From the 1950s up to his death, Dr. King had been profoundly aware of the failure of the capitalist model, such that by the end of his life, he was calling for a wholesale change redistribution of resources. The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68 was King’s ‘last great exertion’. By then he was mobilising across all parts of civil society – faith and secular, black and white, Hispanic and Native American. As he said to labour leader Cesar Chavez in 1967, ‘all our struggles are really one’. And as ever, he had a strategic and ambitious plan to accompany the campaign. It was an Economic Bill of Rights and its first demand was a guaranteed minimum income. In all, this 5 point plan was a structure through which to deliver the radical redistribution of economic resources that would impact on all America.
To know Dr. King’s journey towards his Economic Bill of Rights in 1968 is to appreciate some of the equally significant yet much overlooked strands of his political analysis and solutions that took shape after his work in Chicago on fair housing; his commitment to calling out the Vietnam War and the war-machine; his pushing for a massive redistribution of wealth through the guaranteed minimum income.
Dr. King had come to realise that everything and everyone is connected.
You can’t pick one thread without pulling the whole fabric. Thus, you can’t deal with single issues entirely on their own before you realise other issues are impinging on that single issue. Racism, inequality and war were all individual injustices that had to be fought, but at the same time, they were all deeply connected. More importantly was to recognise that for ‘power’ to be maintained, it needed to be this way – and thus if justice was to be delivered the system needed to be dismantled.
And why does this matter now? Because Martin Luther King’s thinking remains globally relevant to our times today and makes complete sense to those of us who have worked on international north/south campaigns such as Jubilee Debt, Trade Justice, Tax Justice and more recently, the ‘war on drugs’. All these issues are indeed stand-alone but combined they make up a patchwork of destructive policies deliberately developed over decades by powerful rich nations to keep the developing nations of the global south in their place.
And at home, in our ‘first-world’ economies, it is no different. The rich acquire ever greater wealth while communities are stripped of public services, employment, welfare – the list is endless.
At the very end of his life, Dr. King was brokering more and more campaigning collaboration around his Poor People’s Campaign and Economic Bill of Rights. His framing of the links between economic exploitation, racism and militarism is timeless – we need to call an end all to all three in our lifetime. His Economic Bill of Rights remains ambitious – we need to act on them and revise them for today. His lifelong internationalism that connected peoples and justice struggles in solidarity around the world is needed more than ever. As he said in 1963
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”
We in the global north and south can come together in the name of Dr. King and, in solidarity, do our level best, as our shared life’s work, to finish what he started.
#MLK Global is a new international initiative of London-based UK non-profit Tipping Point North South and has been developed with our colleagues in the United States: Yolande Cadore and Jamye Wooten, Kinetics Live
*Deborah and Dionne spent many years at UK development and campaigning organisation Christian Aid. During the 1960s, it raised funds for Dr. King’s work on voter registration in the Delta Ministry and managed his PR on his trips to the UK, including for his St. Paul’s Cathedral speech, made before collecting his Nobel Prize in Sweden, 1964.
#MLK Global calls for a renewed ‘internationalising’ of Dr. King’s vision. In particular, for global civil society to unite around his ever-more relevant demand for an end to the inter-connected ‘triple evils’ of economic exploitation, racism and militarism. #MLK Global believes that Dr. King’s analysis of the underlying structures that reinforce inequality speaks to peoples across the global north & south who share a deep desire for long-overdue change. #MLK Global wants to see a renewed awareness of his 5-point Economic Bill of Rights, re-envisioned for today. Economic inequalities, racism, militarism & climate change are destroying families, communities, nations and the very planet we live on. The time to fulfil Dr. King’s vision of a “radical redistribution of power” is now.
The MLK Global Statement promotes the call for an end to poverty racism and militarism in our lifetime and through an Economic Bill of Rights updated for today. Background to statement is here. If your organisation would like to sign on, please email Deborah@tippingpointnorthsouth.org
Tipping Point North South is a non-profit co-operative that supports and initiates creative campaign-driven projects that support the global social justice agenda. It works across film, events and campaigns. Projects include cinema documentaries We Are Many and Open Bethlehem; Bethlehem Unwrapped (festival, WALL & short film); campaigns Make Apartheid History (Animation and video gallery); Five Percent Campaign (military spending)