Posts Tagged ‘Ghandi’

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

Friday, January 18th, 2013

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

Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011

Monday, August 1st, 2011

In comments on July 29 following meetings with President Yayi of Benin; President Conde of Guinea; President Issoufou of Niger; and President Ouattara of Ivory Coast, President Barack Obama stated the following:

“Despite the impressive work of all these gentlemen, I’ve said before and I think they all agree, Africa does not need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions. So we are working with them as partners to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected.”
–President Barack Obama, West Africa: Remarks By Obama After Meeting With Four African Presidents”, July 29, 2011, reprinted in, July 30, 2011.

As we have learned in other contexts, it is important to examine carefully not just what President Obama says but also, and most importantly, what he does. When he speaks of working with these and presumably other African leaders “to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected,” one must ask, “What are the specific programs, in which countries, and at what level of funding is he referring to?”

Again, how does this level of funding, per country, compare to the cost of deploying one American soldier to Afghanistan for one year?

Africans struggling to establish or strengthen democracy in their countries need not just words, but deeds. They need specific and meaningful programs that provide financial assistance for the strengthening of civil society organizations, including NGO’s working to ensure observance of fundamental human rights, and judicial reforms that not only improve the functioning of the courts but also expand access to justice among broader sections of the population.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011,” July 16, 2011

Also worth noting in passing is the level of sophistication regarding Africa revealed at the White House, when the President refers to “Cote d’Ivoire” as if no one in the State Department knows the name of the country in English (Ivory Coast). If we are to start using the native languages for the names of different countries, we will have to refer to Egypt as Misr, Algeria as Jaza’ir, and Germany as Deutschland. It’s probably better to stick with English.

Or, to cite another example, when the Deputy National Security Adviser for Africa speaks of the president trying to find ways to speak directly to “the African people,” he is referring to the diverse peoples of the 54 countries of Africa as one people. It as if he were referring to people in Asia as “the Asian people” or the people in Latin America as “the Latin American people”. India, China and Brazil, to cite but a few examples, would not be pleased.

Details count, and are revealing.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Michelle Obama’s visit to Africa in June was, by most accounts, a successful goodwill tour by the First Lady and her family, serving to underline the importance of U.S.-African relations in general, and the personal interest of the First Family in African countries in particular.

See Andrew Malcolm (commentary), “Michelle Obama’s magical family tour of Africa,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2011

Certainly, the symbolism, particularly of her meeting with Nelson Mandela, was powerful, recalling as it did the triumph in two great countries of peaceful social revolutions based on the ideas and inspiration of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela himself.

Nonetheless, the visit was also a time to reflect on U.S.-African relations, evoking a number of criticisms of U.S. policy toward Africa under President Barack Obama.

An article by Krissah Thompson, published in the Washington Post on June 18, 2011, nicely captured the gulf between the attention given the Obamas as media celebrities when they travel to Africa, and the reality of U.S. policies toward the countries of the continent.

Typical of the criticisms cited by Thompson were the foilowing:

(T)he big challenges facing the continent — poverty, government corruption, threats of extremism, and AIDS — have not drawn the White House attention that Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, had hoped for.

U.S. officials, said Munthali, “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.”

From another viewpoint, the following criticism was heard:

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, a Ghanaian who runs a New York investment and research firm specializing in Africa, pointed to what he said was the irony in the shared disappointment. “We really said if a black man became president, it would change the world, but we are basically back at the same level we were before,” he said. “The bulk of the policy is still the legacy of the Clinton and Bush years. The Obama legacy toward Africa is still yet to be seen.”

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

A lame defense of U.S. policy towards Africa offered by White House officials only underlined the absence of really significant U.S. programs and initiatives in the region.

White House officials disagreed (with the criticisms), saying that the administration has laid out clear priorities in Africa: supporting democratic regimes, decreasing hunger and developing the $63 billion Global Health Initiative. That program seeks to integrate the Bush administration’s focus on AIDS with a wider approach to public health issues.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, noted that Obama met with the leaders of Nigeria and Gabon this month, and last year hosted a large group of handpicked young adults from the continent for a White House forum.

While Obama’s schedule has prevented him from traveling (to) the continent more, Rhodes said, the president delivered audio messages urging a peaceful democratic transition in Ivory Coast and an end to violence in Sudan, which recently divided into northern and southern jurisdictions with U.S. backing.

“We have looked for ways for him to continue to speak to the African people directly,” Rhodes said.

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

This defense was bolstered–perhaps–by an apology for Obama administation policies toward Africa written by two Brookings Institution Africanists and published on July 6.

See Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Nelipher Moyo, “Favorite or Prodigal Son? U.S. – Africa Policy under Obama,” Brookings (blog of the The Brookings Institution), July 6, 2011

Against this backdrop, one might ask, what is going on in terms of U.S. support of democratic forces and civil society in the region? How much money is it spending on such support?

Going forward, how much has the Obama administration asked for, and how much is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives willing to spend, on democracy and governance activities in Africa that support democratic forces and strengthen civil society?

To put these numbers in perspective, one might also ask how does this number, per country, compare to the cost of supporting one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year?

The fact is that demands for democracy and accountable government are not confined to the North African countries of “the Arab Spring.” They have also been heard in West Africa, from Ivory Coast to Liberia to Nigeria, while deep and significant movements toward democracy are also underway in the countries of Southern Africa, inspired in part by the example of South Africa. Elsewhere in the 54 countries of Africa, elections are being held and democratic governments are being formed and, everywhere, the struggle for democracy is underway.

What is the Obama administration doing, now, to support democratic forces and civil society in these African countries that are caught up in the struggle for democracy?

That is the question.

The Trenchant Observer

See also Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011, August 1, 2011