From the Introduction
This is a new kind of book about the world vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. Too many people continue to think of Dr. King as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people everywhere. “In a Single Garment of Destiny” is the first book to treat King’s positions on global liberation struggles through the prism of his own words and activities. The purpose is not only celebration, but also a critical engagement with a towering figure whose ideas and social praxis have become so significant in the reshaping of the modern world.
King’s interest in the problems of the poor and oppressed worldwide was evident long before he achieved national and international prominence. He came out of a family background that encouraged a concern for world affairs; his own father, Martin Luther King, Sr., the distinguished pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, communicated with black South African activists and addressed the problems of racism and poverty in America and in other lands when King, Jr. was a child. Inspired by this family tradition, King, Jr., at age fifteen, in a high school speech called, “The Negro and the Constitution,” spoke of the resonating irony of an America claiming freedom while denying basic rights to blacks, and also referred to the United States’ moral responsibility in a world that threatened the true flowering of democracy. As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College and at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in the late forties and early fifties, King, Jr. came to the conclusion that blacks in America would not win genuine freedom as long as peoples of color abroad suffered on grounds of race and economics.
King had experiences in Montgomery, Alabama that not only increased his interest in international events, but also solidified his commitment to ending racism, poverty, colonialism, and other social evils that disproportionately afflicted black Americans and peoples in the so-called Third World. While serving as pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to 1959, King occasionally drew parallels between white racism in the United States and European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and it was his conviction that the black struggle in the Jim Crow South had much to contribute to and learn from movements for independence abroad. This conviction matured during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, and was significantly reinforced when King attended the independence celebrations in Ghana at the request of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah in March, 1957, and also when he visited India, “the land of Gandhi,” in 1959. Inspired by his experiences and travels abroad, King actually joined the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) in the late 1950s, a New York-based organization of Christian pacifists who contributed to freedom movements inside South Africa, and who advocated nonviolent approaches in the assault on systems of oppression everywhere.
The 1960s brought similar involvements on King’s part. Although his work through his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the ACOA, and the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA) are more widely known, he also endorsed and supported numerous organizations throughout the world that contributed financially, morally, and in other ways to freedom movements. King actually combined such activities with a powerful and consistent advocacy for world peace in pulpits throughout America and in other parts of the world. As far back as the late 1950s, he had called for the total eradication of war, and, by the early 1960s, had signed numerous statements with other liberal Americans condemning nuclear testing. By the time of his death in April, 1968, King had become completely convinced that the achievement of world peace and community hinged on the elimination of what he called “the world’s three greatest social evils”; namely, racism, poverty, and war. (See Part I, "All of God's Children: Toward a Global Vision.")
More specifics on how King sought to connect the civil rights movement with freedom struggles abroad would be helpful here in grasping the depth of his belief in global liberation, or what he called "a new world order." In July, 1957, King joined Eleanor Roosevelt and Bishop James A. Pike as initial sponsors, under the auspices of the ACOA, of the worldwide Declaration of Conscience, a document included in this volume. The declaration proclaimed December 10, 1957, Human Rights Day, as a day to protest against the organized inhumanity of the South African Government and its racial apartheid policies, and it urged churches, universities, trade unions, business and professional organizations, veteran groups, and members of all other free associations to devote the day to prayer, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent protest. The Declaration of Conscience, signed by 123 heads of state and religious leaders and scholars, actually symbolized, perhaps more than anything else, King’s efforts to establish links between the struggle in the American South and the black South African anti-apartheid cause.
In July, 1962, King and the black South African leader Albert J. Luthuli became co-sponsors, under the banner of the ACOA, of the worldwide Appeal for Action Against Apartheid, a declaration also included in this book. This crusade was in the nature of a follow-up to the global effort of 1957. King and Luthuli, both ministers and activists committed to nonviolence, had communicated with each other through the mail since the late 1950s, and, although they never met, they shared a commitment to the poor and the oppressed everywhere, or what King called “the least of these.” The Appeal for Action Against Apartheid called upon churches, unions, lodges, clubs, and other groups and associations to make December 10, 1962, Human Rights day, a day for meetings, protest, and prayer, and to urge their governments to push for the international isolation of South Africa through diplomatic and economic sanctions against that country. Aside from King and Luthuli, 150 social activists and religious and world leaders signed the appeal. At that same time, King and his SCLC were launching a major campaign to strike down the entire system of segregation in Albany, Georgia.
King’s strategy was to build a coalition of conscience in America while contributing to a larger, worldwide coalition of conscience to challenge racism internationally. He made major speeches on South African apartheid in England in December, 1964, while en route to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and at Hunter College in New York in December, 1965. In the 1964 speech, King highlighted the need for the release of imprisoned black South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, and challenged the world community, especially the United States and England, to withdraw all economic support for the South African regime, including the purchase of gold. Unfortunately, King's statements on the white supremacist policies and practices of the South African government at that time received little or no attention from major media sources in America and Europe.
In the 1965 speech, delivered after King and his coalition of conscience had spearheaded a successful voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, King reiterated the call for economic sanctions against South Africa, and he declared that “the potent nonviolent path” that had brought racial change in the U.S. and liberation to India and regions in Africa should be employed on a more global scale to defeat the forces of racism in South Africa and globally. The failure to respond creatively and constructively to racism as a world problem, said King in one of his last books, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), could only lead to a race war and perhaps the fall of Western civilization. Interestingly enough, King's call for economic sanctions would be echoed repeatedly in the 1980s, twenty years later, as the world grew less and less tolerant of the South African apartheid system.
In recent years, the United Nations has held a number of international conferences on racism, and this should also be a reminder of the timelessness of certain concerns that King raised around that issue. King recognized in his own time that the dialogue on race necessarily had to be reframed, far beyond but not neglecting black-white relations in the United States, and this need continues today. Predictions of the emergence of a post-racial America (and world) after the election of President Barack Obama have proven premature, and some scholars are now writing about the globalization of racism. King wrote of this phenomenon years ago, and his prescience and the continuing relevance of his insights need to be appreciated and better understood. (The documents included in Parts II and III, including "The Color Bar" and "Breaking the Bonds of Colonialism" have much to offer, regarding racist ideology and practices.)
King felt that the assault on world racism could not be successfully made without an equally powerful attack on poverty and economic injustice as international problems. From the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, which clearly had economic repercussions, King spoke of racism and economic injustice as perennial allies, but his most persistent, organized attack on the problems emerged in the mid and late 1960s. King led a nonviolent army against economic inequality and discrimination in real estate in Chicago in 1965-66, and Eugene Carson Blake and others in the National and World Council of Churches felt that the Chicago Freedom Movement might provide a model for attacking poverty on the international level. King and his SCLC continued the assault by organizing a Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, and by participating in a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in early 1968.
But King realized that blacks in America were not the only victims of poverty in the world. This mindset helps us understand his plan to intersect blacks, poor whites, Mexicans, Native Americans, and other racial and ethnic groups in the Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign he would not live to lead. This also accounted for his financial and moral support for liberation movements worldwide, and his devotion to an analysis of world poverty in his last two books: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?(1967) and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968). King's insights into and analysis of world poverty, and also his recommendations for attacking and eliminating the problem, still rank among the most penetrating and sophisticated on record.
King pointed out that two thirds of the world lived in grinding poverty, a problem that inevitably led to undernourishment, malnutrition, homelessness, the lack of health care, disease, and death. As King saw it, the population explosion merely exacerbated the problem. King called for "a radical redistribution" of the world’s economic and material resources, to feed the unfed, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, and to heal the sick. This all-out war against world poverty would also include, in his estimation, a sort of foreign aid program by which America, Canada, and wealthy nations in Western Europe would provide capital and technical assistance for underdeveloped countries. Mindful of how the Western powers had long exploited poor nations through systems of colonialism and neo-colonialism, King insisted that foreign aid be provided out of a sense of moral obligation, and not as just another gimmick for controlling poor and underdeveloped countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Almost a half century after King’s death, poverty and economic injustice are still the close companions of racism, and the gap that separate what King called the haves from the have-nots of the world has grown wider. The United Nations’ world food programs and foreign aid from wealthy nations have done little to end the problem. “The least of these” can still be found in every nation, including the United States and Western Europe. Coalitions of conscience that fight against poverty and economic exploitation, based on the model provided by King and SCLC in the Poor People’s Campaign, are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, the bankruptcy of the global economy is increasingly in the realm of the possibility. In such a world climate, there is still much to be learned from King about how individuals, social groups, and nations might work together to insure that people everywhere have adequate material resources and the basic necessities of life. (See documents in Part IV, Chapter 7.)
The same might be said of war and human destruction. As far back as the 1950s, King opposed war on moral and pragmatic grounds, and, by the early 1960s, had signed numerous statements with other liberal Americans condemning it as "the most colossal" of all social evils. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and to some extent before that time, King dismissed war as obsolete, maintaining that all violence was ultimately irrational, immoral, and self-defeating. He used the Vietnam conflict to drive home his point about the evils of war, pointing especially to the unnecessary slaughter of the Vietnamese people and the destruction of their homes, places of worship, and rice fields. From 1965 until his assassination in 1968, King consistently denounced what he termed America’s misadventure in Vietnam in the pulpits of churches and during peace demonstrations in the streets of America. King felt that it was his moral duty as a prophet and as "a citizen of the world" to do so. His most celebrated speech on the subject, “A Time to Break Silence,” was delivered at the historic Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his murder. In the late 1960s, King also turned once again to a coalition of conscience, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALC), to more effectively address Vietnam and the problem of war generally. Some of King’s most powerful addresses on war were printed and circulated through CALC in the late sixties, among which were “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam” and “Beyond Vietnam.” (These and other documents on war and peace issues comprise Part V, Chapter 8, and clearly speak to the maturation of King's nonviolent ethic over time.)
King’s anti-war witness and crusade is desperately needed in a contemporary world in which war is still too often glorified, and in which humans are haunted by sectarian warfare in Iraq, organized torture and terrorism, ethnic cleansings, genocide, religiously-based violence, political assassinations, and the cycles of violence, repression, and reprisal in the Middle East. No one recalls King’s suggestion that “the arms race” be replaced by “the peace race,” and the United Nations, which King saw as a giant step in the direction of nonviolence on an international scale, seems woefully inadequate as the world’s peacemaking and peacekeeping force. King once observed, in a moment of stern prophecy, that humanity must put an end to war, or war will put an end to humanity. These words still represent the voice of reason in the midst of human folly. King’s suggestion that nations move beyond an intellectual analysis of nonviolence to a practical application of this method in their relations with each other may seem political naïve, but it is morally sound.
For those who honor King’s legacy, the struggle today should be geared toward a culture of peace that goes beyond international conflict to address conflict between individuals and groups. King knew that criminal violence, psychological violence, domestic violence, and other types of violence, when considered jointly, could possibly pose as much of a threat to world community and peace as war. Pedophilia, sexism, and homophobia have become metaphors for violence between individuals and groups today. Thus, we are compelled also to revisit King’s call for nonviolence in interpersonal and inter-group relations.
In setting forth his vision of living in “the world house,” King did not ignore the need to address religious bigotry and intolerance. He called for a fresh ecumenical and interfaith spirit, or for a spirit of mutual respect, understanding, dialogue, and cooperation between Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and peoples of other faith traditions. King marched, sang, and prayed with Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in civil rights campaigns in the United States; he united with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, African traditionalists, and people of other faiths in putting forth and signing appeals and declarations against racial oppression, poverty and economic exploitation, and wars of aggression. King also signed statements lamenting the treatment of Jews in Russia, and Christians and other people of faith in a number of Communist countries. Indeed, he left a glowing legacy of respect for other religions, ideologies, and cultures, seeing in them tremendous possibilities for learning and personal growth. (This is evident from even a casual reading of the King documents in Part VI, Chapter 9.)
Religious bigotry and intolerance accounts for the anti-Islamic, anti-Arab sensibilities in much of our society today, and this is leading to increasing attacks against Muslims and their institutions. The problem is indeed worldwide, often exploding in violence between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, Hindus and Christians in India, Hindus and Muslims in Pakistan, and different factions of Muslims in Iraq. King’s insistence that all people of faith are children of God, and that there is more truth in all religions combined than in any one religion, is food for thought in this world of religious conflict. He understood that religious conflict would remain inevitable as long as some in the world's faith communities parade as if they have a monopoly on truth.
Significantly, King saw "the new world order" coming into being in his lifetime, but he also understood that there were still barriers that had to be transcended before his ideal could find full realization. King wrote and said a lot about both the external (i.e., racism, poverty and economic injustice, war, religious bigotry and intolerance) and internal barriers (i.e., fear, ignorance, greed, hatred) to world community and peace, and, as noted earlier, he highlighted the significance of worldwide coalitions of conscience in striking down such barriers.
The material here extends from 1954 to 1968, and illustrates how King's world vision expanded and matured over time, resulting in a more enlightened and explicit globalism. I trust this book will lead to a new appreciation for the global King and his relevance in the emergence and shaping of the modern world. “In a Single Garment of Destiny” shows his influence on liberation struggles worldwide, and proves that he continues to inform what it means to live, to be human, and to relate to others in this pluralistic world.