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Towards a Global "Beloved Community":

Legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.


A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just”...


These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.”1


Human rights advocates and social movements throughout the U.S and the world will commemorate Dr. King’s life and work today, the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis in 1968. King went to Memphis in solidarity with striking sanitation workers there who were fighting for a living wage and decent working conditions.


King’s presence in Memphis was part of his overall efforts during the last few months of his life to convene an unprecedented national “Poor People’s Campaign”2 that planned to converge in Washington beginning in April of that year. The campaign was galvanized in part by the release of the Kerner Commission’s report3 in March 1968 on the implications of riots in Newark and Detroit in July 1967. This report highlighted the deep relationship between structural forms of racism and poverty in U.S society. Inequities of this kind have long characterized, and continue to permeate the US-Mexico border region.4


50 years later, scholars and advocates have extensively documented the persistence of many of the same conditions of inequality highlighted by King and the original Poor People’s Campaign and by the Kerner Commission.5 This has led grassroots organizations throughout the country to call for a new “Poor People’s Campaign” this Spring, framed in terms of a “National Call for Moral Revival” issued by Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis.6


Hope Border Institute is committed to contribute to initiatives of this kind by highlighting the extent to which structures and patterns of poverty and inequality are embedded in the overall criminalization and marginalization of the families and communities who live and work on both sides of U.S-Mexico border region.


From Dr. King’s perspective, his leadership of the civil rights movement was necessarily intertwined with his vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War and with his support of broader imperatives of social justice. All of these were associated with his vision of building a multiracial “beloved community,” committed to the philosophy and methods of nonviolence on a global scale.7


What is the relevance of Dr. King’s legacy for Hope Border Institute’s work in defense of human rights and the rights of migrants on both sides of the U.S Mexico border? King’s legacy is widely disputed8. For some it is reduced to his advocacy of a “color-blind” society through peaceful integration into some semblance of the “American Dream”. But many others have increasingly highlighted his importance as a prophetic voice whose emphasis in his final years was on a passionate critique of the national and global implications of what he described as the triple, intertwined evils of racism, poverty, and militarism9. These themes connect King’s evolving thought very closely with that of Malcolm X during the last year of his own life and ministry, as James Cone has argued10, within the context of black liberation theology. This convergence between King and Malcolm contrasts sharply with more superficial approaches that posit them in fundamental, permanent conflict with each other.


Scholars have stressed the importance of understanding King’s evolution “from civil rights to human rights”11 between the Birmingham campaign in 1963 and his death in Memphis in 1968. This is a key guiding thread in the unfolding trajectory of his faith-based thinking and activism, that includes his grounding in the longstanding tradition of the “Black Social Gospel” and its abolitionist roots12.


It is this understanding of King’s tragically unfinished work that inspires us at Hope Border Institute.These experiences have powerful convergences with the renewal of Catholic Social Teaching and the emergence of black and Latin American liberation theologies in the wake of Vatican II13. King’s murder came exactly 1 year after his historic address at Riverside Church, which called for an unprecedented convergence between the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements within an overall human rights framework. It also came on the eve of his leadership of national mobilizations for economic and social justice convened by the multiracial, grassroots “Poor People’s Campaign”. This included King’s embrace of alliances with key sectors of the Chicano movement led by César Chavez14 and Reies López Tijerina, and with Native American activists who later became associated with the American Indian Movement (AIM), as well as with white Appalachian anti-poverty activists.


The emergence of a human rights perspective as an explicit component of King’s leadership and within the civil rights movement in the U.S. reflected broader trends internationally during the 1950’s and 1960’s. These included the decolonization of India and of Africa, which King personally witnessed as a special guest at Ghana’s independence ceremony in 1957, and during a visit to explore Gandhi’s legacy in India in 1959. Reciprocal influences in this context include the decisive impact that the civil rights movement in the U.S and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa had on each other, and on the UN’s adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in December 1965. In January 1969 CERD became the first UN human rights treaty to enter into effect.  


Similarly, King’s evolution towards a more explicit emphasis on poverty as an overarching framework for racial discrimination, foreshadowed and helped lay the groundwork for the increasing emphasis in contemporary international human rights advocacy and scholarship on characterizing poverty as a serious human rights violation. This includes an understanding of poverty as both a consequence and cause of serious violations of human rights15.


Contemporary expressions of such an approach include the UN’s adoption of new Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty in 201216, and a rare official visit to the U.S in December 2017 by Philip Alston, a renowned international human rights scholar who is the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights17.


Western versions of human rights have long tended to prioritize the centrality of the civil and political rights of individuals over that of economic, social, and cultural rights of a more collective character. This bias has resulted in the marginalization of poverty as a human rights issue. King’s approach, like that of the Black Social Gospel, Catholic Social Teaching, and liberation theology, instead stresses the importance of approaching human rights- and faith- from the perspective of the poor.


King’s contribution to our understanding of these issues today, from the perspective of the entrenched forms of poverty and inequality that are emblematic of the U.S-Mexico border region and of our countries of origin in Latin America and the Global South, includes his persistence in recognizing poverty as a form of structural violence, and thus ultimately as an expression of structural sin18:


“The Negro’s nonviolent movement is as much directed against the violence of poverty which destroys the souls and bodies of people as it is against the violence of desegregation.”19


It is this approach which he then further developed and applied on a global scale, in combination with his critiques of the ravages of militarism and materialism, in his “Beyond Vietnam” address in April, 1967. This speech was especially notable for King’s fusion of key elements of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism as he explored the connection between the domestic and international implications of the Vietnam War.


This speech also included King’s reflection regarding the relationship between increasing racial unrest and resultant violence in the U.S and its global resonances, emerging from his “experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”20


King also emphasized the extent to which Vietnam and the Cold War distorted the country’s budget priorities and undermined the initial promise of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty”. His emphasis on poverty was also inspired by the dynamic advocacy efforts of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) led by George Wiley and Johnnie Tillmon21, and by successful litigation (including several U.S Supreme Court decisions) which grew out of the work of legal scholars such as Frank Michelman of Harvard Law School.


These advocates and scholars argued that there was a constitutionally protected right to the minimum social conditions (e.g emergency government support- “welfare”- in the face of extreme deprivation, education, health care, etc.) necessary for a dignified life, potentially including a “guaranteed annual” or “universal basic” income.22 Mexican-American communities in Texas characterized by high levels of inequality in the funding of public schools became protagonists of court challenges along these lines in the Rodriguez and Edgewood cases before the U.S and Texas Supreme Courts respectively.


King’s Poor People’s Campaign was grounded in these kinds of initiatives, as well as in President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposal in January  1944 for congressional enactment of a “Second of Bill of Rights” (including rights to work, income, health, housing, and education), and Michael Harrington’s influential book focused on poverty in the U.S, The Other America (1962).


The Campaign’s demands were set forth initially in King’s proposals in 1963 for the adoption of a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” and in 1966 and thereafter for a “Freedom Budget” or “Marshall Plan for the cities”, and finally in February 1968 for a full-fledged “Economic and Social Bill of Rights.” Together, these proposals called for billions of dollars in additional spending drawn in part from reductions in the military budget, including Vietnam. All of these initiatives were rooted in the original framing of the August, 1963 March in Washington. The march was a mobilization for “Jobs and Freedom” not solely as a march for racial integration as it is widely depicted, and are echoed today in the convergent demands of the Movement for Black Lives.


From the perspective of Hope Border Institute’s mission and work, the U.S-Mexico border region must be understood within the context of broader patterns of poverty and inequality in the U.S, Mexico, and globally. This includes an understanding of its context in terms of historical and contemporary processes of criminalization and militarization of border communities that are subject to discrimination on the basis of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity.


It must also include a recognition of the extent to which the border region continues to be characterized by a greater concentration of poverty and inequality than other regions, and by its marginalization from the centers of economic and political power in both the U.S and Mexico. This should also include an understanding of how current- and long standing- U.S budget priorities and policies as to immigration, free trade, the drug war, the environment, health, and education undermine the prospects for social justice in our region, and serve to reproduce the poverty, inequality and marginalization which persist here. Dr. King’s legacy, like that of Blessed Oscar Romero, is central to us in the borderlands as an inspiration and example as we seek to address these conditions and challenges on both sides of the border.


[1] From King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at Riverside Church, April 4 1967:

[2];; Honey, M. (2007) Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton);;;sequence=3;


[4] Lusk, M.; Staudt, K. and Moya, E. (2012) Social Justice in the U.S-Mexico Border Region (Springer):; Heyman, J. (2017); Slack, J.; Martinez, D. and Whiteford, S. (2018):

[5];;; Shelby, T. (2016) Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Belknap/Harvard)



[8] For a recent overview from the perspective of his contributions to political philosophy, see Shelby, T. and Terry, B. (2018), eds. To Shape A New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. (Belknap/Harvard); see also West, C., ed. (2015) The Radical King (Beacon Press)

[9] Id. “Beyond Vietnam” address at Riverside Church, April 4 1967; Boston Review special issue “Fifty Years Since MLK”:;; also The Atlantic special issue “King” (March 1968):

[10] Cone, J. (1991) Malcolm, Martin, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (Orbis)

[11] Jackson, T. (2006) From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (U.Penn).

[12] Dorrien, G. (2018) Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press);

[13] Cone, J. (1970) A Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis);;;

[14];; Mantler, G. (2013) Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice (Univ. of North Carolina Press);;




[18] (parr. 36);


[20] Id. “Beyond Vietnam”


[22] “The Supreme Court, 1968 Term.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 83, no. 1, 1969, pp. 7–282. JSTOR, JSTOR,;;;; for a contemporary approach to the complexities of a “universal basic income”, see:



[25] (“Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged)”; (“Freedom Budget”); (“Economic and Social Bill of Rights”).



[28] Milanovic, B. (2016) Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Belknap/Harvard); Therborn, G. (2017) “Dynamics of Inequality”, New Left Review 103, Jan.-Feb. 2017; World Inequality Report 2018:

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