Martin Luther King Jr.: A Voice and Force in International Affairs

Elliott School forum highlighted the participation and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. in the global community.

ESIA MLK International Influence
Robert M. Franklin, Council of Foreign Relations member, and Marcus King, director of GW's international affairs master’s program, spoke about Martin Luther King Jr.’s international influence at the Elliott School. (William Atkins/GW Today).
January 17, 2019

By Tatyana Hopkins

The dramatic shift of global power that occurred with the dropping of the first atomic bombs during World War II sent Martin Luther King Jr., then a sophomore in college, on a trajectory to become an international symbol for peace and equality decades later, said Robert M. Franklin, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“After these bombs were released, American public intellectuals and moralists began to opine on this new capacity for human destructiveness,” Dr. Franklin said.

According to Dr. Franklin, among the most important influences on Dr. King was Benjamin E. Mays, then-president of his undergraduate alma mater, Morehouse College. “[Mays] began to focus on this turning point to demonstrate how science and technology are ahead of human capacities to alleviate suffering, hunger, disease and deprivation,” he said.

Dr. Franklin, a former president of Morehouse and professor of theology and social justice, spoke Wednesday at the Elliott School of International Affairs at a forum about Martin Luther King Jr.’s views and influence on the international community.

Marcus King, director of the Elliott School’s international affairs master’s program, moderated the event. “[Dr. King] applied an ethical framework of compassion and nonviolence to his theories and action in the international community,” he said.

While much is known about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “role as a champion for domestic civil rights,” Marcus King said, little is known of his efforts to organize around international affairs such as apartheid in South Africa, his views on capitalism and communism or his resilient opposition to the Vietnam War.

Dr. Franklin said that during the time Dr. King was an undergraduate—in the 1940s—studying overseas was uncommon among “the vast majority of American undergraduates.”

Consequently, he said, Dr. King discovered the world vicariously through an extensive roster of speakers who visited Morehouse’s chapel, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Howard University’s first African American president Mordecai Wyatt Johnson.

“A number of national and international thought leaders came to speak at that relatively small chapel and exposed people like young [Dr.] King to an extraordinary array of ideas about the larger world,” Dr. Franklin said.

Although Dr. King’s personal travels did not begin until more than 10 years after the “rich intellectual exposure during his college chapel days” and after he had become a national celebrity following the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, his study of the larger world informed the development of a diagnostic tool that included “three evils…that threatened the human condition:” racism, poverty and violence.

He said this tool enabled Dr. King to “identify and illuminate major threats to democracy and human fulfillment” and shaped his message of a “collective effort of respecting the equal dignity of all people” through sharing prosperity and practicing nonviolence.

Dr. King’s first international trip was in 1957 amid his growing stature as a leader in the modern civil rights movement and an emerging number of newly-independent countries in Asia and Africa, where he visited Ghana, Liberia and Senegal.

Dr. Franklin said the voyage was symbolic of a growing alliance of the world’s oppressed people and broadening of the scope of the civil rights struggle in the United States on the heels of the successful boycott.

“[Dr. King] recognized the strong parallel between resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the struggle against racism in the United States,” Dr. Franklin said.

Following his visit to those West African countries, Dr. King toured Europe and South America. Then, in 1959, he took a month-long excursion to India, where Mahatma Gandhi had led a nonviolent independence movement against British rule through the beginning of the 20th century.  

He said Dr. King continued to align himself with others engaged in the struggle for freedom and opportunity and learned and shared new approaches to social change from the developing nations fighting against colonialism and imperialism.  

“Gandhi was long gone, as he had been assassinated in 1948, but many in the world were beginning to regard young King as the new and emerging symbol of international nonviolence, persistence and social change,” Dr. Franklin said.

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