Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Global Scholar and Activist

I do not own the license/copyright to the visual material below. It is used for research purposes and not solely for personal gain. This post comes directly from my research binder and recent research that I’ve published.

How much do we know about MLK? How many of us have actually read his books?

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Britain. This picture is downloaded from the original article in The Guardian.

In the 1960s, London was experiencing tense racial upheaval. People from the Caribbean of African descent, English-speaking Africans, and English-speaking Asians began pouring into the city’s ports shortly after World War II. This crowd, though, was different from other crowds of the Commonwealth’s citizens. They were not mostly students on scholarship: they were common laborers looking to earn a new living. They had also been turned away from the United States as it was gripped in an era of McCarthyism, paranoia, and racial violence that was broadcast all over the world. Ellis Island, at the time, was not a beacon of freedom, but a makeshift jail and deportation site for immigrants suspected of Communist leanings. Even the great African-Caribbean scholar, C.L.R. James, was imprisoned there for over a year.

When Commonwealth citizens arrived at the metropole, these immigrants were met with racism and xenophobia. Many of them, like Una Marson (who had arrived much earlier) had never experienced race-based discrimination before (perhaps class and skin-color discrimination, but that is another post). By the 1950s, ghettos had been created for people of African descent, and conservative law-makers were arguing that the mother country should close her borders. The press ramped up this rhetoric against immigrants, and Britons began to follow suit with job discrimination. In 1958, politically motivated racial violence reached a crescendo: white laborers attacked an area known to house immigrants -specifically African-Caribbean immigrants -in Notting Hill. Beginning on 24 August 1958, white youths began assaulting African-Caribbean immigrants in separate incidents. It quickly descended into mob violence lasting two weeks with immigrants of African descent turning to arms in order to defend themselves.

In 1962, the British Parliament passed the Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act, effectively closing the borders of the metropole to all of those of African, East Indian, and Asian heritage (Europeans with white skin still came, of course). This act effectively created the Black British citizens who would be born there after 1962. There were no more Black immigrants of the rapidly-shrinking (that’s another post, too) Commonwealth allowed.

It was into this racially-charged atmosphere across the Atlantic that Dr. King landed. Early in 1964, Dr. King passed through London on his way to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. While we are now seeing images of King at famous landmarks around the city, we know less about his activities with Black Britons. In 1964, Activist Claudia Jones escorted Dr. King to the African Unity House, where students had organized the Movement for Colonial Freedom.

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Claudia Jones, founding editor of the newspaper, West Indian Gazette, which she ran with Amy Jacques Garvey. She was one of the first Black feminists to advocate for Communism in the United States, and later move to the UK because of McCarthyism. This photo is downloaded from 100 Great Black Britons.

By the end of 1964, activist and newspaper editor Claudia Jones died two days before her 50th birthday, and Dr. King returned to London. This time, Dr. King encouraged the students to continue an organization that Jones started: the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD). King not only talked to public audiences in London about racial discrimination in America, he also challenged the students, in a separate meeting at the end of 1964, to do something about the discrimination that they were experiencing via daily interactions and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Britain’s conservative politicians. Jones had given them a framework, and King challenged the students to build upon her legacy of indefatigable activism for racial equality. Jones used every method available to her: writing, speaking, and protest. Her example was a fitting one to the young students and artists.

In the United States, we do not learn of King’s international influence. We barely learn American history, African American history is optional (if it is taught at all in most primary and secondary schools), and the view of it is parochial and simplistic at best. History, particularly Black history, is often reduced to one person, one act, or one speech (Lord, if I hear that Rosa Parks was simply a seamstress whose feet got tired one more time!). It is important that in the United States, we view African American leaders as global leaders and thinkers. People like Claudia Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and Malcolm X were not just emotional speech-givers to American crowds. They were aggressive intellectuals (by that, I mean they were not intellectual prima donnas who were content to criticize the efforts of younger activists) who saw white supremacy as a global problem and often linked African American conditions to those suffering under colonial rule. They were able to talk with people from the smallest towns in the South (Yes, Malcolm X visited the South), manage hostile interviews in the press (Malcolm X became the master of the soundbite over 50 years ago), and deliver lectures to large audiences in global cities like London and France while on their way to look at colonial conditions in Africa. And they were ordinary human beings with families! They were able to accomplish extraordinary things by looking to the human condition and things that unite us rather than those that separate us.

In the 21st century, it is imperative that we seek the commonalities between Black populations rather than harp on the divergences produced by language, religion, and geography. Without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even television at first, King, X, Jones, Garvey, and Baldwin could do it. Why can’t we? Further, the metanarratives that we create around King tend to simplify his worldview. Metanarratives are commonly-accepted views and/or theories about a text or historical events. When we keep to our metanarratives, we run the risk of oversimplifying people, moments, and even speeches. Dr. King was more than a line from a speech. He was a theologian, versed in the Eastern and Western religious thought of his day. The man authored five books. How many of us sit down to read them? I am ashamed to say this, but I have not read one.

This year, I challenge myself to break out of metanarratives. I will start with King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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