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Remembering Martin Luther King and the Work Ahead

On this day in which the United States commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson has an op-ed in the New York Times describing Dr. King’s last birthday– January 15, 1968. Jackson writes:

Dr. King spent his 39th birthday working. I remember him coming to the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He walked in that day around 9 a.m., after breakfast with his family, wearing blue jeans and a windbreaker. (I recall a bright, sunny day.) He convened the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff and a rainbow coalition — blacks from the Deep South, whites from Appalachia, Jewish allies from New York, Latino farm worker organizers — to plan what would be his last campaign, the Poor People’s March to the nation’s capital. Though Dr. King had met with increasing hostility from the press and government, his mood was upbeat because we were energized by the vision of a new initiative to advance our movement.

Around noon Xernona Clayton, a friend of the King family, walked in with a birthday cake. She teased Dr. King, saying that he was “so busy you forgot to celebrate your own birthday.” Slightly embarrassed, Dr. King blew out the candles. We must have eaten the cake in record time because it seemed that within moments the plates were cleared and we were back in our meeting — with Al Lowenstein conducting a workshop about the march and how to step up pressure to end the Vietnam War.

That’s the model we should follow this week — and beyond. We should celebrate the election of our new president. And then we should get back to work to complete the unfinished business of making America a more perfect union.

There is indeed much work to do. When Barak Obama assumes the presidency tomorrow, there will be myriad domestic challenges on his plate–the economy, health care, eduction, and the list goes on. But he will also face the daunting task of restoring America’s reputation in the international community.  This work begins tomorrow with his Inaugural Address.  He must send the right message to the rest of the world– that the approach of the United States during the last 8 years is over, that respect for international law and human rights will be a hallmark of American foregin policy. Then, the new Administration– and indeed all of us that deal with international law– must work to deliver on that promise. It is that work that will continue Dr. King’s legacy.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.