“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” wrote the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior in his 1963 Letter From A Birmingham Jail. “It must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Dr. King took his place in the American pantheon for a life lived with unshakable devotion to the principles of freedom, justice, and the God-given right of all human beings to live their lives free from the fetters of oppression and servitude. The Civil Rights Movement which he came to embody was a defining moment in the American epoch because it forced our nation to recommit itself to the virtues of its founding.
King lived, worked, and preached during the most turbulent period of the Cold War, and his incisive judgments on communist tyranny then still ring true of its incarnation in the twenty-first century. “In communism the individual ends up in subjection to the state. True, the Marxist would argue that the state is an ‘interim’ reality which is to be eliminated when the classless society emerges; but the state is the end while it lasts, and man only a means to that end,” wrote King in Stride Toward Freedom, an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and an exegesis of his nonviolent tactics. “And if any man’s so-called rights or liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside. His liberties of expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books are all restricted. Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.”
“Injustice anywhere,” King wrote in his Letter, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” Today, all over the world, there prevails injustice of the lowest order. But if injustice and tyranny persist, there are new successors to Dr. King who have risen to put on his mantle and sound a clarion call for the rights of all mankind. Many dissidents today, whether in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, or in any of the other countries across the world still held in thrall to despotism, consciously walk in King’s footsteps and echo his words in their own messages.
“Any thinking that doggedly stresses a particular group’s cultural uniqueness and superiority, thus making it non-inclusive, is closed-minded and a thing of the past. It will inevitably kill the culture it means to enshrine and protect,” wrote Ilham Tohti in 2011. On Martin Luther King Day four years ago, Professor Tohti, a Uyghur economist and civil society leader, was “detained” when forty armed policemen and state security officials burst into his apartment. The charge was “inciting separatism”—a common euphemism for peaceful activism for the rights of ethnic minorities in China. Tohti is now serving a life sentence in prison.
“The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people,” said Oswaldo Payá, the Cuban democratic activist and avowed disciple of nonviolent protest said when he accepted the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002. Payá was the architect of the Varela Project, a movement calling for democratic political reform within the Castros’ island fortress. Payá’s movement sought to work within the legal confines of Cuba’s own constitution to make the country a free and open society. But in March 2003, human rights activists across Cuba were locked away; the “Black Spring” caught up many of the leaders of the Varela Project. Tragically, Payá, like Dr. King, was not only locked up for his activism, but sacrificed his life as well. In July 2012, he was killed in a car accident arranged by the Cuban regime. Today, his daughter Rosa María Payá continues her father’s work in opposing the gerontocratic thuggery of the Castro clique.
“I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies,” wrote the author, activist, poet, dissident, and prisoner of conscience Liu Xiaobo in the closing statement of his 2009 trial for “inciting subversion of state power.” “For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.” Liu—a prolific and eloquent advocate of nonviolence in the face of totalitarian oppression and, like Martin Luther King, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate—was imprisoned for his role in Charter 08, a petition movement for legislative democracy, an independent judiciary, and a guarantee of the natural rights of all Chinese citizens. For his willingness to stand up and be counted as a supporter of liberty, he was jailed, tried, and for all intents and purposes murdered by his captors. Today, his wife still languishes under house arrest in Beijing, emotionally broken.
“This deprecation of individual freedom was objectionable to me. I am convinced now, as I was then, that man is an end because he is a child of God,” King continued in Stride Toward Freedom. “Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as a means to the end of the state, but always as an end within himself.”
Martin Luther King Day is not only a day for historical reflection. More than that, it is a day which exists to remind us that the moral lessons of our forebears can—and must—be applied to our own time.