Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an International Human Rights Leader

16 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2007

See all articles by Henry J. Richardson

Henry J. Richardson

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law


We see Dr. King as a civil rights leader, but he was also an international human rights leader. Many people view these as two separate discourses: civil rights vs. human rights. Dr. King insisted that they comprise the same irreplaceable rights discourse. He did so against the enormous negative power of cold war thinking in America. His work is lodged firmly in the Black International Tradition, the origins of which predate the Constitution.

His human rights leadership emerged in the movement against South African apartheid in the 1960's, was accelerated by his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, grew more prominent when he began to oppose the Vietnam War in 1965, and reached its apex in doctrine in his great Beyond Vietnam speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967. It continued as he planned a national march against poverty, and moved in other ways to emphasize economic rights as human rights co-equal with political and civil rights, as he was doing when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. King borrowed from and was influenced in his work and non-violent principles by the international work of DuBois, Mohandas Ghandi in India, Paul Robeson and Philip Randolph. Dr. King not only fused the discourses of civil and human rights, and in turn linked them to the international peace movement, but in so doing projected an African American alternative approach to international relations and international law, based on non-violence and a profound clear-sighted love of humans and humanity. In doing so he borrowed from Grotius and natural law doctrine and repudiated international relations doctrines based on balance of power, raison d'etat, and innate sovereign hostility. His impact has extended to the present anti-war movement against the Iraq invasion, in several ways, particularly in that movement's global coordination in his name on his birthday in 2003. In his Riverside Church speech Dr. King answered the question of the role of the United States as the hyper-power in the international community, by projecting a framework for assessing its moral responsibility to the world's peoples, to first care for the least of those peoples, under its own best traditions.

If Dr. King were alive today at age 76, he would challenge America and its actions in its war on terrorism, based on his Riverside Church principles. I interpret how King might have applied and spoken on his principles in response to present circumstances. He might have continued to demand the elimination of the unified "Triplets" of racism, materialism, and militarism, by America shifting from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society, and seen this shift as the foundation of the best defense against terrorism. Further discussion develops this interpretation.

The prominent historian of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch, concluded that the ferocity of negative response which followed King's Riverside Church speech denied him the power to be heard at all, and relegated Blacks back to the back of the bus on these questions. It was made clear that Blacks had no standing to mediate between the powerful and the dispossessed. King upheld for the United States a supreme but imperfect commitment to democratic norms, which could be supported but not imposed in Vietnam, but he demanded America grant the Vietnamese the elemental respect of citizens in disagreement. I believe Dr. King would speak similarly today.

Keywords: Martin Luther King, Jr., Love in International Relations, war against terror, militarism, materialism, racism, African American international tradition, Vietnam and international law, Vietnam and Civil Rights, morality in US foreign policy, indivisibility of race and foreign policy

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Richardson, Henry J., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an International Human Rights Leader. Villanova Law Review, Vol. 52, p. 471, 2007, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2007-19, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1017143

Henry J. Richardson (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

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