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Martin Luther King’s Human Rights Legacy

50 Years On, a Concerted Effort on Policing and Racial Disparities

People gather to march in the annual parade down MLK Boulevard to honor Martin Luther King, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., January 16, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Fifty years after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, racism remains integral to the criminal justice system in the United States despite decades of civil rights activism. Police shootings of unarmed black men still make news – most recently the killing of Stephon Clark, shot by Sacramento police while holding a cellphone – and only rarely are the officers who pull the trigger punished.

While civil rights activists have fought for racial justice over decades, winning critical US court rulings against discrimination, they have not made full use of the international arguments and allies at their disposal: the problem of race and justice in the US is also about human rights, and international treaties, declarations and laws that espouse the rights to which we are all entitled.

Too often in the US the focus is on civil and political rights with little regard for economic, social and cultural rights. While the rights to vote, to free speech, and to a fair trial, among others, are vital to human dignity – so too are the rights to adequate food, clothing and housing, to education, and to the highest attainable standard of health.  Ignored is how the modern American way criminalizes poverty and fosters inequality, feeding the school to prison pipeline.

If Americans look only through the lens of the US justice system to solve the problem of unjustified police shootings of unarmed Black men and the myriad other problems related to police and communities of color, the results will remain frustrating.

Dr. King well understood the important link between civil rights, human rights, and combatting racial injustice. Today’s generation of activists and leaders would do well to follow his approach. The civil rights and international human rights communities in the US should strengthen their work together to address justice and racial disparities. Fifty years on, a concerted approach to solving our problems is needed more than ever.

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