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How the dream crossed the pond
Matt Pickles | 16 Jan 12
The national observance of Martin Luther King Jr Day in the USA today (16 January) reflects Dr King’s enormous contribution to America's civil rights movement. But what impact did he have on Britain? Dr Stephen Tuck, a lecturer in US history at Oxford University and author of an editorial in today's New York Times, explains.
Tell us what your research on Dr King has found?
Among other things, just how important he was as a global figure. It was partly because he travelled quite extensively, not least to Britain. But it was also because the civil rights movement was a televised event at a moment when America had begun to dominate popular culture - his 'I have a dream' speech in Washington was beamed to the UK via satellite.
How and to what extent did American and British struggles for racial equality interact?
This is very interesting. He was extremely popular, and black Britons certainly drew inspiration from him. As he gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963, demonstrators in London marched to the American Embassy carrying a banner that read, ‘Your fight is our fight.’ But they used his wider popularity in Britain for their own ends, too. By likening their own - often ignored - protests to the US civil rights movement (even when they weren't that similar), they found a way to legitimize their cause.
What was Dr King’s reputation abroad?
He was popular pretty much everywhere, but for different reasons in each country - Eastern Europeans sided with black Americans and the 'other America' against capitalism, while Western European leaders applauded his nonviolent engagement with the democratic process.
Tell me about King’s visits to Britain?
King accepted invitations abroad, his speechwriter Clarence Jones told me recently, 'to get his message out', and he visited Britain a few times. But his November 1964 visit stands out: he preached at St. Pauls, addressed a mass meeting in London, gave any number of interviews with the press, met with politicians, black British activists, foreign students and others. I think he also met with a high ranking Indian politician and secured a promise from the Indian government to stay nuclear-free. A meeting with activists in Britain 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.
What do you see as his legacy?
When we think of the civil rights movement, we tend to think of King. In one sense, that's a very good thing - there is a person that we can learn about to engage with a vitally important topic. King and the civil rights movement is an extremely popular subject at school and university.
The danger, of course, is that we can remember a rather sanitized nonviolent heroic protest against evil crazy bus conductors version of history, a version which oversimplifies the problem of racial inequality, leaves it firmly in the past, places responsibility on others, and removes the history of modern race protest to the United States - when we have an important tradition of race equality protest here in the UK.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on 4 April 1968, would have turned 83 yesterday.
Top image by Dick DeMarsico. Bottom image: Martin Luther King Jr.'s statue above the doorway of Westminster Abbey.