This re-post of an earlier interview, initially published in April, is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.
The Morehouse College Faculty Research Committee (FRC) is pleased to announce the launch of a new faculty book discussion series. Periodically the FRC will interview Morehouse faculty members about their recent publications. This week we interview of Dr. Vicki Crawford, who has recently published Reclaiming the Great World House: The Global Vision of Martin Luther King Jr (University of Georgia Press, 2019).
What key lessons do we learn from Reclaiming the Great World House?
The key takeaway from this edited volume is that the ideas and praxis of Martin Luther King, Jr. remain a source of important insight as we confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. In the final chapter of his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, King expressed an all-inclusive vision for humanity extending beyond geopolitical boundaries and across the differences of race, class, religion, ethnicity and nationality. Using the metaphor of the “great world house” to express his message for all people, King identified what he called the “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and war as major threats to its realization. The diverse contributors to Reclaiming the Great World House ponder new understandings and expressions of King’s vision. The thematic chapters included in this volume approach King afresh, both within his own historical context, and beyond, as we explore the extent to which King’s ideas might be of help to us today and in the future.
This is a book about King’s global vision. How has that aspect of King’s work been neglected or misunderstood? And why is it important that we reclaim that legacy now?
Dr. King was a global figure with a carefully conceived global vision evolving over a decade before he received the famed Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Beginning with his formative years reading the black-owned, Atlanta Daily World newspaper which featured articles on anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism in Africa and Asia and continuing through his undergraduate education at Morehouse College and graduate study at Crozer Seminary and Boston University, King astutely linked the oppressive conditions faced by African Americans with similar experiences of people of color worldwide. Speaking at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on the eve of the 1955 bus boycott, King articulated his understanding of the power of the local protest as well as its interconnection with the larger global freedom struggle.
Regrettably, King’s legacy as a globalist has been eclipsed by a tendency to view him narrowly as a regional and national leader for civil rights. While King stated that he was “a citizen of the world” in one of his last books, in many instances, media and published works still portrayed him one-dimensionally. On the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, in 2018, various commemorations of King’s life and work restricted their focus to the years leading up to and concluding with the 1963 March on Washington. The over-emphasis on King as “the dreamer,” and the “drum major” failed to take account of his internationalist leanings and wider global understandings. King lent support to anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles throughout Africa and was involved in a number of global coalitions where he delivered speeches, and signed numerous letters, appeals, and declarations condemning racism worldwide. He spoke out against nuclear testing and other world problems and supported the organizing efforts of peace movement coalitions as well as the Asian-African Bandung Conference held in Indonesia in 1955. Also, King’s incisive critique of empire and deep race and class analysis helped to shape his advocacy for a basic guaranteed income, commitment to economic justice, and support for a Poor Peoples Campaign here in the U.S. Unfortunately, King’s writings and orations over the last five years of his life have been under-appreciated and under-researched. The process of reclamation we undertake in this volume centers around King’s important insights on participatory democracy, nonviolence, and the necessity of love and compassion as essential elements to building the “great world house.”
Today, we face unparalleled threats to our modern democracy. What greater time than this to explore King’s global vision and to refocus his legacy of ideas and praxis in broader directions. Many of the problems King faced and those of his generation remain with us today. The triple evils of “racism, poverty and war” still persist along with other escalating forms of violence and human destruction. If we extend King’s analysis, we also see the intersectional ways that race and class configure with gender and sexual orientation to limit human potentiality. The recent spread of the Coronavirus, for example, has exposed vast systemic inequalities in this country, resulting in higher rates of disease and death among African Americans relative to generational poverty, lack of access to good health care, unemployment and poor housing. King continues to present us with powerful challenges as he reminds us that we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to address injustice. Reclaiming the Great World House examines the fullness in King’s thought and action at a critical juncture in our nation’s history and the history of the world.
You direct the Morehouse College King Collection. How has that experience affected this book?
This is one of several projects that have evolved over the eleven-year period that I have served as director of the collection. It specifically grew out of the overall programmatic initiatives of the Morehouse College King Collection which focus on teaching, research, scholarship, and public outreach. As a world-class collection of original sermons, speeches, correspondence and other primary source materials, the papers consist of King’s most influential writings, providing an exceptional opportunity for the study of his life and legacy as well as major events of the twentieth century.
Morehouse College played an important role in the early formation of King’s intellectual and ethical thought. It was here that he made early contact with eminent scholars and teachers who helped to shape his foundational thinking on a range of issues, including the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence. The acquisition of the collection, in 2006, provided an opportunity to utilize the collection in innovative and creative ways as we continued to fulfill the unique mission of the college.
Eight years ago, the University of Georgia Press agreed to a collaborative project to publish the Morehouse College King Collection Series on Civil and Human Rights; they had previously published Born to Rebel, the autobiography of former Morehouse College President, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays in 1971. As we envisioned it, The Morehouse King Collection series would offer new scholarship focused on insightful overviews and analyses of Dr. King’s intellectual, theological, and activist engagement with a variety of broad themes. These themes would include racism, poverty and militarism, as well as nonviolence, education, and civil and human rights. Along with thematically focused works, the series would include brief critical studies on King’s involvement with specific campaigns such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Poor Peoples Campaign. Though scholarly in nature, the books would be accessibly written and engaging for general readership, providing overviews of King’s life and legacy through a twenty-first century lens. So far, we have published two books in the series, including Reclaiming the Great World House and expect a third to be published on the Poor Peoples Campaign in December of 2020. Also, there is a fourth book currently under review that we anticipate will be accepted for publication very soon. As the series continues to expand, we seek manuscripts on a range of topics relative to King’s legacy of ideas such as economic justice, climate and environmental justice and other twenty-first century issues.
What is next for you?
I hope to expand upon the decade of work established with student and faculty initiatives such as the King Legacy Scholars Program, a co-curricular learning community, sponsored in partnership with the Division of Student Services. Also, I would like to encourage student and faculty involvement in innovative research activities around the collection and lend support to faculty publication across the disciplines. In 2015, the collection received a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for its project on Humanities Teaching with the King Collection. This support enabled us to renew our study, teaching, and understanding of King’s ideals and to explore the potential application of these ideals in today’s world. Overall, looking ahead, my goal is to expand innovative approaches to research, public outreach, and educational opportunities for both students and faculty as we engage our community and the world.
Dr. Vicki Crawford is the Director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection and a Professor of Africana Studies