This brief essay uses global legal studies to reconsider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s activism after Gayle v. Browder. During this undertheorized portion of King's career, the civil rights leader traveled the world and gained a greater appreciation for comparative legal and political analysis. This essay explores King's first trip abroad and demonstrates how King's close study of Kwame Nkrumah's approaches to law reform helped to lay the foundation for watershed moments in King's own life.
In To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., renowned civil rights scholar and author, Adam Fairclough, offered penetrating and important assessments of Dr. King's civil rights activism from 1957 to 1959. Fairclough asserted that the Montgomery Bus Boycott captured the world's imagination, with King becoming a "figure of national and international significance," easily overshadowing the South's other black leadership. Yet after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gayle v. Browder, Fairclough rightfully notes, King attempted, but was unable, to spark Montgomery-style, mass protests elsewhere. The minister's newly established Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) also had serious difficulty in sustaining a formidable political agenda. King's inexperience with organizational management, and more importantly, the organization's loose, top-down structure undermined the SCLC's effectiveness and eventually led to the group's decline. The late 1950s, in Fairclough's view, were the civil rights leader's "fallow years."
In the wake of Gayle, the racial icon traveled the globe. In 1957, King flew to Accra to celebrate Ghana's independence as a guest of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. But King's first trip abroad took him far beyond the festivities in Accra. The minister's itinerary was stacked with other foreign capitals. King trekked across West Africa, stopping over in Monrovia, Dakar, and Kano, and he crisscrossed Western Europe, exploring Lisbon, London, Paris, Rome, and Geneva. In 1959, King made a pilgrimage to the land of Gandhi at the request of India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. And again, King used the foreign leader's invitation as a chance to tour the world. Before King returned to the United States, he ventured to Karachi, Athens, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo. King's overseas travels allowed him to participate in major global events, provided him respite from the day-today toils of the Southern struggle, and gave him the ability to forge stronger transnational ties with other liberation movements. And while King's foreign stays are underappreciated, his close study of these nations' legal and political systems are even more so. These travels created new opportunities for the recently minted Ph.D. to examine foreign law and affairs and apply the lessons he learned abroad to the burgeoning civil rights at home.
Martin, Ghana, and Global Legal Studies is part of a larger project which details King's interest in comparative law and politics. This brief essay examines how King used Nkrumah's early approach to constitutional politics in the former Gold Coast to frame his own commitment to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Such a reappraisal of King's experiences in Ghana, in turn, offers a fresh understanding of King's "fallow years."
H. Timothy Lovelace Jr., Martin, Ghana, and Global Legal Studies, 25 Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 623-638 (2018)
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Civil rights, Civil rights movements, Race discrimination--Law and legislation, Equality before the law