draft syllabus of a course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This spring, I will be teaching a capstone seminar on the life and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The draft syllabus is below (minus grading rubrics, policies, etc.). At this stage, I welcome suggestions!

Summary In this seminar, we will study Martin Luther King Jr. as a political thinker. The whole class will read major works by King and excerpts from biographies and historical documents. Additional readings will be distributed among students, who will contribute insights from their assigned texts to the seminar discussions. The additional readings will include works that influenced King, writings by some of his contemporaries, and interpretations from a recent volume, To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry. We will investigate King’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement—why it was necessary and what it aimed to achieve. Specifically, we will study his ideas about the political and economic organization of white supremacy, the impact of racial ideologies, and the importance of racial integration and the right to vote. We will investigate King’s philosophy of civil disobedience and nonviolence as well as a set of values he relates to that philosophy: dignity, sacrifice, self-reflection, self-improvement, love, faith, and freedom. We will relate these values to King’s understanding of justice. Criticisms of King will also be considered. Studying King and his critics will provide a window into post-WWII American political thought.


Wednesday, January 15: Introductions and overview

1. Predecessors and Early Influences

Monday, January 20:  Major African American political thinkers, 1885-1940

Students choose one of these authors and be prepared to discuss the author as well as the readings. 

  1. Booker T. Washington, “Letter to the Editor” (1885); “Atlanta Exposition Address” (1895); “Speech to the National Afro-American Council” (1895); “Letter to President Roosevelt” (1904); “Speech to the National Negro Business League” (1915); “My View of Segregation Laws” (1915); “The Talented Tenth” (1903).
  2. W.E.B. DuBois, “The Evolution of Negro Leadership” (1901); “Declaration of Principles” (1905); “The Crisis” and “Agitation” (1909); “Race Relations in the United States” (1928); “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (1933); “Pan -African and New Racial Philosophy” (1933); “The [NAACP] Board of Directors on Segregation” (1934); “A Negro Within the Nation” (1935).
  3. A. Phillip Randolph: “Lynching: Capitalism Its Cause; Socialism its Cure”; editorials on “Racial Equality” and “The Failure of the Negro Church,” “The Negro Radicals,” “Segregation in the Public Schools: A Promise or a Menace,” “Negroes and the Labor Movement,” “The Negro and Economic Radicalism,” and “The New Pullman Porter.”
  4. Another modern Black thinker of your choice likely to be influential in King’s early milieu. E.g., Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey …

(Unless otherwise noted in the PDFs, these readings are scanned from Gary D. Wintz, ed., African American Political Thought 1890-1930 (M.E. Sharpe, 1996).)

Wednesday, January 22: Theological Influences

Students choose one of these authors and be prepared to discuss the author as well as the readings

  1. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, pp. 7-35.
  2. Reinhold Niebhuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, pp. xv-xvii and 231-277
  3. Walter Raushenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 57-109

Monday, January 27: Biblical echoes

Students will choose one of these, read it, and also read a bit online about the context:

  1. Book of Exodus, Chapters 1-3, in the King James Version (click “next page” to read all three chapters)
  2. Book of Amos, Chapter 2, in the King James Version
  3. Book of Micah, in the King James Version (click “next page” to read the whole book)
  4. Book of Matthew, Chapter 26, in the King James Version

Wednesday, January 29: Precursors–Gandhi

Everyone will read:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (“The March to the Sea”)

Choose one of these:

  1. Bikhu Parekh, Gandhi, Chapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;
  2. Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951), excerpts; and Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310
  3. Karuna Mantena, “Showdown for Nonviolence: The Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Politics,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 78-110
  4. Martha Nussbaum. “From Anger to Love: Self-Purification and Political Resistance,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 114-135

Monday, February 3 – no class (instructor is away)

Wednesday, February 5: Precursors–African American campaigners against segregation

  • Everyone watches Episode 1 of Eyes on the Prize, “Awakenings, 1954-1956”

Choose among:

  1. Charles Payne, “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change“; and Ella Baker, “Developing Community Leadership
  2. Danielle McGuire, At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
  3. James L. Farmer Jr., Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (excerpts)

2. Montgomery

Monday, February 10: What Happened?

Choose between:

  1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), pp. 105-205.
  2. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 , pp. 11-82.

Wednesday, February 12: How Does King Present What Happened?

  • Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.

Wednesday, February 19: Theory of Social Movements

  • Charles Tilly, “Social Movements, 1768-2004
  • Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

3. Albany and Birmingham

Thursday, Feb 20 (makeup day): What Happened?

Students will choose between:

  1. Episode 4 of Eyes on the Prize, “No Easy Walk: 1961-1963”
  2. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), 173-286.
  3. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 , pp. 524-561; 673-802

Monday, February 24: How Does King Present What is Happening?

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Wednesday, February 26: More Analysis of the Letter

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Monday, March 2: King’s version versus the Supreme Court’s

4. March on Washington, Selma

Wednesday, March 4: Protest and Politics

Everyone reads:

Monday, March 9: Selma to Montgomery

Everyone watches/listens and/or reads the text of:

Students will choose between:

  1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), pp. 357-430
  2. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 , pp. .

5. Issues During the “Heroic Moment” of the Civil Rights Movement

Wednesday, March 11: What Should be the Goal? 

Choose among:

  1. Martin Luther King, “The Ethical Demands for Integration” (1962) and Danielle Allen, “Integration, Freedom, and the Affirmation of Life,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 155-169
  2. Stokely Carmichael, “Toward Black Liberation,” The Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1966
  3. Derrick Darby, “A Vindication of Voting Rights,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 170-83

Wednesday, March 25 – midterm in class

Monday, March 30: Change from Below or from Above?

  • Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, “Clinton and Obama Spar Over Remark About Dr. King,” The New York Times, Jan 13, 2008
  • Garth E. Pauley, “Presidential rhetoric and interest group politics: Lyndon B. Johnson and the civil rights act of 1964,” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 63, no 1 (1997), pp. 1-19
  • Original text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

April 1: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Everyone reads these primary texts:

  • King’s remarks on Malcolm X in 1965 (from a Playboy Magazine interview)
  • Malcolm X., “Message to the Grass Roots” (Nov 9-10, 1963) in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (Grove Press 1990), pp. 3-17.
  • Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” 1964 (audio and/or text)

Choose among:

  1. Episode 7 of Eyes on the Prize, “The Time Has Come: 1964-66
  2. August H. Nimtz, “Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement: The Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. Nexus.” New Political Science 38.1 (2016): 1-22.
  3. Clayborn Carson, “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X” (1998)

6. Later Writings and Issues

Monday, April 6: The North and Poverty

Everyone watches:

Episode 8 of Eyes on the Prize, “Two Societies:  1965-68”

Choose from:

  1. Tommy Shelby, “Prisons of the Forgotten: Ghettos and Economic Injustice,” in pp. 196-213

Wednesday, April 8: War

Listen to audio and/or read the text:

Monday, April 13: The end

Everyone watches/listens to:

21st-Century Appraisals

Wednesday, April 15

Peniel E. Joseph, “Waiting till the midnight hour: Reconceptualizing the heroic period of the civil rights movement, 1954–1965

[April 20: Patriot’s Day, no class.]

Wednesday, April 22: The right and the left of King after his death

Choose among:

  1. Glenn C. Loury, “Achieving the ‘Dream’; A Challenge to Liberals and to Conservativesin the Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr
  2. Ronald R. Sundstrom, “The Prophetic Tension Between Race Consciousness and the Ideal of Color-Blindness,” pp. 136-154
  3. Cornel West, “Hope and Despair: Past and Present,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 334-346

Monday, April 27: Reading King in the light of 21st-century concerns

  1. Shatema Threadcraft and Brandon M. Terry, “Gender Trouble: Manhood, Inclusion, and Justice, in 214-244
  2. Brandon M. Terry, “Requiem for a Dream: The Problem-Space of Black Power,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 299-333
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.