Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Day and the Indivisibility of our Fundamental Human Rights

It’s amazing how fast time flies. It was just about this same time last year that I gave a public lecture on “Justice” during EMU’s 2015 annual observation of Martin Luther King’s national holiday. EMU celebrates this national holiday in a grand style that culminates in a heavily-attended president’s luncheon. Usually, this president’s luncheon is almost, if not the most, well-attended event of the university during any given year, with the exception of its commencement/graduation ceremonies.

This year, I had a privilege of serving on a university-wide planning committee that articulated and organized the array of events by which EMU usually observes this annual holiday although I played a role that was more or less philosophical. One of the rather notable moments of the various meetings of this committee involved our discussion on what ought to be the theme for the 2016 observation of MLK Day at EMU, which also happens to mark the institution’s 30th annual celebration of this significant national holiday. We eventually settled for “And, Justice for All?” as the most fitting theme/rhetorical question for 2016, in recognition of certain national milestones (such as the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) and/or social challenges that have re-surfaced or confronted the nation in recent times, including recurrent incidents of extra-judicial killings of unarmed persons, particularly men and women of color, as well as certain federal and state-level judicial and state-level legislative actions that have been deemed as having diluted the spirit and letter of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yes, time does indeed fly, for it was 33 years ago in 1983 that Ronald Reagan, President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, signed an Act for a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 to 1968), but the holiday was observed for the first time three years later in 1986. Like this year, commemorative marches/speeches/lectures, feasts, luncheons, etc. usually mark this great day. Most important, it’s a day for us to self-assess how we are doing in terms of living up to, striving to live up or aspiring to live up to the dreams of the national hero whose espoused values and norms of social relations and demonstrated non-violent means of social change are being honored across the country. Perhaps, as you read this essay, you can ask yourself: what have I done since the last MLK Day to advance the cause of peaceful co-existence, racial amity and my own personal relations within my zone of influence? Conversely, you can also self-question as follows: what have I done, since the last MLK Day, to expose and push back hate, where necessary, within my zone of influence?

As I cast my mind around some of the major national and international controversies that preceded this year’s commemoration of the MLK Day, the Universal Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 grabbed my attention. Given all of the civil rights and human rights issues that Dr. King himself addressed during his 13 years of being in the national limelight—that is, starting from 1955, when the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association of Alabama was thrust upon his shoulders in the wake of Rosa Parks’ famous bus boycott of that year, and ending in his assassination in 1968—a day, such as this, seems a most auspicious moment for calling attention to the United Nations’ Universal Human Rights Document, a subject that hardly comes up in neither national media nor social media discourses.

Interestingly, one of drafters of the UN Universal Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was President of the United States from 1933 to 1945. As the United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952, Mrs. Roosevelt was among nine United Nations officials who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This team was constituted from nine countries: the United States, Lebanon, China, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Chile, Canada, and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which is now the Soviet Union.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights consists of thirty rights that are considered fundamental and inalienable human rights that apply to every human being regardless of national origin, race, ethnicity, gender, creed, or age. Adopted on December 10, 1948, a time period when a good number of today’s developing nations of the world were still ruled by various Western European colonial powers, the UN Declaration of Human Rights could not have emerged at a more auspicious time because it served as a moral boost to and accorded legitimacy to extant movements—across much of the globe—for freedom from foreign occupation and colonial rule. Its emergence also served as a symbol of legitimacy and moral affirmation for civil/human rights struggles/movements within countries, such as the Black Freedom Movement in the United States of that time period. It’s also important to recall that this lofty set of Human Rights was codified by the United Nations after the world had gone through two devastating world wars: World War I (1914 to 1918) and World War II (1939-1945). World War I resulted in total casualties of more than 35 million, including 16.5 million deaths and 20 million wounded ( As for World War II, the casualties totaled up to 85 million, including 45 million civilian deaths, 15 million battle deaths and 25 million battle wounded (

As I see them, the League of Nations (1920 to 1945), the United Nations (1945 to present) that supplanted it, and the codification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, reflected the most gigantic humanity’s efforts at creating modalities for peaceful co-existence and for peaceful resolutions of conflict. The Universal Human Rights germinated out of a yearning by a war-wary world for a framework for protection of individual lives, for protection of minority populations and for peaceful co-existence among the peoples and communities of our planet. War, after all, reflects not a human capacity for peaceful resolution of conflict but a human capacity for destructive savagery and destructive barbarism.

The Declaration’s Preamble speaks eloquently to the essence of those fundamental human rights:
  • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
  •  Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
  • Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
  • Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
  • Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
  • Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
  • Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, and
  • Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction (
Now, for the full list and description of our 30 fundamental and inalienable rights, go to:

There is a need for universal education about these fundamental human rights of ours. They belong to us: they are yours, and they are mine! We need to introduce and teach these fundamental human rights to students as early as middle school education.

One of the key points to remember about our fundamental human rights is that we have to view and treat them or learn to view and treat them as rights that apply in full to each and every one of us. In other words, each of us owes it as a duty, in our various roles and stations of life, to uphold and apply those rights as we relate to fellow human beings who may or may not belong to our own ethnic group, our own racial group, our own gender group, our own religious group, etc. To the extent humanly possible, we should resist temptation to think of these fundamental rights as rights that apply to only members of our own in-group or apply partially to others. Let’s engage in some introspection and ask as follows: Is there any chance that my conception and understanding of “rights” tell me, perhaps sub-consciously, that “rights” belong exclusively to those who share my ethnic, racial or gender affinity?

Think of it all as a symbiotic dynamic: respect yourself, respect other persons’ rights and then earn and expect respect for your own rights. Keep in mind that all things being equal, the same dignity, fairness and sense of safety that you crave for yourself are also expected by others in an undiluted fashion. In short, never forget this: fundamental human rights are not divisible—that is, they are not meant to apply fully to only members of our in-group and partially or fractionally to others who are not like us!