The legacy of Martin Luther King: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. linked the struggle for freedom and equality of the Afro-Americans to the struggles for the same goals of other people around the world.

On 4 April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee, where he planned to lead a protest march. The powerful voice of Dr. King was silenced, but almost fifty years later, his ideas are still a source of inspiration for people who seek peace and justice. Israel claims to have a special relation with the legacy of Dr. King.

Every year it marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a United States holiday, with a special session in parliament. And the Consulate General of Israel in New York together with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish National Fund, pays a yearly tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King by honoring an individual who embodies his spirit and ideals. [1] Dr. King’s legacy of his speeches and writings contain clear messages for everyone who wants to work towards justice and peace. How serious is the Israeli government about the legacy of Dr. King?

King placed the struggle against injustice in a broad context

President Jimmy Carter presents the Medal of Freedom to Corretta Scott King, posthumously to her slain husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

Martin Luther King inspired hundreds of thousands of people in the United States into actions against racism, to end poverty, and for peace. Early December 1955, he led the first great non-violent protests of Afro-Americans in a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott lasted 382 days and ended after the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public buses was unconstitutional. In spring 1963, King and the student movement organised mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The white police officials responded violently and King was arrested for organizing sit-in demonstrations. In his ‘Letter from the Birmingham jail’, he puts the struggle against injustice in Birmingham in the broader context of the United States. He writes: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [2]

In his speech ‘Let my people go’, which he held in New York on Human Rights Day in 1965, he repeats the message [3]:

“The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world, it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength and because this is true when men of good will finally unite they will be invincible.”

Martin Luther King was conscious of the bond between the struggle of the black people in the United States and the wave of colonial revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 1958, at the age 29, he said:

The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world. The rumblings of discontent in Asia and Africa are expressions of a quest for freedom and human dignity by people who have long been the victims of colonialism and imperialism. [4]

In 1967 his last last major work, Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community, was published. He once again wrote about the link with South Africa.

Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, racism and its perennial ally - economic exploitation - provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.

The classic example of organised and institutionalised racism is the Union of South Africa. Its national policy and practice are the incarnation of the doctrine of white supremacy in the midst of a population which is overwhelmingly Black. But the tragedy of South Africa is virtually made possible by the economic policies of the United States and Great Britain, two countries which profess to be the moral bastions of our Western world.

Call to isolate apartheid South Africa

Martin Luther King actively supported the struggle of the South African people against apartheid. In 1963 the UN Special Committee against Apartheid was established and one of the first letters the committee received was from Martin Luther King, according to Nigerian ambassador Leslie O. Harriman5. Together with the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, the ANC leader Chief Albert J. Lutuli, Martin Luther King made an ‘Appeal for Action against Apartheid’ on Human Rights Day, 10 December 19626. They said:

“Nothing which we have suffered at the hands of the government has turned us from our chosen path of disciplined resistance, said Chief Albert J. Lutuli at Oslo. So there exists another alternative - and the only solution which represents sanity - transition to a society based upon equality for all without regard to colour. Any solution founded on justice is unattainable until the Government of South Africa is forced by pressures, both internal and external, to come to terms with the demands of the non-white majority. The apartheid republic is a reality today only because the peoples and governments of the world have been unwilling to place her in quarantine.”

In his speech held in London in 1964, Martin Luther King repeated his call for economic sanctions against South Africa. [7]

“We can join in the one form of non-violent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa - the action which African leaders have appealed for - in a massive movement for economic sanctions […] If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil; if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”

Israel and apartheid South Africa analogy

The analogy between apartheid South Africa and Israel has been argued by an impressive group of people, among them Desmond Tutu, South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Former ANC military commander Ronnie Kasrils, who is the present South African Minister for Intelligence Services8. John Dugard, South African professor of international law, serving as the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories described the situation in the West Bank as “an apartheid regime … worse than the one that existed in South Africa.” [9]

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his most famous speech “I have a dream,” August 28, 1963.

South African writer Breyten Breytenbach wrote after a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories that ‘they can reasonably be described as resembling Bantustans, reminiscent of the ghettoes and controlled camps of misery one knew in South Africa.’ Farid Esack, Professor at Harvard Divinity School [10], told me some years ago that in his view “living under apartheid in South Africa was a picknick compared to the situation in occupied Palestinian territories.” It is not necessary to spend much time on the debate whether apartheid South Africa and Israel can be compared. The bottom line is that Israel systematically violates international law and the rights of the Palestinian people. The way Palestinians are treated by Israel can therefore be characterized as injustice. And as Martin Luther King said ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

Non-violent action against Israel

Martin Luther King linked the struggle for freedom and equality of the Afro-Americans to the struggles for the same goals of other people around the world. He called for non-violent action against injustice at home and abroad. Martin Luther King and Chief Albert Lutuli called for public action against apartheid South Africa. The call offers a practical tool for non-violent actions against Israel. Where King and Lutuli said South Africa, we can write Israel. The call then reads as: urge your Government to support economic sanctions; write to your mission to the United Nations urging adoption of a resolution calling for international isolation of Israel; don’t buy Israeli products; don’t trade or invest in Israel * translate public opinion into public action by explaining facts to all peoples, to groups to which you belong, and to countries of which you are citizens until an effective international quarantine of apartheid is established.

Is Israel willing to listen?

Israel claims to feel a special relation with the legacy of Martin Luther King. However, is Israel willing to embrace the legacy in all its aspects? Martin Luther King worked with the civil rights movement towards political and social equality for people of all races. In his public speech ‘I Have a Dream’11 he spoke of his desire for a future where blacks and whites would live together harmoniously as equals. This vision seems to express the hope of Israel that peace with the Palestinian people is possible. In his Letter from Birmingham jail Martin Luther King writes:

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to a solid rock of human dignity.”

Israel, it is not sufficient to dream of peace. To achieve peace requires hard work. The injustice done to the Palestinian people should end immediately. And if you are not prepared to do so? Martin Luther King made it very clear that we - peace loving people - should act against injustice. We should establish ‘an effective quarantine’ of Israel, just like we did with apartheid South Africa.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.


[1] Israel Remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

[2] Letter from Birmingham Jail (PDF)

[3] Martin Luther King on Apartheid South Africa

[4] Speech Chairman UN Special Committee against Apartheid

[5] Tribute to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, statement by Ambassador Leslie O. Harriman (Nigeria), Chairman, at a special meeting of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid (4 April 1978)

[6] Luther King on Apartheid South Africa

[7] Tribute to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, statement by Ambassador Leslie O. Harriman (Nigeria), Chairman, at a special meeting of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid (4 April 1978)

[8] Wikipedia: Ronnie Kasrils

[9] Wikipedia: Allegations of Israeli apartheid

[10] Farid Esack

[11] YouTube