What do Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev have in common?
As it turns out, both have a passion for social justice, equality, nonviolent conflict resolution and a deep-rooted admiration for Martin Luther King Jr., who was the co-founder and first president of the SCLC.
At a summit earlier this month celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev accepted the SCLC’s offer to serve as international chairman of the SCLC’s Nonviolence Conflict Initiative.
It is a curious, but not unlikely, combination and a first step, Steele told The Root, toward achieving King’s final dream of “internationalizing” and “institutionalizing” the SCLC and the civil rights movement.
“It was April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with my chairman of the board, Dr. Bernard LaFayette, and [told him] now is the time to internationalize and institutionalize SCLC and the civil rights movement,” said Steele. “That was five hours prior to Dr. King being assassinated. So in my vision, and what I’ve gotten from … my spiritual uplifting from God, is that we must fulfill that dream of Dr. King’s to internationalize and institutionalize the civil rights movement.”
The initiative, which Steele said was endorsed by all attendees at the summit, calls for peaceful conflict resolution—one of King’s defining principles—among other social-justice goals such as help for those living in poverty.
Steele was especially impressed by Gorbachev, a good friend, he said, who insisted that there should “‘never be another war, due to the fact that we live in one global village,’” repeating the 83-year-old world leader’s words.
“We live in one global village and we should all … find common ground and work together,” Steele added.
He lamented that Americans could sometimes be “selfish” with their privileges and rights. He insisted that the “SCLC and the civil rights movement were gifts from God. [They] don’t belong to any particular group or any particular country. We must take this throughout the world, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Gorbachev has been collaborating with the SCLC for about two years now, starting with the Poor People’s Campaign, which struck a chord with the former president, who himself came from impoverished beginnings. And he was happy to join this new venture as well.
“He has been fighting for social justice and equality and most importantly for nonviolent resolution of any kind of conflict, if possible,” Gorbachev Foundation spokeswoman Anastasia Poliakova told The Root. “All of those goals are very close to the president, and that is why he was very glad to support this idea.”
One of the first steps toward peace and nonviolence is to work on negotiation processes; to step back and sit at the table and talk, rather than rely on waging war.
“Many of the [other] countries … feel that America is very powerful to the degree where [we] don’t have to sit down and negotiate and communicate in peace and nonviolence. We as a country just go in … and just try to convey our concerns through the military aspect of enforcement rather than just sitting down and negotiate and having common ground and compromise,” Steele explained, pointing to the installation of countless U.S. military bases throughout the world, which often cause unease for other countries.
In order to create room for negotiation, Steele said, walls have to come down—walls not unlike the one that stood in Berlin years ago.
“We still have walls of division, we still have walls of doubt and we still have walls of discrimination, and it’s not all racial, it’s cultural. And these types of walls divide us from coming together. We must still fight for the ultimate goal of eliminating all of these prejudices that we are currently experiencing,” Steele explained. “If we don’t assess them and give attention to these various walls and address them from the peace and nonviolent approach, then we have gone right back to the same aspect of dividing the world, or people, like we have with the Berlin Wall.
“The Berlin Wall divided more than Berlin; it divided the world. But when the walls were dismantled, the fall of the walls brought about the unification of Germany, which brought about, to a large degree, the reunification of the world as we know it today,” he added. “Are we going to continue to let these walls be rebuilt? Or are we going to stand on top of them and ensure that they will never be erected again?”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.