TORINO, Italy – A tour guide assisting Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles L. Steele Jr. and his delegation smiled broadly as he led them to a middle school named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"We name our schools after international heroes," he said, beaming with pride. "And Dr. King was an international hero."
Because of Dr. King's international reputation, some top leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference recently traveled here to lay the groundwork for an international effort aimed at establishing programs and perhaps institutions dedicated to bringing about world peace. Steele plans to link students in the King school here with another one SCLC has adopted in New Orleans.
When our guide declared that Dr. King was an international hero, my mind drifted back to a story I had written for Emerge magazine in 1999 attempting to explain why Jesse Jackson has been successful getting political prisoners turned over to him around the world.
The Rev. William Howard accompanied Jackson on some of those trips.
"We underestimate the power of the African American image in the world," Howard said. "The civil rights movement of the 1960s still looms larger than any other information that has circulated abroad about us. Quite apart from the image, we also take a sensitivity to situations of human conflict and alienation that allows us to speak about (such conflicts) with an authenticity that most Americans could not use."
Frank E. Watkins, a former Jackson aide, explained the Jackson phenomenon.
"People identify with him as someone who has come from a suffering people and has personally suffered himself," Watkins told me at the time. "They see him as a person who identifies with the underdog. Every place he has been successful was an underdog situation.
"...The leadership (of other countries) has not identified him with unfairness, the imperialism and, in some instances, the racism of the United States."
Steele likes to point out that both Dr. King and Jesse Jackson got their national start with SCLC.
And he too has a story about how the international community views African Americans. At last year's SCLC convention in Dayton, Ohio, Steele recounted a conversation he had in December 2004 with Prime Minister Aerial Sharon and his chief of staff.
"I was in Israel talking with the chief of staff and the prime minister and he (the chief of staff) said, 'You all can bring about world peace. You all have been through the Trans-Atlantic African slave trade and you got lynched, you were murdered, your women were raped and killed, but you didn't turn out to be terrorists. You didn't strap yourselves with a bomb, you don't have any blood on your hands.'
"I said, 'What are you saying?' He said, 'Charles, what I am saying is you can stop the war.'"
Steele said representatives of Hamas have gotten in touch with him, urging SCLC to help diffuse tension in the Middle East and he plans to become involved in the Middle East at some point.
Like Jackson, Steele feels he can be more effective in bringing about world peace than high-ranking government officials. He told delegates to the SCLC convention: "We have the vision. We're the only ones in the world with the moral authority to bring about resolutions to problems and conflicts and the fact that people really don't understand how to get along."
While it is unclear whether anyone has the answer to the Middle East conflict, former South African President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu have publicly acknowledge that they drew strength and inspiration from the U.S. civil rights movement.
This is my Black History Month question: Are we doing anything today that oppressed people around the world will be eager to emulate? If not, we need to get busy.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.