The impact that Martin Luther King had in the United States is well-known to us. The effect he had on the rest of the world less-so.

Referring to the 1958 Montgomery Bus Boycott boycott, Enrique Dussel writes for Mexico’s La Jornada, “It was a routine ‘event’ that would launch Martin Luther [King] into history. Such ‘events’ are always of humble origin, but resonate strongly with the public. As with the ‘water war’ or the ‘gas war’ that ended up toppling two Bolivian governments, what began small ended up having a huge impact. … Dr. King became involved in the boycott and led demonstrations … and was was transformed into a leader of Afro-American multitudes who had already begun mobilizing.

In describing his growth into a global leader, Dussel writes, “Martin Luther began to discover other forms of oppression. So his discourses began to include all of the poor of the United States, from the urban working poor, Hispanic farm laborers and the marginalized, to the jobless. And after 1964, he began using his leadership to oppose the Vietnam War. In that year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. … But there is more. His discoveries led him to accuse his own country of being the cause of misery to other peoples. In 1967 he led the ‘Poor People’s March,’ which lifted the issues of racial and economic injustice to the national and global level. He reached out beyond the poor of the U.S. to those of Africa, where the slaves originated, and to Asia and Latin America.”

Dussel concludes, “It seems as though he had overstepped the limits of allowable criticism. … And so on April 4, 1968 (the same year as the May unrest in Paris and Berkeley, and the October Massacre in Tlatelolco), the life of Martin Luther King was cut short.”

By Enrique Dussel*

Translated By Halszka Czarnocka

April 4, 2008

Mexico – La Jornada – Original Article (Spanish)

Forty years ago on April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis! It’s an anniversary that provides food for thought.

Martin Luther, an Afro-American from a Baptist community, was born in the midst of economic depression in 1929. As his father was a pastor and having obtained a doctorate in Boston [Boston University, in systematic theology], he took charge of a community of believers in Atlanta, Georgia [actually, it was in Montgomery, Alabama; the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church]. The struggle for the civil rights was picking up, but it was a routine “event” that would launch Martin Luther into history.

Such “events” are always of humble origin, but resonate strongly with the public. As with the “water war” or the “gas war” in Bolivia, what began small ended up toppling two Bolivian governments. One shouldn’t dismiss “events” that could develop into storms – an issue exposed by Alain Badiou in his “Being and Event,” and which Walter Benjamin referred to as “now-time” in regard to the arrival of the messiah.

In this case, the “event” was the simple fact that an Afro-American woman, tired after finishing work, refused to give up her bus seat to a White person who wanted to take it, as the established custom and the discriminatory laws of the south dictated. The woman preferred to have the bus stopped. The police were summoned and a full-blown confrontation ensued. But the best part is that the other Afro-Americans on the bus not only got off, but they declared a boycott of the bus company. The controversy spread. The local pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, became involved in the boycott and led demonstrations. Meanwhile, every Afro-American in Atlanta began to walk to work, sometimes over long distances and for days or even weeks.

The bus company sued the movement because it went into bankruptcy. King was accused in a court of law and found guilty of causing economic damage the company by holding the boycott and had to suffer incarceration. All this had the effect of raising the social pressure, and the young, 26-year-old pastor was transformed into a leader of Afro-American multitudes who had already begun mobilizing across the country for the fight against racial discrimination.

In 1956, a law was decreed to end racial segregation in the United States (which is not the same as making it a reality), and slowly but surely, Afro-Americans began accruing political clout. Martin Luther’s leadership continues to inspire, not only in his native state, but across the country. Reflecting on Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of “non-violence” (which was inspired by the ancient Jain school of Indian thought), he began a true strategic struggle against racism in the United States, a phenomenon as old as slavery, which was established in the 17th century. Martin Luther was arrested again several times. While “non-violence” isn’t a universal principle, it’s a strategy that works in a country that respects the rule of law (for the powerful, of course, not for the poor).

It was August 28, 1968 when he delivered his most famous speech before 200 000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Gradually, the Atlanta preacher [Alabama, actually] began to realize that that Afro-American people had been discriminated against since the dawn of modernity; since the onset of European slavery that involved over 15 million Africans. It was a terrible kind of oppression, and yet it was an oppression that went unnoticed by French Revolutionary and Enlightenment thinking. Then Martin Luther began to discover other forms of oppression. So his discourses began to include all of the poor of the United States, from the urban working poor, Hispanic farm laborers and the marginalized, to the jobless. And after 1964, he began using his leadership to oppose the Vietnam War. In that year he received the Nobel Peace Prize.


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