We all know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the civil rights and anti-discrimination movement in the United States and we admire him as a hero of Gandhian style non-violence and civil disobedience. But as we celebrate his memory and life today, we have to ask ourselves: What is Dr. King’s impact outside the U.S.? How has he affected the international human rights movement?

Dr. King’s legacy as an international thinker and leader is underestimated. It might not be well known that he clearly connected  his domestic fight for equality to international concerns such as poverty and war. His anti-imperialist and anti-colonial teachings, moral appeal for political and social transformation, and activism against racism, capitalist exploitation, and violence make him a leader whose lessons transcend domestic boundaries. For example, in his Nobel Lecture  he discusses the impact of the American civil rights movement on struggles for liberty and equality in the rest of the world: “In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development…. What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…. All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land.” More concretely, he spoke out against apartheid in South Africa in 1960 believing that the apartheid regime was “the world’s worst racism.”

Dr. King and the civil rights movement had a considerable impact on the development of international law. The adoption of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the first human rights treaty after Genocide Convention 1948, was clearly affected by Dr. King’s teachings and the civil rights movement in the United States. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time linked the domestic struggle for racial equality with the U.S. support of the treaty by describing the treaty to be “completely with the policy of my government and the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of our citizens.” And as Roger Alford points out, the CERD created momentum for adoption of the two major human rights treaties in 1966, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The need for international human rights and justice  is probably best expressed in Dr. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam”.  In this speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, he unites the protest against civil injustices with the protest against a policy of violence and domination abroad. As analyzed by Law Professor Henry Richardson III,  Dr. King argued that American foreign policy and domestic policy must be consistent with regards to rights and justice. The U.S. cannot “support overseas oppression while supporting equal justice at home” (p. 475) because peace and justice at home and abroad are indivisibly linked. To bring justice and end global poverty both civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights are needed. His compassion for the vulnerable, oppressed and poor went far beyond the U.S.’ borders.

In the words of Dr. King, “we must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” Had he lived a longer life, his impact on the international human rights movement would have been just as exceptional as his leadership of the domestic civil rights struggle.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.