The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech marks the progress of civil rights worldwide.
by Dinesh Sharma
Was Martin Luther King Jr., the icon of the civil rights movement, aware of his ‘global impact’? Did he anticipate that he would develop a world-wide following in a short span of time, spawning other movements for social justice around the world? Importantly, did King use this ‘global awareness’ to put pressure on the U.S. government through media and other means of communication to push for the passage of the civil rights laws?
Steve Spence, who studies media and communication, has argued recently that King made the explicit connection between the larger social and technological forces stemming from the modern “jet-age”, today called “cultural globalization,” and the spread of the civil rights movement. Delivered on May 21, 1961, at a rally in support of Freedom Riders, King opened with a rhetorical flourish:
The words that I will utter tonight were written this morning as I flew at an altitude of 38,000 feet on a jet plane from New York to Atlanta, Georgia. As that gigantic instrument stretched its wings through the air like an eagle and moved smoothly toward its destination, many thoughts ran through my mind. On the one hand I thought of how the technological developments of the United States had brought the nation and the world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. I thought of how our scientific genius had helped us to dwarf distance and place time in chains. I thought of how we had carved highways through the stratosphere and how our jetplanes had compressed into minutes distances that once took days. On the other hand I thought of that brutal mob in Alabama and the reign of terror that had engulfed Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery. I thought of the tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man that still exist in certain sections of our country. I could not help being concerned about this glaring contrast, this tragic gulf. Through our scientific and technological developments we have lifted our heads to the skies and yet our feet are still firmly planted in the muck of barbarism and racial hatred. Indeed this is America’s chief moral dilemma. And unless the Nation grapples with this dilemma forthrightly and firmly, she will be relegated to a second rate power in the world. The price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro is the price of its own destruction. America’s greatest defense against communism is to take the offense for justice, freedom, and human dignity.
In just a few lines, King internationalized the fight for civil rights at home by linking it with the fight against communism abroad, embracing the Freedom Riders as patriots. Within two years, he would lead the March on Washington, and the rest, as they say, was history. King’s words delivered 50 years ago on Aug 28, 1963, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., have echoed through time and space. For new immigrants, who migrated to the U.S. after the passage of the immigration act of 1963, these words …
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