Antonette Barilla on the international impact of MLK

In an Elon Law Now commentary, Prof. Antonette Barilla writes that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s impact internationally is significant, but often under-appreciated. 

Commentary about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact internationally follows, authored by Elon Law Professor Antonette Barilla[1]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps best known for his leadership in the American Civil Rights movment….as a champion for racial equality in this country….as a leader of non-violent civil disobedience. But we sometimes fail to recall that there exists a greater world population who know and revere Dr. King, not because of their personal connection to the struggles with American culture, American laws or American politics, but because his message speaks to the struggles of all humanity, and transcends continent and culture.

Those of us who learned of Dr. King from a foreign perspective know him as an international human rights leader. He spoke against the travesties committed by the South African apartheid government.  He supported land reform for peasants in Latin America despite opposing American policies in Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere.  King encouraged the Latino Movements, and provided support, resources, and public relations to colleagues such as Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.[2]  He often elaborated on the relationship between the civil rights movement here and the struggle for colonial independence abroad.[3] He recognized and spoke about the strong parallel between resistance against European colonialism in Africa and the struggle against racism in the United States.[4] Dr. King was vocal about his opposition to the Vietnam War.[5] He discussed international poverty as a global class issue, and one that Americans must confront globally. 

It is, perhaps, easy to forget that this humble, American-born leader, is honored in cities and countries around the world with monuments and murals, street names and parks. From Germany and France to Israel and Egypt to Japan and South Africa, he is as much of a venerated champion of human rights there, as he is a leader of civil liberties here.[6]

He projected an approach to international relations new to the twentieth century – an approach that was based upon Ghandian non-violence, on human dignity, and on empathy for the people of developing nations.[7] In his famous Riverside Church sermon, he invoked the binding authority of international law through the United Nations Charter on the United States.[8] He placed issues of American economic poverty under an international lens, and emphasized the economic rights that his movement championed as human rights[9] – rights that transcend the borders of this country and resonate deeply with those suffering around the world – rights that are embedded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

His influence was so much more extensive than we often recognize. At that time in history, during the mid-1960s, the struggle against colonialism, apartheid, and racial inequality coalesced with the conclusion of groundbreaking international human rights treaties. One result was the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[10] The Convention was the first major international human rights treaty adopted since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[11] At the time, the United Nations had grown to 115 members, and almost seventy-five percent of those countries were in the developing world.[12] The UN delegates from developing countries were united in their efforts to combat racial injustice. Dr. King’s influence was obvious and born of the shared support among him and those leaders, working to combat the same inequalities and prejudices. [13]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted that with American power comes a commensurate degree of moral responsibility in the world.  In this regard, America must speak for the overseas poor Dr. King believed that US foreign policy and international relations must stand on moral principles of justice for the vulnerable and defenseless. He demanded that American civil rights law be seen as part of international human rights law, and not separate from the latter. We must remember this, and not confine the lessons of Dr. King to the civil rights struggle of one people in one particular place at one particular time, for he did not intend for his message to be contained. He was clear that his advocacy was for rights that are fundamental to all humans, and that are derived not from state sovereignty, but from the natural law of God.

The struggle for these fundamental rights for which Dr. King so passionately fought continues. The practice of ethnic cleansing endures.[14] Unsafe labor conditions result in the death of thousands of underpaid poorly treated workers every year.[15] Ongoing war relentlessly claims lives on multiple continents. Countries maintain political prison camps and a regular practice of torture.[16]  Draconian laws persecuting gays and lesbians are brutally enforced.[17]  Women are deprived of the right to education.[18] Migrant workers die by the dozens each week.[19] Children and women are sold as commodities.[20] Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.[21]

We can be sure that if he were here with us today, he would speak out against these travesties. What of his great message, of his tremendous example, do we apply?

Great people emerge in societies around the world. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  This country’s own Martin Luther King, Jr. will forever be among the greats, a champion of hope, here and across the globe. If we limit the legacy of Dr. King to this country, we shortchange our own ability to appreciate the full worth of one extraordinary American, whose message continues to shape the beliefs of people across the globe.

More information about Elon Law Professor Antonette Barilla is available here.

Elon Law Now is a series of commentary on legal and current affairs by members of the Elon Law faculty.


[1] Assistant Professor of Law at Elon University School of Law, with special thanks to Landon Hodges for his excellent research composition.

[2] Nicole Akoukou Thompson, Martin Luther King Jr. & Latino Civil Rights Movement, Latin Post (Jan. 20, 2014, 5:03 PM),

[3] E.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.: The Birth of a New Nation (Apr. 7, 1957) (“Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire. Freedom is never given to anybody.”).

[4] Ghana Trip, King Encyclopedia,

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at Riverside Church in New York City: Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence (Apr. 4, 1967).

[6] Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond the Borders of the United States, Overseas Vote Foundations (Jan. 13, 2012),

[7] Henry J. Richardson, III, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an International Human Rights Leader, 52 Vill. L. Rev. 471, 476 (2007).

[8] Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., supra note 4.

[9] Human Rights in the United States: Beginning at Home, National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, (quoting Dr. King in saying that “[w]e have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights . . . the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together . . . you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”).




[13] Roger Alford, The Impact of Martin Luther King on International Law, Opino Juris,

[14] See, e.g., Darfur Conflict Displaces 300,000 in Five Months, BBC (May 23, 2013, 10:45pm), (describing the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and noting that the Janjaweed militia has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Darfur’s black African population.).

[15] ILO Estimates Over 1 Million Work-Related Fatalities Each Year, International Labour Organization (Apr. 12, 1999),–en/index.htm.

[16] E.g., World Report 2013: North Korea, Human Rights Watch,

[17] E.g., Ugandan Gay People ‘Abused by Police,’ BBC (Feb. 27, 2015), (discussing the effect of the Ugandan “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” which made homosexual acts punishable by up to life imprisonment.). While this particular Ugandan law was struck down by a court in August, 2014 due to the fact it was passed without the requisite quorum in parliament, members of parliament are trying again to pass similar legislation. See Saskia Houttuin, Gay Ugandans Face New Threat from Anti-Homosexuality Law, The Guardian (Jan. 6, 2015),

[18] See Education for All Global Monitoring Report,|Female&age_group=edu0_prim&countries=all (showing the percentage of females in various countries aged 3-6 years above primary school entrance age who have never been to school.).

[19] See, e.g., Jung Hwan-bong & Kim Ji-hoon, Industrial Accidents Cause Migrant Worker Deaths, The Hankyoreh (Jul. 23, 2012), (noting that in South Korea alone, migrant fatalities rose from 74 in 2005 to 101 in 2009.).

[20] See Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,

[21] Anup Shah, Poverty Facts and Stats, Global Issues (Jan. 07, 2013),