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Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Opinion | What Martin Luther King would’ve asked of America

He would have recognized the dangers to his dream posed by a poor grasp of ethical and moral principles

The death of an unarmed African-American man at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, which unleashed a wave of protests across the US, is a reminder of the decades of White prejudice and practice of institutional racism against African-Americans. Nearly 30 years ago, Rodney King was a victim of American police brutality in Los Angeles. The murder of George Floyd is the latest tragic expression of a commonplace racism in everyday America. But when it comes to race relations, rioting, looting and burning do not provide positive and long-term answers to the structural problem of violence in the US and beyond. Martin Luther King, Jr. was well aware of this issue when he became the most important leader of America’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

King’s struggle for social equality and desegregation was never separated from his practice of non-violence. King’s review and reconstruction of Christian love, as a strong argument for racial emancipation, gave support to his integrationist principle of non-violent revolution. Throughout his permanent philosophical dialogue with the intellectual origins of non-violence, King challenged the social and political injustice of American society with ideas and values that met the demands of contemporary humanism and inclusive emancipation. King saw more clearly than anyone else among his contemporaries how segregation and US democracy were contradictory. He committed himself to the Gandhian principle of satyagraha (soul force) as a principle of action. His recognition of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence helped him in his campaigns for integration and voting rights. Thus, after reading Gandhi’s writings and travelling to India, King became one of his greatest disciples, by embracing the principle of non-violence as a method of struggle for the emancipation of African-Americans. Moreover, Gandhi’s non-violence completed King’s faith in Christianity. Accordingly, King saw the African-American non-violent movement as an effort to democratize American democracy, but he also tried to bring a fresh meaning to it by formulating his own dream as that of desegregation and solidarity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the right leader at the right moment, not because he was a dreamer, but because he was also a drum major for reconciliation and social harmony. The genius of King was his ability to put together the two messages of Gandhi and Jesus Christ, but also to put an end to the age-old tension between ethics and politics. King’s spiritual humanism was a message of both ethical and political commitments: commitment to take responsibility for exclusion and injustice in America, and also for what was happening in the world. King thereby laid the foundation for a revolution of values in American society, as also for our world, beyond the ideals and actions of any other American of his generation. As such, he created a new image of America, that of compassion and justice, which could overcome its evils of arrogance, pride and prejudice.

The tragic murder of George Floyd and the violence that followed shows that we are short of moral leaders in the US and in our world. As the ongoing pandemic and its economic consequences show us, democratic communities around the world seem to be tragically unprepared to jointly address the growing global challenges. Without leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, people around the world are living on a daily basis with political leaders and economic decision-makers who rarely ever function as a moral compass or pole star to guide them into a future shrouded with uncertainties. What America would have needed right now was not a Donald Trump, a president whose leadership has earned questionable moral capital, but an ethically legitimate leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., who would understand that America’s choice, as that of our post-pandemic world, “is no more between violence and non-violence, but between non-violence and non-existence". King had immense faith in human interconnectedness as a cure for American arrogance and for war and violence. In his view, it was disunity and indifference that were causing discrimination, injustice and human poverty. He held that through human solidarity, one could convert individual weakness into strength. The idea of “cosmic companionship" is located in the interactions of the oppressed and their oppressors, African-Americans and Whites, East and West, rural and urban, and tradition and modernity, and it contains the seeds of cosmopolitanism. Instead of pitting American patriotism and cosmopolitanism against each other, King showed how one grows out of the other.

It is very likely that King would not have supported the way globalization has been led by big corporations and according to the logic of international financial institutions and other big players, which brings few if any benefits to the poor. But he would have assuredly supported the non-violent struggle of people against authoritarianism and neo-colonialism around the world. He would not have joined those who acted violently around the US after the death of George Floyd, but he would have helped win a democracy for his country by protesting peacefully and non-violently, and perhaps inviting Americans to vote against Trump in the upcoming US election. For him, democracy was more than a piece of paper, because human dignity mattered.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is executive director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Non-violence and Peace Studies, Jindal Global Law School

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