FIFTY YEARS AFTER the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his status as icon is undeniable. Over 800 streets bear King’s name, and he is the only American citizen other than George Washington whose birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. During Barack Obama’s presidency, he was frequently compared to King, and even seen as the culmination of King’s vision of America. This now seems optimistic and overblown, but even in the Trump era we find ourselves looking to King to explain, or redeem, our present. Just last August, after white nationalists attacked counter-protesters in Virginia, CNN ran a piece titled “Can ‘I Have a Dream’ help us heal after Charlottesville?”
Yet King, though often invoked, is rarely read. “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” will sometimes appear in school history books, but few have read or even heard of longer works like Strength to Love, Why We Can’t Wait, and The Trumpet of Conscience. Even less common is serious critical work on King’s political and philosophical thought. In To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry seek to redress that balance. The collection brings together a series of impressive scholars — Cornel West, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Gooding-Williams among them — to look at King’s understudied writings on economic inequality, just-war theory, and voting rights.
It’s natural to wonder why this book doesn’t already exist, why King’s writings are under-attended in the halls of philosophy. It might seem paradoxical to deify King and ignore his words at once, but Shelby and Terry suggest the two tendencies — ritual celebration and intellectual marginalization — are connected, and even that “their entanglement presents both an immediate obstacle and a significant risk” to serious studies of King’s political and philosophical work. In the textbook account of American history, the contribution of civil rights figures like King is primarily about reconciling gaps between practice and reality. On this story, the values enshrined in the American republic from its founding — liberty, justice, equality — are tragically contradicted by its treatment of native peoples, its tolerance for slavery, and the legacy of Jim Crow. King becomes the charismatic activist-orator who drove the United States to better live up to its professed ideals, as laid out by the founding fathers.
What’s missed here is King’s own political philosophy, worthy of study in its own right, and the relation he saw between ideals and the means needed to achieve them. This is nowhere clearer than in King’s 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here, the subject of Lawrie Balfour’s sharp contribution the volume. In that book, King lays bare the tension between America’s democratic principles and its actual track record, a history replete with bondage. So far, so good, as far as the textbook narrative is concerned. But here is where things take an unexpected turn. When King talks about former slaves after the Civil War, he claims that the freedom they gained was “illusory” at best. Admitting that “the Negro was given abstract freedom expressed in luminous rhetoric,” King reminds us that at the same time “the Negro was denied everything but a legal status he could not use, could not consolidate, could not even defend.” What’s implicit in King’s remarks is that, when we talk about freedom as an aspiration without securing the means needed to achieve it, there’s a sense in which freedom isn’t really an ideal for us at all. Put otherwise, when the United States failed to help former slaves recover their freedom, the problem wasn’t just about living up to one’s ideals, but with the ideals themselves.
When we talk about living up to your ideals, what’s implicit is that change occurs only in one direction. We try, and frequently fail, to bring our actions into line with our principles. But sometimes our practice can influence those principles, and reorient our sense of what is desirable. Take, for instance, King’s advocacy of nonviolence and civil disobedience. In one of the book’s standout pieces, Karuna Mantena tracks King’s experience in mass movements. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King outlines the drawbacks of using violence in political action. King worried it would lead to debates on whether or not some particular use of force was necessary. This is bad not just because it distracts the public from the moral message of civil rights, King thought, but also because of how it reflected on the participants and initiators of violence. The people who started violence were often “blamed for its consequences” regardless of the scale of injustices that prompted such protests. What King offers, then, is a way that the anticipated outcomes of our actions affect not just our calculations about how to behave, but also our thinking about what ideals are worth pursuing. King famously first encountered the principle of nonviolent protest in a lecture on Gandhi that he attended while still a student at Morehouse. But it didn’t become central to his own thought until the Montgomery bus boycott, where King saw nonviolent organizing firsthand and realized how questions about social change “were now solved in the sphere of practical action.” For King, experience informs ideals, which further inform experience.
Lived experience fed into King’s theorizing as well as his activism. In King’s 1962 “An Address Before the National Press Club,” for instance, he describes nonviolence as the moral “unbalancing” of one’s opponents, what the nonviolence theorist Richard Gregg has called “moral jiu-jitsu.” Opponents are disarmed because their force is used against themselves. This was dually a matter of practical politics and a matter of ethical ideals, since King thought nonviolence was the best way to bring his opponents to experience a kind of moral conversion.
The idea that ideals and actions feed into each other is one familiar from pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophical tradition that influenced King directly. An index card from the King archive (viewable online) contains reading notes from J. B. Pratt’s book What is Pragmatism? Among the sentences King copied is this one: “[the] effective working of an idea and its truth are one and the same thing.” According to pragmatists, it’s a bad idea to begin thinking about a better society with abstract questions like, “What does justice look like?” or, “Would the perfect society would be colorblind?” Instead of outlining, independent of our practice, the best ways to handle social and political problems, we’re supposed to think concretely, gradually, experimentally.
It’s a strategy that should be familiar from medicine. Doctors focus on real patients and their complaints, not on what ideal human bodies should look like. Doing anything else risks being cognitively disabling: we don’t see what’s really wrong, and end up with solutions that don’t address real problems. What’s more, neither the treatment nor its end goal — health — are really about a result that’s final and forever. What doctors are really after is not perfection but improvement. Treatment is what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey calls a “continual process.”
For King, as for Dewey, justice, too, is a matter of continued striving, not something that we can achieve once and for all. In one of King’s final sermons, “Unfulfilled Dreams,” he turns to Solomon’s story about his father David. David never succeeded in constructing his planned temple to God, and King calls his life a “continual story of shattered dreams,” where one of its great agonies is that “we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable.” This is how King saw his own life and work, as well. Although he oversaw civil rights gains in his years, he understood that what the “first phase” of the freedom movement primarily showed was that “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.” Achieving justice meant taking on shifting targets, not all of them specifically related to racial discrimination: ghetto poverty, the rights of labor, the Vietnam War. It meant understanding the nexus of militarism, racism, and materialism. It meant rethinking not just our principles, the forefathers who created them, and the way we’re inadequate as we stand, but also, as Paul Taylor puts it in his brilliant essay on moral perfectionism, how “our sense of this inadequacy must itself be subjected to critique and continually revised.”
To Shape a New World is a compelling work of philosophy, all the more so because it treats King seriously without inoculating him from the kind of critique important to both his theory and practice. In one of the best essays in the collection, Shatema Threadcraft and Brandon Terry turn their eye toward King’s conception of manhood and the family, noting his patriarchal tendencies while eschewing well-trodden strategies of wholesale rejection or total defense. Instead, they advocate for a strategy of “thinking with King against King.” Admiration and critique, like theory and practice, don’t preclude each other. Sometimes the latter is a way of doing the former.
A few years ago, many saw Barack Obama’s presidency as the fulfillment of King’s legacy. T-shirts in Harlem bore the faces of Obama, Rosa Parks, and King side by side. Just before Obama’s election in 2008, the rapper Young Jeezy, called the result, ending his album The Recession with the shout-out: “My president is black.” In the album’s last song, “My President,” Jeezy raps: “Stuntin’ on Martin Luther, feelin’ just like a king / Guess this is what he meant when he said that he had a dream.” By the time the inauguration rolled around, with Obama taking his oath on King’s copy of the Bible, hip-hop legend Jay-Z had raised the symbolic stakes still further on the song’s remix: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack could run.”
But in “Hope and Despair: Past and Present,” his moving contribution to To Shape a New World, Cornel West suggests that we too easily grant the honor of King’s legacy to Obama. Obama, West reminds us, oversaw 500 drone strikes and 12 months when the United States was home to 10 percent of the world’s poorest adults: not exactly achievements King would have celebrated. Instead, what West calls us to do — and what Shelby and Terry’s book aids us in — is to get to know King. In doing so, perhaps, we’ll find a response to King’s lament, quoted in West’s piece: “I am […] greatly saddened […] that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
Shivani Radhakrishnan is a PhD student at Columbia University, where she works on social and political philosophy. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, n+1, Paris Review Daily, and the Boston Review, among others.