By Zac Johnson, Class of ‘22

In his talk Martin, the Movement and the World of Comparative Law, Professor H. Timothy Lovelace Jr. challenged our understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. as purely an activist interested in domestic affairs. Lovelace argued that while King obviously lived in the United States and was interested U.S. constitutional law and politics, international and comparative law and politics also informed King’s activism. Lovelace then pointed to three efforts supported by King – reparative justice, immigration reform, and universal health care – to illustrate how trips to India and the UK shaped his visions for the Civil Rights Movement.

Lovelace began by emphasizing the key role of activists in comparative law projects. In his eyes, “those who are not trained in law can use comparative legal analysis to advance justice.” Martin Luther King, while not a lawyer, sought to expand civil rights in the US by looking at law globally. Lovelace lectured that King’s readings of justice under the 14th Amendment broadened through a comparative study.

In his discussion of reparative justice, Lovelace examined King’s trip to India. The Indian constitution, primarily drafted by a member of the lowest caste (then known as the “untouchables”), contains provisions that mirror those in the US constitution. However, Lovelace asserted that the Indian constitution’s protections for the untouchables extended well beyond our constitutional protections for African Americans. King was inspired by India’s structural solutions to the structural problems facing untouchables. He soon attempted to import Indian visions of justice to the US, including championing special programs for African Americans modelled after those for the untouchables and the creation of a Secretary of Integration in the President’s cabinet. Lovelace probed King’s approach to reparative justice further to expose hypocrisy in contemporary affirmative action debates. Opponents of affirmative action argue King would oppose the program because it disparages Asian Americans when, in fact, King’s support for affirmative action in US was partly borne out of his trip to Asia itself. Lovelace criticized this effort of racial triangulation, conservatives’ attempt to use Asian Americans to break up minority coalitions in the struggle for equality.

Seeing the Berlin Wall, King further developed the idea that restrictive immigration laws worked against the laws of God. According to Lovelace, King was firm in the belief that “there was no East and West in Christ, and there should be no East and West in Berlin.” Lovelace proceeded to highlight that while many today recognize that the Berlin Wall’s restrictions on migration were a human rights violation, border walls are not simply a Cold War relic and that travel restrictions are nothing new, a nod to President Trump’s policies on immigration.

Finally, Lovelace explored King’s stance on health care. The US constitution, unlike international human rights law, does not protect economic and social rights. King concluded that the US needed to establish a constitutional right to healthcare, and he became deeply invested in the creation and expansion of Medicare as a way to bring the US closer to international standards. King was also hopeful that the Poor People’s Campaign could tackle persistent health disparities, yet he was assassinated before the campaign’s conclusion.

Lovelace ended his talk by mentioning policies the new Presidential administration should pursue to give King’s legal and political goals life, and for Lovelace, this is especially important given that Biden’s campaign often invoked King’s rhetoric. Lovelace suggested the President continue to support affirmative action policies, appoint judges who know justice and mercy, and harness executive power to reverse our current course on immigration policy.

Prof. Lovelace joined The Franklin Humanities Institute and The Duke Human Rights Center @FHI as the speaker for the annual Rights and the Humanities lecture. The talk was not recorded but you can read a full interview with Prof. Lovelace.