The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr

Brandon M. Terry
Tommie Shelby

Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t just a brilliant orator and organizer. He was also a groundbreaking thinker.

Martin Luther King Jr addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Wikimedia

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Martin Luther King Jr is often remembered for his soaring oratory. But the commonplace emphasis on his rhetoric rather than his ideas too often allows conservatives to domesticate him, or worse, use his taken-out-of-context words to bolster the very forces of oppression that King struggled to defeat.

A new book on King’s political philosophy — To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr, co-edited by Brandon M. Terry and Tommie Shelby — takes seriously King as a thinker, not simply an orator or activist. Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin Radio’s The Digrecently had the chance to speak with the Harvard scholars about King’s rich political philosophy. The following is a condensed and slightly edited version of their conversation.

The Whitewashed King

DD

Your new book is premised on the argument that King has never really been taken seriously as a political philosopher. Explain why this has been the case, and how King has been framed.

TS

The tendency is not to focus on him as a systematic thinker and to explore his ideas, but to focus on his social history mode, to focus on his role within the Civil Rights Movement, or occasionally you’ll get emphasis on his rhetorical practice. You certainly get a lot of emphasis on his role within the church and theology.

But within the broader discipline of political philosophy and political theory and even within some elements of intellectual history, people don’t tend to spend a lot of time exploring his ideas in detail and working through his various books and essays and speeches and sermons to try to draw out his systematic worldview and situate him within the history of political philosophy more broadly and in the black political tradition, in particular.

BT

By not considering him as a thinker but considering him as rhetorician or kind of heroic activist, we reduce him to those elements and basically go from the premise that he is not telling us anything new — he’s just reiterating the deep wells of our democratic political culture, the American creed. We don’t even think to look to him as a source of new ideas or as a source of anything challenging. He seems altogether too familiar.

TS

This is a complex issue. I mean, on the one hand it’s natural when you’re trying to persuade people to change — even when that change is quite fundamental — to draw on things that they already believe, things they already accept and maybe even cherish or regard as sacred. King does this — he draws heavily on the Bible, he draws on the Declaration of Independence, on the Constitution, and familiar ideas from the broader Western tradition so he can push you along by drawing on things that you ostensibly are already committed to.

But I think it’s important to see the ways where King thinks he needs to, as he will often say, push for a “revolution in values” — to try to point out that maybe not every idea, moral principle, or value we need is already found in, say, the Constitution.

So I think he’s walking a fine line there between drawing on these resources that might make him seem conservative, like invoking the American dream in some cases, while at the same time trying to push the nation and the world in what he regards as a more just, progressive direction — which might mean departing from some of the things that they’re committed to.

DD

And so there’s a sort of dynamism in his relationship to the material of American political culture. He’s not making a clean break from it, but there is this dynamism there that’s flattened in conventional historical accounts.

BT

Yeah, I think that’s right. Again, if all you’re expecting is for him to reiterate what’s familiar and try to dramatize the key exclusion of race, I think you miss a lot. As Tommie just pointed out, King had all sorts of ideas about what would be needed to actually make this a just society that would require some pretty dramatic adjustments to the Constitution, whether they’re things like a guaranteed annual income or a more expansive framework for collective bargaining that would extend into things like tenant organizing, welfare-rights organizing, or even something like the critique of militarism — which would have dramatic implications for how power is organized in the United States.

DD

Does racism facilitate this pervasive idea that Martin Luther King had words instead of ideas?

BT

I think so. Quite frankly, we still don’t give African American thinkers or thinkers of color the kind of respect they deserve in the academy and in the public sphere. They’re seen as people who add a rhetorical flair or experiential supplement to the existing ideas of more well-known white thinkers.

DD

The last misuse of King that I want to ask about is perhaps the most dangerous and pervasive, which is the frequent conservative invocation of King’s dream for a colorblind society. Tell me a little about where this misuse comes from, because I think it’s been very powerful for the Right.

BT

Because his stature is so enormous in the American pantheon of heroes, and because people don’t know King’s thought very well or think that there is no thought to know, these cynical appropriations can be effective. And it flatters the conceit of the people deploying them because they don’t want to think of themselves as racists or contributing to racial injustice.

But, of course, when you’re looking at King’s actual thought, there’s just simply no question that although he envisions a beloved community where people’s social networks and opportunities for flourishing won’t be structured by race (and certainly not a racial caste system), he recognizes that in order to get toward anything like that, you’re going to have to take race into the forefront of your considerations. There’s going to be questions of corrective justice to remediate inherited historical disadvantages. There’s going to be a need for aggressive anti-discrimination efforts by the federal government, by local governments. There’s going to need to be an active public sphere and civil society organized around preventing systematic humiliation and discrimination in housing, in welfare bureaucracies, things like that.

Martin Luther King in 1965. Library of Congress

Even King’s vision of integration, I think, has so much more teeth in it than people tend to recognize. They quote the piece of “I Have a Dream” where it’s kids holding hands, but King thought you would have to uproot the metropolitan boundaries and radically reorganize how we do schooling, municipal funding, mass transit, things like that, to bring about the kind of integration that he thought would be an ultimate good, and more properly facilitate justice in American society.

So it’s just such a radically different vision than the conservative misappropriation, but that can only get off the ground if we don’t know the contextual King.

TS

I’d add one small note. Danielle Allen, a political theorist, contributed to our volume a piece on integration, and she explores some of the more radical ideas that are a part of King’s vision of integration. One part of that is the idea that true integration involves the sharing of political and economic power. It’s not just about being friendly to members of other racial groups. It’s about being incorporated into the society in a way that allows black people to share equitably in how society is governed and how economic resources are distributed and how they’re used.

Integration is so often put forward as a matter of an ideal of diversity — you just want lots of people of different races all together in the same space or the same institution. But it’s very important for King — who wrote an essay on the ethical demands for integration where he explores this in some detail — that we see this as a matter of the empowerment of racialized groups that have been previously stigmatized and subordinated. That’s the true ideal of integration that he’s really advancing.

Nonviolence and Black Power

DD

I wanted to ask you, Brandon, about the challenge that the Black Power movement posed to King. Can you say a little bit about that debate?

BT

It was a really wide-ranging debate, I think one of the most interesting in the history of black political life. You have Black Power critics moving against King on a lot of different dimensions. Some were skeptical of the appeal of nonviolence. For a couple of reasons some thought it was a corroding influence on what I would consider a masculinist sense of dignity and self-respect. I think King was right to dismiss and deflate those criticisms.

Others, I think, pointed out more correctly that King’s nonviolent direct-action politics often drew upon an implicit threat of black uprising from below, but I think they often did not draw the correct implications from acknowledging that fact. Simply the threat of black uprising from below wouldn’t change things for the better. What you really did need was a nonviolent movement of the sort that King was leading in order to actually achieve those gains and manage that threat.

DD

Because there’s a majority problem.

BT

There’s a majority problem, and there’s a problem with the moral witness of these movements. If you’re in a moment of contentious politics in a society severely marked by racial injustice, you really don’t want to give a lot of grist to your most reactionary opponents, the white supremacists, to launch an all-out suppression and repression campaign against black communities. You really want to try to maintain the moral high ground as best as you can, and when it starts to just become an explicit war of all against all, it’s not likely that blacks can survive that kind of descent into madness.

King was quite supportive of many of the Black Power contentions — things like the idea that it was important to cultivate a race pride. But he was very wary that that would turn into chauvinism. He thought it was perfectly fine to organize black voting, certain kinds of institutions, but that those shouldn’t preclude you from pursuing alliances with the broader society because you didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that political economy was also important and not simply reducible to race.

DD

In terms of King’s debate with the Black Power movement over violence, one thing I think that you argue — if I have this right — is that King’s theorization of nonviolence is often oversimplified, both probably at the time and definitely today. Can you talk about how King actually thought about nonviolence and how that compares to the conventional wisdom?

BT

I’ll just say two things really quickly. One is that I think “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has an outsize influence on how we think about King’s theorization of nonviolence. People tend to reduce his thinking on the question to simply one where you don’t obey unjust laws because they are in some way in violation of a higher moral law.

DD

One sense in which disruptive nonviolent protests can be coercive is even in this good cop, bad cop sort of way — of presenting the nonviolent struggle as the alternative that the powers that be need to deal with if they don’t want to deal with urban riots. Can you talk a little about that and how King thought about the emergence of riots?

TS

King was very sympathetic to the plight of urbanized blacks in the North, Midwest, and in the West, and their frustration at being locked out of the best jobs, out of the best housing, inadequate educational opportunity, and so on. And he could appreciate the ways in which their frustration could sometimes lead to despair.

But he’s pretty consistent in being against riots both on grounds of principle and pragmatism. Hope for him is very much a kind of political virtue, it’s very much what sustains us in the long struggle for justice. He also didn’t think that they would lead anywhere good. Rioting invites political repression, invites the police to put down the struggle, and invites people who might’ve been allies to turn against you and might be willing to turn a blind eye to the violence of the state in repressing the struggle when it takes that form.

“The riot is the language of the unheard” — sometimes people who think of themselves as on King’s left or think of themselves as more radical will invoke that to suggest that he thought this could be a justified mode of resistance. He did not think that.

But it was important for him to understand that you don’t want to condemn that spontaneous rebellion in isolation. You’ve got to understand the broader structural situation, where most of that blame is on the broader public and on government officials who fail to respond to the legitimate concerns of those who are engaged in, in this case, an inappropriate mode of resistance.

BT

The urban uprisings of the mid-1960s changed a lot about black political culture in American politics writ large. King predicted that they would strengthen the fascist elements in this country and bring severe right-wing repression. They did do so. But they also injected a really transformative element into African-American political life, which is that many Black Power activists claimed the riots as a kind of warrant for their own political ideas and as the harbinger of a political revolution that they would lead. They narrated the riots as a coherent, substantive political project, linking it to their own political philosophies in a way that is extremely difficult to work out from the rioters themselves.

If you actually look at the sociology of rioting, it’s really fascinating because most analysts separate different waves of participants. So there are a group of participants who usually start the uprising, and they may have a more political grievance, straightforwardly, responding to a particular act of, usually, police malfeasance. And then you have other people join in. But by the third wave of participants, they’re people who are really just trying to use the anarchic moment to redress their own poverty and needs. That’s not to say that’s not political, but it looks very different.

DD

There is a politics to a poor person without an explicitly formed political ideology looting and defying the state in doing so — but there’s a big difference between acknowledging that and saying that these people are all just a few steps away from being members of a guerrilla army.

BT

Right, exactly. And so I think one of King’s most effective arguments against Black Power was exposing the conceit in that. It was really problematic for the Black Power movement, as well, because they claimed to have a lot of authority over these rebellions or really to be connected with these rebellions in a way they just simply weren’t. They couldn’t start a riot. They couldn’t control a riot. Once it became clear that that was the case, I think the state was much more willing to enact severe repression against them, and again, in ways that King, I think, rightly predicted.

Socialism and Economic Justice

DD

Tommie, you write that King’s fight for economic justice was more challenging than the first phase — abolishing Jim Crow. Can you talk about the different class politics at work here?

TS

He thought that the first phase, the southern movement, was largely to get rid of Jim Crow ordinances, laws that prohibited people from participating in public life, laws that prevented people from exercising their right to freedom of association.

But he thought you needed to deal with issues of poverty, with employment discrimination, with joblessness, the threat of automation to people’s living standards, and access to non-menial work that paid a living wage.

People need access to good schools. People need access to decent housing, the freedom to chose where they want to live, the economic power to enable them to exercise that freedom. Those things require significant resources to be transferred to people who were previously impoverished and economically marginalized. And if you’re going to really allow people to be equals in what’s supposed to be a democracy, then they do need to be economically empowered to make good use of their various liberties and opportunities. That clearly is going to mean a shift of resources — really, ill-gotten gains, gains extracted from an unjust social order — to marginalized and dispossessed populations.

Naturally, people who are affluent don’t want to give those resources up. Persuading them that this is what justice requires, persuading them you can’t achieve justice without some sacrifice, without it costing you something, was going to be very difficult. It would mean that many people who might’ve been very sympathetic to the southern campaign against Jim Crow might be much less militant about the second phase.

DD

And the second phase did not meet with the same successes. He was stymied in Chicago and was assassinated as the Poor People’s Movement was just getting off the ground.

TS

That’s right. He didn’t expect people to be terribly enthusiastic, but he thought that there could be a combination of persuasion plus pressure through boycotts and disruptive actions and alliances between a range of actors who do have a stake in a more egalitarian society.

DD

One point you make was that he believed things like the guaranteed income were not just an important tool to alleviate poverty and to effectuate redistribution, but to de-commodify society — so that people’s standing is not measured by their labor-market success. It’s a pretty radical critique but you also make it clear that King did not consider himself a socialist.

TS

If you use a Marxist conception of capitalism and socialism, then I don’t think you can suggest that King was a socialist because he’s not calling for the abolition of private property in land, technology, resources, or finance. He’s not saying — not in his public writings — that wage labor is inherently exploitative. These are things that Marx would insist on.

As much as he’s in favor of the labor movement and defends it, you don’t see King say anything like that. Now, maybe he thought it, somewhere, and he said it to someone, but it’s not in his public writings. He’s not defending it out front. Nor do you see him attacking the property question in that kind of militant way.

I can understand people wanting to use King to advance a socialist cause, a cause I’m sympathetic to. But I don’t think it’s a good idea really to invoke him in this way without due care for what he actually says in his various writings and public speeches.

People are really just drawing on, for the most part, a few remarks here and there that can be interpreted in a wide range of ways.

So I suppose if you think Denmark is a socialist country, then I guess he’s a socialist. I do not myself think Denmark is a socialist country. But if you mean socialism in the sense that Marx and his allies meant, then I think it’d be pretty hard to make the case for that.

DD

So fair to settle on left social democrat?

TS

I myself am perfectly comfortable with that. I think that’s a perfectly respectable position.

King and Gender

DD

Brandon, you and Shatema Threadcraft co-authored an essay in the book on King and gender. To put it bluntly, he had, especially I think earlier in his career, some pretty retrograde views. Tell me a little bit about what King believed.

BT

It’s not a topic that has received a lot of attention, and we were able to uncover some interesting archival materials — his old advice column in Ebony Magazine.

DD

That is remarkable.

BT

Yeah, it’s amazing reading, if you ever get the chance. There are people writing in asking for advice about all sorts of things like, “My husband’s cheating on me, and he drinks too much, what do I do?” But you actually learn a lot about how he thinks about the family from those. And then some of his sermons.

One way you can think about it is King is sort of working at cross-purposes. So on the one hand, he’s got these defenses of nonviolent direct actions and civil disobedience as having a magnificent universal quality, that it’s more inclusive than forms of violent rebellion. He’s extremely critical of the idea that politics shouldn’t include a wide range of people, that it should be the province of experts or those who have the capacities for violent action.

He also endorses things like basic minimum income as being constitutive of our dignity and respecting a wide range of our capacities, not just those that are going to receive compensation as wage labor.

But on the other hand, he’s got these really retrograde views about sex and gender. Often the Southern Christian Leadership Conference meetings are organized in such a way that women, basically, aren’t allowed to speak or introduce new items on the agenda. When they are organizing major events, women often are not invited to speak.

When he writes about what the family is supposed to be, he writes that basically the family’s got to be organized so that everyone takes joy in each other’s pursuits and flourishing, but that all that needs to be tethered to recognition of the nature of man and woman. Man is active. He needs to be outside of the home. He’s always got to measure himself against the achievements of other men. Woman, even if she has these interests outside of the home, really achieves her most fundamental flourishing in the space of the home and raising a family.

One of the things that Shatema Threadcraft and I try to do is not only critique those things, but also show how the other elements of his thought can be really robust elements of a left feminist vision.

DD

You have to “read King against King,” is the way you put it.

BT

Exactly. And at that point, that’s not King’s thought. King himself is a sexist. But there are resources that can be reconstructed.

DD

One thing that I took from that essay was that he was at his most feminist, even if accidentally, when he was most focused on economic justice.

BT

I think that’s right. I think he’s also got some interesting moves as a critique of Black Power masculinity. So much of what the Black Power movement is up to revolves around the rhetorical deployment of certain kinds of performances of masculinity, and to the extent that King manages to deflate those things, I think that’s really useful as well. But certainly, I think that the biggest resources for feminist reconstruction are in this realm of political economy.

DD

On the black power debate question, you pull a really powerful quote from King: “One of the greatest paradoxes of the Black Power movement is that it talks unceasingly about not imitating the values of white society, but in advocating violence it is imitating the worst, the most brutal, and the most uncivilized value of American life.”

BT

What he’s getting at there is that if there’s going to be a revolution in values, it can’t just be performed at the level of rhetoric. One of his critiques of the Black Power movement is that for all of this rhetoric about creating a new black society or re-founding the world upon the different ontological character of blackness — which was also quite mythic but people believed in — that really we need to have an incisive attunement toward what practices have created the world that we live in.

We often treat it as reflexive that we should respond to insult with violence or violence with more violence. And not only is that corrosive in protest politics, but it’s corrosive at the level of geopolitics and gets us embroiled in wars like Vietnam, which have such severe consequences for democracy, for human flourishing, for global justice. You really want to jettison the kind of pernicious cultural norms that lead you to think things like that are rational when they’re obviously not given all the other things you’re ostensibly committed to.

Hope Against Despair

DD

In Cornel West’s contribution to the book, he writes about how isolated King was at the time of his assassination. Can you both talk about where King was at this point and what lessons that might offer for black scholars and activists and other scholars and activists today?

TS

I really like Cornel West’s contribution on this question, partly because I think he’s exploring the question of hope in a constructive way: that hope is not just a matter of faith and waiting and expecting things to work out because of what we do. Hope is really supposed to be a kind of moral strength. It’s the thing that sustains us when we’re up against formidable odds, but are powering through to see a more just and peaceful world.

For him the contrast is with a kind of despair and hopelessness and a resentment that either leads to inaction or to retaliation and a tendency to construe those who act unjustly as less than human. It sees them as people that are incapable of change, who lack a sense of justice at all, and who are really kind of moral monsters. That way of regarding others is, King would say and I think Cornel would agree, is really immoral, it’s a dehumanization of your opponents. These are vices that you sometimes find among the oppressed — not just blacks but many groups — when their backs are against the wall and you’re in a moment of retrenchment.

I think it’s extremely important to attend to that feature of King’s thought in our moment where there’s so little to feel optimistic about. And when you really are up against quite formidable odds, it’s important to not give in to the vice of despair and retaliatory rhetoric and action.

BT

I’d just add to that two things. One way to think about hope, too, is that it’s a way of training judgment. King has the view that social oppression is structured by lots of different inputs — so there’s political economy, there’s questions about race, questions about militarism, nationalism, pathologies of federalism, so on. What a stance of pessimism often does, particularly racial pessimism, is reduce all of these inputs to one, which is race or white supremacy. It can be corrosive over time because it trains you to not even look for openings or seams for action because you don’t expect there to ever be any. You think that everything is already fixed, that every revolt is already going to be futile or cynical in some way.

The other thing I point to — and one of the things that Cornel emphasizes in his piece, that really captures where King is at the end of his career, at the end of his life — is his kind of frank speech: not being willing to compromise or curtail one’s commitment to real principled action and speech for popularity or wealth or political access.

I think in our moment, there is something quite inspiring about being willing to take unpopular stands, particularly as an intellectual. That’s what it’s for. That’s the vocation.

So, again, understanding King not just as somebody who’s a courageous activist, whose courage is exemplified only in Birmingham or Montgomery, but seeing him as a courageous intellectual committed to that vocation of truth-telling — even when he is alone on a dangerous road toward the end of his life.

End Mark

About the Author

Brandon M. Terry is an assistant professor of African and African American studies and of Social Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Tommie Shelby is a Caldwell Titcomb professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University and the co-editor ofTo Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.

About the Interviewer

Daniel Denvir is the author of All-American Nativism (forthcoming from Verso), a writer in residence at The Appeal, and the host of "The Dig" on Jacobin Radio.

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