50 years since his death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophical work is all but forgotten

King was both an activist and a philosopher.
King was both an activist and a philosopher.
Image: Reuters/ Billy Weeks
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In the 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the memory of the transformative civil rights leader has undergone a “Disneyfication.” Textbooks, movies, and TV shows often suggest that King’s quest for racial and economic equality was ultimately successful. Yet half a century since his assassination, King would be dismayed by the ongoing inequality and racism in the US. And the complexities of his ideas are often overlooked.

King was not simply a compelling speaker, but a deeply philosophical intellectual. The syllabus from his social and political philosophy course while he was a visiting professor at Morehouse College includes works by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill. King’s own writing engages with Nietzsche and Marx extensively; Hegel was one of his favorite thinkers.

Brandon Terry, a professor of African American studies and social studies at Harvard University, says that even King’s “I have a dream” speech needs his philosophical context to be understood as King intended it. Terry, who co-edited To Shape a New World, a collection of essays on King’s political philosophy, notes that some figures, such as Supreme Court justice John Roberts, have used the line “we want to judge people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character” to suggest that the government should not focus on or highlight race.

In reality, King had deeper theory on how race should be considered in public policy. “Even in ‘I have a dream,’ he’s talking about questions of police brutality, reparations. But those are things that people don’t highlight,” says Terry. “If you extract that quote out of context you don’t see that King has a much richer view about what the ultimate end of society should be, the role that race should play, and what kinds of things would be permissible to bring about a more just society given a history of racial oppression and the existence of ghetto poverty and the racial stigmas attached to it.”

King drew on theological, economic, and historical ideas to inform his philosophical thinking. For example, he critiqued the work of philosopher and economist Karl Marx, notes Tommie Shelby, professor of African American studies and philosophy at Harvard University, who co-edited To Shape a New World with Terry.

Marx believed that major historical changes, from slavery to feudalism to capitalism and so on, happened because of advances in technology, and so simply pointing out injustices and would have little effect. Human calls to action would have little impact on the steady progression of society and development of technology.  King strongly disagreed with this point.

“King obviously thought that it was important to protest, to defend your conception of justice, to try to move people through moral appeals, both though your example and through your commitment and willingness to sacrifice and serve,” says Shelby. “Part of what he’s criticizing in Marx is the way in which he marginalizes moral thought and action when it comes to explaining major social change.”

Meanwhile, Terry says that King mirrored Hegel’s system of dialectic reasoning (where a thesis is put into opposition with a counter antithesis, and the two are combined into a synthesis) to reconcile the theories within communism and capitalism.

“Part of the way he thinks a more just political economic order will emerge, as a synthesis of those ideas,” says Terry. “He tries to reason toward something that involves the best features of both.”

Crucially, King was a public philosopher rather than an ivory-tower intellectual, and used both words and actions to develop his theories. “King’s engaging the public, he’s trying to persuade the public through his speeches and writings, he’s not writing academic journal papers that five people read,” says Shelby.

The combination of activism and theory is apparent in King’s approach to Christianity. As a Christian minister, King was a deeply religious man. He drew on both the black social gospel tradition and philosophers such as Kant to develop a liberal interpretation of Christian ideas.

Terry notes that King found Nietzsche’s views on Christianity—that the religion creates and upholds a “slave morality” that essentially reframes weakness as morality to mollify the oppressed—deeply unsettling.

“Against those critiques King tries to rehabilitate a concept of Christian love,” says Terry. “It’s one thing to sit and speculate about the nature of love, and King does that quite often. But partly he’s drawing on and trying to further and test those ideas through a practice of contentious politics that nevertheless brings about reconciliation, peace, and an absence of bitterness and hatred…the fact that he’s able to do that for him is the closest thing you can get to a kind of proof.”

King’s philosophical ideas also influenced his political behavior in that, rather than evaluating the means as distinct from their ends, both he and Gandhi believed that the two were inseparable. “They think the means by which you arrive at certain ends changes the nature of the end itself,” says Terry. For King, violent protests would simply never achieve the same political progress and unity as nonviolent methods.

Both Terry and Shelby have various theories about why King’s philosophical work has been so sweepingly disregarded. Firstly, black thinkers in general are rarely given the intellectual credibility they deserve. The field of philosophy, meanwhile, struggles to engage with those who express their ideas outside the classroom and who combine both activism and academia.

But the refusal to engage with King’s ideas also reflects the misguided belief that we don’t need to grapple with his work, because King’s vision has become reality.

“That narrative is deeply misguided,” says Terry. “King’s thought points far beyond just the injustice of the Jim Crow regime. He gives us great arguments about how to think about the interaction with economic inequality and racism, the political morality of dissent, about just war, the implications of national budgeting, conscientious citizenship.”

And, of course, the implications of the Crow regime are far from over. “We’re still in a debate about the extent, scope, and legitimacy of voting rights,” he adds. “If you think of the Civil Rights movement as a triumphalist, consensus-based, heroic achievement that’s basically been surpassed, then that could lead you to thinking that King is not really worth digging into.”

King did lead tremendous social change in his lifetime, but he theorized about and hoped for far more progress. We still have much to learn from him.