The life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted by: ShareAmerica

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Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States. The third Monday in January marks Martin Luther King Day, a U.S. holiday that honors King’s legacy and challenges citizens to engage in volunteer service in their communities.

Beginning the journey

A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)
A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)

Born on January 15, 1929, to a long line of Baptist ministers, King grew up in Atlanta at a time when Jim Crow laws made segregation and discrimination a daily reality for blacks in the South.

King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he came to view religion as a powerful catalyst for social change. He received his doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology before returning to the South, where he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Today, King’s Atlanta birthplace is registered as a National Historical Site with the National Park Service.

Civil rights struggle in the 1950s

Martin Luther King with hand on boy's shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King with hand on boy’s shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)

King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After the Supreme Court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws in 1956, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promoted nonviolent action for civil rights throughout the South. He was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and traveled to India in 1959.

An iconic figure of the 1960s

King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)
King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)

Joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King continued to use his oratorical gifts to urge an end to segregation and legal inequality. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested during nonviolent protests in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. While incarcerated after one such arrest, in 1963, King penned the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, outlining the moral basis for the civil rights movement. That August, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington.

King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)
King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)

March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday because voting-rights marchers were beaten by state troopers and civilians as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The violence turned them back, but the ordeal led King to call for another, longer march (pictured) — an 87-kilometer-long, Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.

Civil rights victories

King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)
King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations and other aspects of life. King attended the signing of the act into law (pictured). He continued to press for a law to ensure that blacks could not be denied the right to vote by discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, and, in 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

In the wake of assassination

Martin Luther King's coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King’s coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony outside his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room. At his funeral, thousands of mourners marched through Atlanta behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing his coffin.

In a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” King urged black Americans to continue their commitment to nonviolence, but also cautioned that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”

King’s legacy: Nonviolent protest

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)

In a 1959 radio address during his visit to India, King said: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” His philosophy was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent action to end British rule in India. In his turn, King inspired others to change their societies through nonviolent means, from the Solidarity movement’s cracking of Soviet occupation in Poland to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

King’s legacy: Fighting prejudice

Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)

During the 1963 March on Washington, King declared that all people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The King Center in Atlanta is a living memorial to King’s vision of a free and equal world dedicated to expanding opportunity, fighting racism and ending all forms of discrimination.

King’s legacy: Pursuing social justice

Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)

The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is home to the King Papers Project, a comprehensive collection of all of King’s speeches, correspondence and other writings. The institute is also involved with the Liberation Curriculum Initiative and the Gandhi-King Community, both of which use King’s life and ideas to connect social activists around the world working to promote human rights.

King’s legacy: Service to others

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)

In the U.S., Martin Luther King Day is designated a national day of service. Americans are urged to celebrate “a day on, not a day off” in honor of King’s commitment to improving the lives of others. President Obama promotes volunteerism as a way to help meet the challenges facing our world.

Keeping the dream alive

© AP Images
A black man putting his hand on the MLK Memorial, with bowed head (© AP Images)

A national memorial to King was built near the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The memorial invites visitors to reflect on King’s life and legacy.


Promoting Tolerance, Respect and Freedom for All

Posted by: David Young, Legal Officer, United States Agency for International Development

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idahoOn May 17, 2014, the world will observe International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons and communities across the globe.  IDAHO promotes a world of tolerance, respect, and freedom regardless of people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The U.S. Government maintains a vision in which the human rights of LGBT persons are respected and they are able to live with dignity, free from discrimination, persecution and violence.  In this world, the human rights of LGBT persons are upheld; they are able to participate fully in democratic decision-making in their households, communities and countries; they have equal access to sustainable livelihoods, economic assets and resources; and they are not barred from accessing the basic education, health and other services that are enjoyed by their fellow citizens and that are essential for personal well-being and growth.  LGBT persons and their allies can come together to advocate for the equal treatment for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

In Ukraine, the U.S. Government supports programs that counter abuse, discrimination and human rights violations targeting LGBT persons.  For example, the U.S. Embassy provides small grants to LGBT non-governmental organizations and helps enhance the skills of LGBT leaders through training programs and exchanges in the United States.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) civil society activities work with non-governmental organizations, including those focused on LGBT concerns, to help them advocate for human rights. Additionally, a USAID media development project monitors and reports on media activities related to gender, and the ways in which LGBT persons and issues are portrayed in the media. USAID also supports programs that counter the trafficking in human beings, which includes support for LGBT persons who can be victims of trafficking.

Ukraine faces many challenges at the moment.  Supporting the fight against homophobia and passing legislation to prevent discrimination against LGBT persons will not only improve the lives of Ukrainian LGBT citizens but will also strengthen Ukraine’s ability to meet these challenges by improving the business environment for foreign investment and furthering visa liberalization with the European Union.  The U.S. Government looks forward to working with the Government of Ukraine and all Ukrainians to further protect the rights of LGBT persons.

Russia Today’s Disinformation Campaign

Posted by Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of TIME magazine, is the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Follow him via @Stengel on Twitter. 
April 29, 2014
Newsroom in Moscow
Newsroom in Moscow

Moscow is subjecting Ukrainians, Russians and the rest of the world to an intense campaign of disinformation that tries to paint a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government. Russia Today, the Moscow-based TV network financed by the government, is a key player in this campaign of distortion. Along with its Russian operation, RT operates an English-language broadcast out of Washington.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to RT as a “propaganda bullhorn,” which was promoting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “fantasy.” The result was a predictable howl of protest from RT’s editor, who claimed the State Department knows little about what is really happening in Ukraine today and had the audacity to request an apology.

I spent seven years as the managing editor of TIME magazine before joining the State Department. I understand the difference between news, propaganda and opinion. Propaganda is the deliberate dissemination of information that you know to be false or misleading in order to influence an audience.

From assertions that peaceful protesters hired snipers to repeated allegations that Kiev is beset by violence, fascism and anti-Semitism, these are lies falsely presented as news. An opinion is subjective and not a statement of fact. Opinions, however odious, are defensible speech in a way that false claims are not. RT is a distortion machine, not a news organization.

image002Consider the way RT manipulated a leaked telephone call involving former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Through selective editing, the network made it appear that Tymoshenko advocated violence against Russia. Or the constant reference to any Ukrainian opposed to a Russian takeover of the country as a “terrorist.” Or the unquestioning repetition of the ludicrous assertion last week that the United States has invested $5 billion in regime change in Ukraine. These are not facts, and they are not opinions. They are false claims, and when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence.

Sometimes it’s even too much for the people paid to make these claims. The network’s clear bias led to an unprecedented on-air rebellion. First, the host of RT America, Abby Martin, condemned Russia’s invasion of Crimea on a broadcast. Then one of the network’s anchors, Liz Wahl, resigned on air, saying, “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”

Yet, even so, I would defend the right of RT to broadcast. The First Amendment protects speech that we reject as much as speech that we embrace. The State Department facilitates RT’s coverage by giving them unrestricted access to our briefings. No one is arguing that RT should be taken off the air the way Moscow has abruptly ended the license that allows Voice of America to broadcast to Russians. Free access to information is a basic principle, even if that information is nothing more or less than propaganda. But the network and its editors should not pretend that RT is anything other than another player in Russia’s global disinformation campaign against the people of Ukraine and their supporters.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Disobedience

Posted by: Eric A. Johnson, Public Affairs Officer

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MLKEach January, the American people pause to reflect on the life of one of our nation’s great leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On January 20, the Embassy and all federal government offices in the United States will be closed to mark the birth of an American hero who used nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight against inequality and injustice.

In early 1963, African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama were engaged in coordinated street protests and marches in pursuit of equal civil and economic rights.  These demonstrations were held, despite a court ban on “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”  As a leader of these demonstrations, Dr. King was arrested on April 3, 1963.  While in jail, he penned an open letter to the clergy to explain his actions.

Excerpts from his letter:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.  But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.  I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.  It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:  collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

“You are quite right in calling for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action.  Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws:  just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.  For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.  Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade.  But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

“[The] great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is . . . [the] moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

“Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.  The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.  Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . .  I have not said to my people:  ‘Get rid of your discontent.’  Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  And now this approach is being termed extremist.  But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist for love:  ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’  Was not Amos an extremist for justice:  ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’  Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel:  ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’  Was not Martin Luther an extremist:  ‘Here I stand;  I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’  And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’  And Abraham Lincoln:  ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’  And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . . ’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

The entire text of Dr. King’s letter can be found online.

Striking Down DOMA: An Advancement to Human Rights

Posted by:  Doris Hernandez, Political Intern

Читати українською a speech delivered on August 16, 1967, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that had denied equal protection under the law for legally wedded couples on the basis of sexual orientation.  Commenting on the court’s ruling, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Dr. King, saying that “despite setbacks along the way, the arc of our history on this issue has bent towards inclusion and equality, perhaps never more so than today.”

The history of DOMA recalls earlier struggles for equality in the United States, and it demonstrates how citizens even today continue to engage their government to promote and protect equal rights for all.  When DOMA was enacted in 1996, it prevented the federal government from extending the protections of over 1,000 federal laws to those same-sex couples who were legally able to marry in their respective states.  In response, activists and civic groups used all the tools available to citizens in a democratic society to press the government to ensure equal rights for all citizens.  For nearly two decades they organized education and awareness campaigns, reached out to their elected representatives through letter-writing campaigns, initiated voting campaigns to work toward changing state and local laws, conducted publicity events through the media, filed lawsuits in the courts and pursued other strategies to promote equal rights.  As a result, they helped to raise awareness about the law’s inequality, shifted public opinion, changed the legal landscape, and prepared the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling that ruled DOMA to be unconstitutional.

The success of those civic groups also illustrates how civic campaigns to defend human rights can work wherever citizens engage their governments.  In Ukraine, the U.S. Embassy helps civic organizations by providing training and support, education, and tools that empower citizens to take action to defend the rights of all Ukrainians.  The programs include support to foster civic activism, strengthen independent media, promote a more accountable judicial system, and improve the legislative process.  By strengthening democratic institutions, Ukraine’s activists are helping to create the conditions that can bring equal protection under the law and the rights that are due to all citizens.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA was not only a success for advocates and supporters of equal rights in the United States, it was a reassurance that civic activists—both in the United States and throughout the world—really can create meaningful change to protect human rights.  The process can take years, and it sometimes requires the concerted efforts of hundreds or thousands of committed citizens working at every level.  But as the DOMA ruling showed, while the arc of history is long, when citizens commit to remedying an injustice, they can indeed bend that arc toward justice.

The Struggle for Civil Rights: From the Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted by Doug Morrow, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

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This year, we mark two important landmarks in African-American history, and in the United States’ long march toward racial equality and civil rights. January 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which U.S. President Abraham Lincoln freed most African-Americans from slavery. August 28, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, calling for all people to be treated equally, regardless of the color of their skin.

Slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation

In 1860, over 3.9 million African-Americans were enslaved in the United States; in certain states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, over half of the total population was enslaved, and in states such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia, enslaved people made up over 40% of the population. Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia also had significant slave populations. That year, led by South Carolina, several southern states began seceding from the United States (to form the “Confederate States of America”), upset that the northern (“Union”) states were refusing to return runaway slaves, among other complaints, and fearing that newly-elected President Lincoln would seek to end slavery in the United States.  Continue reading “The Struggle for Civil Rights: From the Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King, Jr.”

150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted by: Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, State Department
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President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago

On January 1st in the United States, we marked the 150th anniversary of the date President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that millions of men, women, and children held in slavery were forever free. A century and a half later, President Obama said that through the Proclamation, Lincoln “reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to the enduring cause of freedom. Then as now, we remain steadfast in our resolve to see that all men, women, and children have the opportunity to realize this greatest of gifts.”

Yet we are still a long way from achieving the vision of a world free from all contemporaneous forms of slavery. As many as 27 million people are victims of modern-day slavery, also known as trafficking in persons. This crime appears in many ways. It could be the abuse of domestic workers trapped in their employers’ homes or the enslavement of a man on a fishing boat. It could be the prostitution of a young girl in a brothel or the compelled service of a boy as a child soldier. Whatever form it takes, at its core human trafficking is a crime of exploitation that robs its victims of their freedom and dignity. Modern slavery occurs in every country in the world, and every government has a responsibility to respond to it.

The Obama Administration is committed to fighting modern slavery at home and around the world using the “3P” approach—prosecuting traffickers, protecting their victims, and preventing this crime in the future. We’re also eager to partner with governments that take this problem seriously, and we are working with stakeholders in civil society, the faith community, and the private sector, which all bring unique capabilities and expertise to this struggle. A major part of our work is raising awareness about this issue and promoting greater activism in finding, stopping, and preventing this crime.

We’re driving this effort as part of our commemoration of Emancipation. The State Department joined with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio to produce a film, Journey to Freedom, which shows the parallels between trafficking in persons and historical slavery in the United States. From Congo to Mexico to Nepal, our embassies and consular posts have opened their doors to share this film, shine a light on this problem, and encourage more people to contribute to the battle against modern day slavery.

This film is available to view online at, and I encourage you to take the time to see how this problem affects all our communities today.

After all, it’s going to take all of us–learning how to identify this crime, knowing what to do when we see it, and preventing it from harming our communities–if we’re going to succeed in the fight against modern slavery. And this struggle deserves nothing less than our full support. As President Obama said, the “fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time.” The United States remains committed to this work, and we hope you will be our partner in this effort.