MLK and the UN

Members and friends of the United Nations Association are proud to recall the indirect, informal connections that Dr. King maintained with the UN during his lifetime. 

Dr. King never held an official position within the United Nations organization. But, his memory is cherished within the UN family. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has commented that, “Dr. King remains an unsurpassed advocate of all the UN stands for: peace, economic and social justice, and human rights.”

There are a couple of instances — probably more — in which Dr. King’s appreciation for the United Nations was apparent in his words and actions.

In 1960, Dr. King was among a group of civil rights leaders who signed a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower calling on the president to issue a declaration “placing the administration firmly on the side of the Negroes” in the South.

The letter noted with approval that, days before, Eisenhower’s State Department had made a public statement expressing “regret” for “the tragic loss of life resulting from the measures taken against the demonstrators in South Africa.”

Dr. King and his colleagues compared the situation of civil rights activists in the United States to the demonstrators in South Africa. The letter pointedly noted:

“South Africans cannot hope for help from a government committed to ‘Apartheid;’ Nor can we hope for help from local and state governments committed to ‘White Supremacy.'”

The letter ended with a question: “Africans are turning to the UN for moral support and encouragement; Must we?”

(Click here to read a pdf copy of the letter “To Dwight D. Eisenhower”)

In 1964, after it was announced that Dr. King had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dr. King made a stop at the United Nations in New York City on his way to Oslo, Norway, to accept his prize.

He was invited there by his good friend, Dr. Ralph Bunche, who was then serving as the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Special Political Affairs. In the UN archives, there is a black-&-white photograph of Dr. King and his wife being greeted by Dr. Bunche (who was, like King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner).

The friendship between Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King extended over many years. In August, 1963, Bunche introduced King when MLK delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC. In 1965, Bunche joined Dr. King on the dangerous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Upon arriving at the State Capitol after the walk from Selma, Dr. Bunche was invited to speak. He praised Dr. King for his leadership of the march. Then, he noted that Alabama’s governor had made some disparaging comments about the “outsiders” who had come to take part in the protest.

Bunche said:

“I say to Governor Wallace that no American can ever be an ‘outsider’ anywhere in this country.

“And, Governor, all these people out here, who have come in a great phalanx, are very great Americans, black and white, the greatest, for they seek to bring unity and maximum strength to this country to the end that it may become, as it can become, white and black together, the greatest society not only of contemporary times but in the entire history of mankind.”

Before concluding his remarks, Dr. Bunche commented:

“In the UN we have known from the beginning that secure foundations for peace in the world can be built only upon the principles and practices of equal rights and status for all peoples, respect and dignity for all men. 

“The world, I can assure you, is overwhelmingly with us.” 

Those are good words to remember.

When we as Americans strive to uphold the equal rights and dignity of all people, the world is with us. And, the United Nations is on our side.

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