When my father-in-law, Martin Luther King Sr., visited Eastern Europe in 1978, one of the most emotional moments of his journey came during a ceremony unveiling a large bust of his son in Debrecen, Hungary. He was moved, not so much by the ceremony and the bust as by the beautiful church named for Martin Luther King Jr. that stood in the background.
When they pulled the cover off the sculpture, he said, "I wish I could see him alive, alive in the hearts of all people, regardless of their race or creed."
After the ceremony, Daddy King was told that the church was one of several in Hungary named for his son. Indeed, nations and cities all over the world have named public and private facilities for Martin Luther King Jr. On Jan. 20, for example, the city of Calcutta will rename one of its major streets in his honor. There is also a forest in Israel, a plaza in Sweden, a public-housing development in Panama and a museum in Delhi, to name just a few. You can find schools, hospitals and organizations named for him throughout Asia, Latin America and Europe as well as the United States. In a sense, the hope that Daddy King expressed in Debrecen is being fulfilled.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. is widely remembered for his leadership of the nonviolent civil-rights movement in the United States, he was also deeply concerned about human rights around the world. He strongly opposed the arms race, as well as U.S. support of corrupt dictatorships in Vietnam, South Africa and Latin America. Some of those who had a vested interest in the arms race and U.S. support of those regimes criticized Martin's outspokenness on human rights as helping communist movements. But he had a much more practical approach to challenging communism.
"Our greatest defense against communism is to take affirmative action in behalf of justice," he said. "We must seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice, which are the fertile seeds in which communism develops."
He shared Mahatma Gandhi's belief that a strategy of active nonviolence was the best hope for the victims of colonialism and racism. In the case of South Africa, the policy of economic sanctions that he advocated two decades ago is finally beginning to be implemented. In a 1965 speech at a benefit for the American Committee for Africa, he called for strong economic sanctions against apartheid. "Have we the power to be more than peevish with South Africa, yet refrain from acts of war?" he asked. "To list the extensive economic relations of the great powers with South Africa is to suggest a potent nonviolent path. . . . The time has come to fully utilize nonviolence through a massive international boycott."
In 1967 he published his fifth book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?," in which he outlined a bold strategy for world peace. In the concluding chapter, titled "The World House," he likened the predicament of humanity to that of "a family unduly separated by ideas, culture and interest, who must somehow learn to live with each other in peace." He wrote of the dazzling scientific and technological achievements that were beginning to unfold in stark contrast to our moral and spiritual progress--a gap that he believed must be closed if humanity is to survive this century.
"The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. 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. . . . 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 men . . . that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life."
In keeping with this faith, and in support of the U.N. International Year of Peace, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is calling for a day of world peace on Jan. 20, the first American national holiday commemorating Martin's birthday. We're calling on liberation movements and conflicting parties around the world to celebrate his life and work by suspending hostilities, if only for a day.
This is an ambitious challenge, and one that will no doubt be greeted with a predictable measure of cynicism in some quarters. If a single life is saved because of it, however, nothing would be more redemptive.