By STEPHEN TUCK
AMERICA remembers the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national champion of civil rights. But he was an international icon, too — and like many icons, his legacy was used for a range of purposes that moved far beyond, and even ran counter to, his famous dream.
Indeed, it was King’s “I have a dream” speech that sealed his global fame. We’ve all seen photos of the hundreds of thousands marching in 1963 Washington. But thousands also marched that day in London, Tel Aviv and Accra, Ghana.
In my home country, Britain, support for the march was overwhelming. Many watched King’s speech live via the newly launched Telstar satellite. In London, demonstrators marched to the American Embassy carrying a banner that read, “Your fight is our fight.”
This was more than just an expression of empathy: that summer, Paul Stephenson, a black community organizer in Bristol, led a boycott of the city’s buses. A charismatic and gifted orator, Mr. Stephenson had been to the Deep South to learn tactics and spoke reverently of King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott.
King visited Britain the following year. He accepted invitations abroad, his speechwriter Clarence Jones told me recently, “to get his message out.” It seemed to work. King’s sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral was front-page news in the United States, while his meeting with activists led to the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the pre-eminent anti-discrimination group in Britain, fashioned on King’s nonviolent, pro-integration model.
Meanwhile, British liberals looked to the American movement as a template for resolving Britain’s immigrant problems. Politicians seeking to introduce civil rights legislation met with King in Britain and traveled to the United States on fact-finding visits. (King wasn’t alone: in 1967 the archbishop of Canterbury even invited the Temptations, in London on tour, to drop into Lambeth Palace so he could get some advice on race relations.)
But even as King sought to get his message out, the watching world repackaged that message for other purposes. Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott, and the timing had more to do with the visit of the touring West Indies cricket team than with King’s efforts in Alabama eight years previously.
Meanwhile, Communist governments in Eastern Europe celebrated King as the champion of the “other America,” the America that had been subjugated by capitalist tyranny. In Italy, the Catholic left portrayed him as a political activist and ignored the fact that he was also a Protestant preacher.
And in white-majority countries with racial minorities, from New Zealand to Western Europe, commentators lauded King’s role in the turmoil “over there,” while taking comfort that any problems at home, by comparison, could not be too bad. Conservative politicians in Britain hailed King as a nonviolent role model for immigrants who were threatening to fight for their rights (and much better than another popular black American icon and visitor to Britain, Malcolm X).
Today, King’s legacy abroad remains profound, and as contested as ever. In Britain, his statue stands above the west entrance to Westminster Abbey, while the American civil rights movement is among the top five most popular history subjects in high schools.
But absent from Westminster is a statue of a black British figure, and black British history remains on the sidelines at schools and universities. Looking to King helps us think about racial justice, but he can be used to forget about it, too.
Using and abusing King is perhaps inevitable abroad, where he was so well publicized but little understood. Yet it has echoes here in the United States, where he should be known best. Since moving to America this past summer, I have heard the man who marched for jobs and freedom invoked by all sides of the political spectrum. African-American activists seek to honor his legacy by calling for race-based remedies to combat stubborn racial inequality. Conservatives invoke his color-blind ideology to remove those same race-based remedies.
At the dedication of the King memorial on the National Mall last fall, President Obama even used King’s teachings to challenge the current polarization of politics: “He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to understand their pain.”
As King calls on us today, everyone, it seems, can call on him.