In May of 1967 a great shift took place that shook the core of American government and caused it to activate assassination plans. The place was Frogmore, South Carolina at a retreat organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The leader of the SCLC, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced a shift from “reform” to “revolution” and stated: “We have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.”
Following are from his statement during the retreat:
“Now, if we are to recognize that we are in this new era where the struggle is for genuine equality, we must recognize that we can’t solve our problems until there is a radical re-distribution of economic and political power. There again we must not be fooled about this. We must recognize that if we are to gain our God-given rights now, principalities and powers must be confronted and they must be changed. Now, when we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement. We were seeking to reform certain conditions in the house of our nation because the nation wasn’t living up to the very rules of the house that it has prescribed in the Constitution. Then after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution. I think we must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement.”
King was disheartened at the way African Americans were still suffering from discrimination and poverty even after the government had made concessions via the Voting Rights Act and other civil legislations or decisions. He now understood that such civil matters were in the hands of authorities to manipulate and decide upon at their own will but with human rights there are certain guarantees regardless of racist sentiment of any government. Human rights encourage the oppressed to take matters into their own hands to make sure these rights are enjoyed even to the extent of revolution against and replacement of current power structures. King noted that voting and marching were acts seeking to reform a system that refused to change so revolution must take place to force the change.
During this period that King wanted to shift to human rights from civil rights, was the time that many racially colonized peoples in Africa and elsewhere were undergoing the same shift. The many oppressed peoples around the world realized the futility of trying to appeal to the mercy of a merciless people and system especially when new United Nations covenants and international law acknowledged that they have a right to overthrow that system and govern themselves. Such is called the “right of self-determination” and gives all peoples the right to govern themselves free from racist regimes, alien occupiers and colonial domination. Self-determination was also the guiding and motivating principle of Mahatma Gandhi whose nonviolent movement Dr. King was trying to pattern the civil rights movement after. Naturally a sincere and evolving young Martin Luther King Jr. would see and did see the need for such a shift that was employed by every other oppressed peoples’ movement around the world. But such a shift is a dangerous one because it takes jurisdictional power out of the hands of civil authorities.
At the twilight of the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson (1918) enthroned peoples’ right of self-determination as a paramount principle of international legitimation, and warned: “‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” Robert Lansing, Wilson’s secretary of state, acknowledged the power of “self-determination,” but lamented, “The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. … What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”
Indeed it would have been a “misery” for a racist United States system if Dr. King would have utilized his sway over millions of African Americans to have them take independent political control over where they lived instead of participating in a white majority democracy which is mathematically impossible to represent their interests. Such a move would have destabilized “white power”. With Kings assassination came an end to the discussion of human rights as many of his close confidants even entered into the political arena of a government that murdered their friend. African Americans and major Black organizations are no longer discussing self-determination/self-governance as an option against oppression, but are still seeking reform via voting in defiance of Dr. King’s suggestion of revolution instead.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated: “Ultimately, the struggle for independence, for self-rule — for the right of a people to be a master of its own destiny — is the struggle for human rights.” Dr. King and Malcolm X were killed the moment they started discussing human rights as the new fight. Maybe African Americans should pick up where these two greats left off or continue to ignore these men at the sacrifice of their own humanity.