Reflections on the struggle for justice and the rule of law: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack Obama, and President Jimmy Carter

There was an article in the Washington Post recently that suggested that Barack Obama plans to draw the maximum mileage out of the coincidence that his second inauguration will take place on the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday.

See Wil Heygood, “Inauguration will cement ties between Obama, Martin Luther King Jr.” Washington Post, January 15, 2012.

The Observer thinks of Martin Luther King’s courageous struggle as one to liberate not only black people but also white people from the scourge of racism that has plagued our country. The leitmotifs of that struggle were non-violence and a deep moral demand for legislation that gave effect to the fundamental civil and human rights of all Americans, and in particular the black citizens of America who had for so long been deprived of the benefit of the fundamental rights promised to them in the Constitution.

King fought for justice and the rule of law in the United States, and also had a deep appreciation of the struggles of other peoples to achieve respect for their fundamental rights.

On January 21, 2013, the day celebrating his life and moral perserverance, and also the day the first African-American president will be inaugurated for a second term, what are we to make of the connection between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, the racial progress that has undeniably been made in America since 1968 and yet the vast progress that remains to be achieved, and the fact that we have an African-American, a black man, as President of the United States?

King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, is worth recalling. He said, in part:

So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and before the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the mount with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the genuine discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, pray together; to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom forever, knowing that we will be free one day.

And I say to you today my friends, let freedom ring. From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only there; let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”

That so much of King’s dream has been accomplished, in 50 years, is cause for celebration, and also cause for a rededication of efforts to achieve that part of his dream which has not been realized with, in a phrase used elsewhere in the speech,  “the fierce urgency of now”.

Yet we must also recall that Martin Luther King, Jr. did not represent African-Americans alone. He also represented white people, and others. He drew on the non-violent tradition and spiritual force of Gandhi, who helped inspire South Africans early in the 20th century, and later to liberate the subcontinent of India from British rule.  King’s own message and moral example also inspired others, most notably Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who shared a similar dream and acted effectively to bring it about.

On January 21, 2013, we must also acknowledge that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the moral hero of millions of white men and women in the United States, as well as in Europe, and of many millions of men and women of other ethnicities throughout the world. He does not belong to African-Americans alone. Indeed, he belongs not only to all Americans, but to all of humanity, to “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”

By 1967, when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, if not long before, King made it clear that “all of God’s children” were not limited to those who lived in the United States.

If he were alive today, there can be little doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be an ardent supporter of the struggle for human rights and democracy throughout the world.

In this connection, it is worthwhile to consider again the points made by former President Jimmy Carter in his op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, 2012, in which he seeks to hold America to account for its human rights violations.


Jimmy Carter, “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” New York Times (op-ed), June 24, 2012.

The Trenchant Observer, “REPRISE: ‘A time to break silence’: Dr. King on the Vietnam war, and President Carter on America’s human rights violations,” January 6, 2013 (originally published June 27, 2012).

Jimmy Carter was also an heir of Martin Luther King, Jr., and one who  has done more than any other recent American president to advance the cause of respect for international human rights throughout the world.

So, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King on January 21 with the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States of America, let us also celebrate those other individuals of all races and from all countries who, like former President Jimmy Carter and former President Nelson Mandela, have fought valiantly for the respect and observance of the fundamental human rights of all individuals, from whatever country or ethnic group they may come.

That struggle, too, is a critical part of Dr. King’s legacy, and one which the first African-American president should take up in his second term, with “the fierce urgency of now.”

President Obama could start by pushing for Senate ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights, signed by President Jimmy Carter and submitted to the Senate for ratification in 1979. Almost all the countries of the Americas have ratified the treaty, though the new authoritarian states of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua are now attacking its institutions and threatening to withdraw their ratifications. Without Senate action, the president could immediately renew cooperation with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with respect to cases brought against the United States.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.