Martin Luther King as a philosopher

I am teaching a seminar on the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The salient issues include race and racism, peace and violence, the nature of democracy, and the meaning of American history. At the same time, I am personally interested in what it means to treat King as a philosopher and to define philosophy to include what King does.

His words are meant to affect events in the world. Often he reflects on what has just happened. His written and spoken words belong to episodes (such as specific boycotts), campaigns (like Montgomery or Birmingham), and the Freedom Movement as a whole. These episodes and campaigns are expressions of ideas that King puts into words, as do his colleagues in the same movement.

King is often obviously strategic. To name just one example, he says that he “should indicate why” he has come to Birmingham. The answer he gives–he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has a Birmingham chapter that asked him to come–is not in any respect false. But it is also far from the whole truth. King has good strategic reasons not to write, “We struggled in Albany, GA because the police chief there was savvy and media-friendly and avoided confrontation. His counterpart in Birmingham, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, is an overtly white supremacist bully who can be counted on to react violently, and we have rushed here just in time to confront him on national TV before his term in office ends.” This would be part of the truth but would not be smart strategy to say.

A more troubling example is the opening sentence of Stride to Freedom: “On December 1, 1955, an attractive Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus …” In these pages, King evades the fact that Rosa Parks was a deeply experienced and trained organizer whose main issue had been sexual violence against Black women, which (as he neglects to say) was relevant to the Montgomery Bus Boycott because White drivers harassed Black female passengers. But again, King is being strategic: picking his battles, reading his audience.

King is also prophetic, in a particular sense. The Hebrew prophets don’t have crystal balls and don’t pretend to make forecasts. They admonish their audiences to action. They are prophetic not in the sense of prediction but exhortation; they try to make things true. Thus, when King writes, “the goal of America is freedom,” that is not a description of a trend over time. It is an effort to make freedom become America’s goal. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.”

A frequent interpretive question is whether we should take any given argument strictly on its face. For instance, King makes a quick but tight argument for natural law in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. To paraphrase: human beings have certain natural capacities to flourish; a law is just if it “uplifts” those capacities and unjust if it “degrades” them.

Does King believe in natural law? Or is this a strategic move in a letter to pastors? (I would say: both.) This exegetical question doesn’t really matter if you view King as a political leader, but it is important if you want to take him fully seriously as a theorist.

One view of philosophy is that it is all about truth and is carefully distinct from strategic discourse and prophesy (and religious faith). There is a sense in which King is less of a truth-teller than, say, James Baldwin in the same years. He is more likely to think about how a specific audience (including a morally unreliable white audience) will react to his words and tailors them accordingly to produce the results he wants. He is more likely to express ideas that he hopes will prevail in order to make them come true, even though he knows they have not ever yet been true.

On the other hand, all moral and political philosophy is writing (or speech) that aims to affect an audience. It always has outcomes, whether intended or not, and whether in the direction of change or stasis. Like King, Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote for explicit audiences and may have wanted to persuade other audiences implicitly. As Machiavelli addressed the Medici, so King writes a letter to white pastors that he knows will be read by many others.

King is, however, much more thoughtful than most modern professional philosophers are about the ethics of his speech-as-action. (To say that he is thoughtful does not mean he is always right, as the Rosa Parks example indicates). He must be more thoughtful because he bears a far heavier burden. As a leader of a movement of oppressed people, he doesn’t really have “freedom of speech.” He has a responsibility to use his speech effectively under severe constraints. And that makes his texts all the more complex as works of philosophy.

See also: syllabus of a course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; some thoughts on natural law; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” against inevitability; and what is public philosophy?

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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.