- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Despite language barriers and physical distance, Charles Steele Jr. and Mikhail Gorbachev nonetheless have crafted links.

They’re both followers and admirers of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and of his work on peaceful revolution, resolution of conflict through nonviolent means.

At the recent 25th anniversary commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, with other world leaders, signed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Nonviolence Conflict Initiative, introduced by Steele, the former Tuscaloosa city councilman and three-term state senator who moved to Atlanta in 2004 to work with the SCLC, co-founded in 1957 by Dr. King, its first president. Steele is now president and CEO of the SCLC.

Steele noted one major struggle King was working on shortly before his assassination was laying grounds for peace throughout the world, through methods developed in civil rights struggles. This initiative will not take away from the SCLC’s education and economic thrusts, concerns with crime and employment and other domestic questions, he said, but will be an addition.

“We want to implement and set a new world stage of people negotiating, rather than fighting wars,” he said. “As Mr. Gorbachev says, we live in one global village, and there should never be any more wars fought on this planet called Earth.”

Anyone traveling outside the country can hear distrust spoken for the United States, based in part on the thousands of U.S. military bases around the world.

“They’re saying that rather than talk, they feel like we’re using fear tactics,” Steele said. “Sure you need a Department of Defense, but you also need a Department of Peace.”

When Steele first met with Gorbachev two years ago in Moscow, they were slated to speak for a few minutes, but wound up talking - through an interpreter - for 21?2 hours. Gorbachev gave credit to King’s legacy to build the courage to tear down the Berlin Wall, and end decades of Cold War, Steele said.

“Mr. Gorbachev said, ‘You pay attention to the wolves, you’ll never make it to the trees,’ ” Steele said. “You can’t be worried about somebody not liking you. The only thing you have to have is the spiritual aspect of what you believe in, and you have to have the courage, and you have to be committed to doing what’s right.”

Since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the former general secretary has poured energy into the nonprofit Gorbachev Foundation, whose projects include the environmental organization Green Cross International, working to ensure a sustainable future with man in relation to nature, and the annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. It began as a think tank on socio-economic and political issues, then grew to adopt projects that could benefit from Gorbachev’s name and experience. Anastasia Poliakova, a representative of the Gorbachev Foundation, said the connection between Steele and Gorbachev seemed a natural.

“Mr. Gorbachev is an extremely busy man,” said Poliakova, who lives and works out of Spokane, Washington. Born and raised in Moscow, she has lived in the U.S. for 18 years, and is now an American citizen. “He has a huge foundation, a lot of projects going on. Nevertheless, when he heard of the SCLC and the Poor People’s Campaign, he got on board.”

The Poor People’s Campaign was begun by King and the SCLC in 1968, with the mission of creating economic justice for people of diverse backgrounds.

“The poor people have no lobby,” Steele said. “And we have no more middle class, as we did 30 or 40 years ago. So how do we change this? We reach out to the least of these. You have to start at the bottom, and come all the way up.”

The SCLC and its campaigns mirror the concerns of Gorbachev, himself born into a poor Ukrainian-Russian family, working on collective farms as a young man, before putting himself through law school, Poliakova said.

“Mr. Gorbachev came from very humble beginnings, so he recognizes what it’s going to take to bring about true, peaceful resolution,” she said. “That is exactly what he has devoted his life to: fighting poverty, social justice, social issues. But most importantly, dealing with any kind of conflicts in peace, with non-violence.”

Because the Nonviolence Conflict Initiative is in its early days, study will determine the next steps, Steele said. Planning has begun for a symposium to be held in Atlanta, sometime within the next six months to a year, which Gorbachev and some of the other two dozen world leaders who signed are expected to attend.

“Mr. Gorbachev is an older gentleman (83), so he doesn’t travel as much as he would like, but nothing is impossible,” Poliakova said.

Both the Gorbachev Foundation and SCLC agree that education, leading to a diminishment of economic disparity, is key.

“We let people know how it could be done,” Poliakova said. “A lot of people don’t know the history.”

Some of the older models of education are pricing themselves out of the range of the majority of people, Steele said.

“Education is the new civil right,” he said. “We’ve got to educate our people nontraditionally.

“That’s another Berlin Wall, but it’s not only in Berlin: it’s a worldwide wall.”

___

Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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