Martin Luther King Jr.’s Forgotten Foreign-Policy Vision

Commemorations of the civil rights icon often overlook his transnational conception of racial justice.

By , a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Martin Luther King Jr. walks with other activists during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York on March 16, 1967.
Martin Luther King Jr. walks with other activists during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York on March 16, 1967.
Martin Luther King Jr. walks with other activists during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York on March 16, 1967. AFP via Getty Images

The dust never really settled in the debate over how to remember Martin Luther King Jr. Those who wished to make his birthday a holiday eventually prevailed, but the argument exposed how contentious issues touching on racial justice could be. Most recently, Juneteenth—commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black Texans belatedly learned that the Civil War was over and they had been emancipated—has been made a federal holiday.

The decision to commemorate this event, taken amid substantial opposition to studying how slavery and race have impacted U.S. history, demonstrates that the discussion is far from over. There is yet another aspect of King’s life and career that is often lost in the domestic controversy about commemoration: his abiding interest in foreign affairs.

While a quickly accelerating civil rights movement absorbed the attention of most African Americans in the 1950s, King, like many others, was keenly aware of the demands for decolonization in other parts of the world. He attended the 1957 independence celebration in Ghana and in subsequent speeches and writings condemned the racism underlying both colonialism and Jim Crow laws.

The dust never really settled in the debate over how to remember Martin Luther King Jr. Those who wished to make his birthday a holiday eventually prevailed, but the argument exposed how contentious issues touching on racial justice could be. Most recently, Juneteenth—commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black Texans belatedly learned that the Civil War was over and they had been emancipated—has been made a federal holiday.

The decision to commemorate this event, taken amid substantial opposition to studying how slavery and race have impacted U.S. history, demonstrates that the discussion is far from over. There is yet another aspect of King’s life and career that is often lost in the domestic controversy about commemoration: his abiding interest in foreign affairs.

While a quickly accelerating civil rights movement absorbed the attention of most African Americans in the 1950s, King, like many others, was keenly aware of the demands for decolonization in other parts of the world. He attended the 1957 independence celebration in Ghana and in subsequent speeches and writings condemned the racism underlying both colonialism and Jim Crow laws.

As King traveled home from Accra, a London meeting with the Pan-Africanist intellectual C.L.R. James exposed him to trends circulating throughout the African diaspora. Ghana’s road to nationhood suggested to him that peaceful transitions to independence were possible. King took that faith with him in 1959 when he traveled to India to visit disciples of Mahatma Gandhi and place a wreath at Gandhi’s memorial.

Ideas that King had developed at home influenced his instructions to those who sought his advice. In 1959, King corresponded with a young Angolan woman, Deolinda Rodrigues Francisco de Almeida, who was living in Brazil but subsequently came to the United States to study briefly at Drew University.  She then left to work with refugees in Congo. King told her that Angolans should create a leader or leaders to “stand as a symbol for your independence movement. As soon as your symbol is set up,” he counseled, “it is not difficult to get people to follow, and the more the oppressor seeks to stop and defeat the symbol, the more it solidifies the movement.” He sent Rodrigues a copy of his book Stride Toward Freedom.

King’s suggestions reflect how he thought about activism at the time: He recommended a leader-centered movement based on recouping civil rights, a strategy that had partial success in United States and that he hoped would produce results against apartheid and colonialism. Rodrigues returned to Angola and joined the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, ascending to the leadership circle and organizing Angolan women. She was tragically tortured and executed by pro-Portuguese forces in 1967. The struggle in which she enlisted differed vastly from what King had prescribed and raised doubts for some about the efficacy of nonviolent action.

For King, the implicit violence of the Cold War posed an obstacle to achieving a just world order. “In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere,” he declared at a 1959 meeting of the pacifist War Resisters League, “nobody can win a war. Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Peace as a Cold War issue also surfaced in decolonization initiatives in the 1950s. Would the former colonies join with the West or with the Soviet bloc? Would superpower hostilities engulf Africa and Asia? France and Portugal were loath to give up their extraterritorial possessions, although colonialism was a net deterrent to a secure Western alliance. As long as colonized peoples were governed against their will, claims to moral authority and democratic integrity would be resisted by oppressed peoples and challenged by enemies of the West.

Talking about peace in the United States in the 1950s was often viewed suspiciously, but some perceived it as a prerequisite for the future development of newly independent states. Among them were activists who believed that nonviolent strategies and tactics could prevail against colonial domination. Both the Defiance Campaign, launched in 1952 by Black and Indian South Africans to fight apartheid, and the 1959 march across the Sahara to the French atomic facility in the Algerian desert attested to this view.

The Sahara marchers placed the Algerian revolutionary cause alongside the ecological threat that a nuclear presence in Africa posed. The intractability of colonial powers deprived advocates of nonviolent disobedience of evidence that their approach would work, however, and by the mid-1960s many national liberation organizations had declared their embrace of armed struggle.

His domestic priorities meant that King could often only lend his moral authority to challenging racism and colonialism in Africa. The Algerian revolutionary Ahmed Ben Bella had sought his counsel during a visit to the United States in 1962. King issued a joint call for sanctions against South Africa with the anti-apartheid leader Chief Albert Luthuli on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 1962. He requested permission to testify before the United Nations Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid but was unable to make a timely appearance.

In his acceptance of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, King gave a speech in Oslo, Norway, that led off with references to the convulsive violence occurring in the American South. He reaffirmed his refusal “to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.” He paid tribute to Luthuli’s fight and that of nameless others against apartheid.

Early in 1965, an editor of Ebony magazine asked civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to give him some pointers on how to present Martin Luther King Jr. as a world leader on issues of race. Rustin responded that King’s influence was demonstrated by how frequently groups abroad solicited his help and opinion. These included an international committee working on behalf of South African political prisoners, a trade unionist and academics from the Caribbean inviting him to speak about poverty, and Indian and Pakistani residents of the United Kingdom whom he had urged to work together. King had also met in London with members of both houses of Parliament.

King held onto his hopes for peaceful change in the face of revolutionary war and an emerging international Black Power movement. Although on the defensive about this stance, he never refrained from harsh criticism of racism and imperialism. Invited to Newcastle University in the United Kingdom to receive an honorary degree in 1967, King arrived after a brief jail stint in Alabama. His Newcastle speech presented a distinctly transnational view of oppression. “There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today,” he informed the audience. “That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty, and the problem of war.”

King understood how the Vietnam War undermined the quest for poverty relief, full employment, and racial justice.

King’s opposition to the Vietnam War is perhaps his best-known legacy as an international statesman. His stated disapproval began soon after the Lyndon B. Johnson administration committed combat troops to Vietnam but became unequivocally official in an April 1967 sermon at New York’s Riverside Church. The United States, he held, could not continue to demand nonviolence of African Americans in the face of the bloody conflict it was conducting in Southeast Asia. It could not demand military service of people who could not vote.

King understood how the war undermined the quest for poverty relief, full employment, and racial justice. Efforts to unite those concerns under the banner of a coalescing multiracial and cross-class anti-war movement broke his frayed ties to the Johnson White House. Mainstream commentators harshly criticized King’s increasingly assertive anti-establishment role, but his stance was consistent with the tenets he had espoused all along.

The achievement of a just and prosperous society through peaceful transition was a goal that King was unable to realize in his lifetime. Today, authoritarianism and mass disinformation threaten to overwhelm fragile democratic institutions at home and abroad.

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis in which he alerted his listeners that “something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today,” he intoned, “whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same—‘We want to be free.’” That resounding message has not changed.

Brenda Gayle Plummer is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.