“There is a great revolution going on all over the world,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, introducing the Kenyan activist Tom Mboya at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference event in 1959. “What we are trying to do in the South and in the United States is part of this worldwide struggle for freedom and human dignity.” It is from this quote that Sarah Azaransky drew the title of her new book This Worldwide Struggle, which explores the religious and international roots of the civil-rights movement.
But perhaps an earlier King moment better exemplifies the global struggles that informed the leaders of the civil-rights movement. In March 1957, 14 weeks after the end of the Montgomery bus boycotts, King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were in Accra—shoulder to shoulder with Adam Clayton Powell, Charles Diggs, Ralph Bunche, Mordecai Johnson, Horace Mann Bond, and A. Philip Randolph—celebrating “The Birth of a New Nation,” as King would title the speech he gave in Montgomery a month later, about Ghana’s independence.
“That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up,” King said, “I saw something else…. that thing symbolized to me that an old order is passing away and a new order is coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice and freedom and good will is being born.”
“Ghana has something to say to us,” King added. “It says to us that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it.… Don’t go back into your homes and around Montgomery thinking that the Montgomery City Commission and that all the forces in the leadership of the South will eventually work out this thing for Negroes.”
King’s international perspective was nurtured by an older generation of black theologians—several of whom are discussed in the book—who had been exploring the philosophy and practice of Gandhian nonviolence, among other philosophies and movements around the world, and devising ways to use the Christian Gospel as a message to bring about political change domestically. They saw a connection between the aristocrats of the US South and Indian maharajas, black sharecroppers and Indian peasants. The foundation they built for the more popular leaders, such as King, runs deep.
Benjamin Mays, a minister and author of the seminal work The Negro’s God: As Reflected in His Literature, was president of Morehouse College when the 15-year-old King enrolled in the fall of 1944. King would go on to study under the tutelage of the theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman—himself a friend of Mays and a classmate of King’s father at Morehouse—as a doctoral student at Boston University. Thurman’s 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited became a second Bible for King, informing his vision of the Gospel as a manual for social change.