The Intersection of US and Global Politics

Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.

The discipline of political science is usually divided into four subfields: US politics, comparative politics, political theory, and international relations. This division is a convenient way to think about relative emphases and to make our study of politics more focused and manageable. But the division is necessarily artificial. In reality, US politics might be thought as a subfield of comparative politics, which focuses on the domestic politics of countries around the world. And the line between international relations and comparative politics is also sometimes blurred.

But sometimes this division inhibits our ability to make sense of events. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech, arguably one of the most powerful speeches delivered in the history of the United States, was the clarion call of the civil rights movement in the United States. It’s available  on YouTube and is well worth discussing in class.

While we generally remember the importance of the speech in the context of the US civil rights movement, we often forget its importance in the broader global context. King was a powerful figure in the American civil rights movement. But he was also critical to the movement for decolonization and equal rights across Africa. Indeed, Nelson Mandela, the leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the country’s first black president, cited Martin Luther King Jr. and WEB DuBois as two of the most influential figures in his own intellectual development. Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who founded the Black Consciousness Movement and was killed by South African police in 1977, cited MLK and Malcolm X as influences. But in breaking the discipline into discrete subfields with little overlap, we miss out on some of the most interesting and important connections.

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