Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Age of “America First”
Today, April 4, is the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also the 50th anniversary of his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.
I wrote a piece about Dr. King and international law over a decade ago on Opinio Juris. I thought it would be interesting to revise and expand that earlier post and consider MLK’s views about world order once again, but now in the era of the Trump Administration (as well as the rise of nationalistic popular movements in many countries). What to make of “Beyond Vietnam” in the age of “America First?”
King’s voice was not the voice of an international lawyer, but of a pastor. He didn’t parse treaties; he invoked morality. Nonetheless, there is something in Dr. King’s rhetoric and in his argument that can inform and engage the work of international lawyers. This is not to fall into Utopianism but to see how moral and political rhetoric interacts with our practice.
Of course, part of the contrast is that President Trump tries to make everything sound like a real estate deal while Dr. King spoke with the voice of a pastor, which some would dismiss as prophetic rather than pragmatic. But this would miss, I think, how MLK’s words from fifty years ago apply to the challenges we have before us today.
Martin Luther King put himself in the shoes of others and spoke eloquently about their claims for justice. This technique of looking at the world from the standpoint of others is all the more vital when we are discussing laws or norms that we claim should be applied across national and cultural borders. It is absolutely fundamental in any attempt to resolve a sectarian conflicts in the struggle to support human rights of under-represented communities around the world. Consider, for example, how Dr. King referred to the people of Vietnam in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered on April 4th, 1967:
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologoies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
Not so much a battle for the hearts and minds, but an attempt to understand hearts and minds. He asks us to “appreciate the reciprocal”: think of how the world would look from the standpoint of the average man or woman living in Vietnam. Rather than demonizing the other, take time to understand why they do what they do. And that “why” is not answered by a simple “they hate us,” but digging deeper, understanding motivations, and responding effectively. That is the real art of the deal.
Towards the end of his speech, Dr. King expands from the concerns of U.S. policy in Vietnam to the challenge of building not so much a “New World Order,” but a “Just World Order.” He argues that truly appreciating the reciprocal, this radical compassion on the individual level, leads to institutional transformation:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values…
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
While full of references to the problems of the day (the Communist threat; whether to seat “Red China” in the U.N.), Dr. King still gives us a lesson for our day. Keep in mind that he had spoken these words after the demise the previous “America First” movement. He argued that we should see ourselves in the other and that many rights are universal and not the preserve of Western societies. But, at the same time, he counseled humility in international discourse and an openness to learning from others, rather than on insisting that we in “the West” can only be teachers. He emphasized showing what a rights-based view of humanity had to offer, rather than simply criticizing the world-view of others. While Trump’s rhetoric is that the world is a zero-sum game and we are losing, King framed interactions across cultures as the possibility of using discussion as a way to enhance mutual understanding, transform relationships, and build norms.
Dr. King spoke in the voice of a preacher. There’s much good in what he said and some that may not seem practical to us today. But, at the very least, he provided a coherent world view that wasn’t so much within international law as encompassing it. And, ahem, MLK had the best words.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.
As an international lawyer, I read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Beyond Vietnam” and think not only about how far we’ve come, but about how far we have to go.