By Brandon Terry
On February 23, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., took to the stage at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. He had not come to rally the flagging spirits of bloodied civil rights demonstrators, shake loose the pennies of liberal philanthropists, or even to testify to God’s grace. A more solemn task was at hand.
King was the keynote speaker for a centennial celebration of W. E. B. Du Bois’s birth, following remarks by Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, Jack O’Dell, Cynthia Belgrave, Pete Seeger, and Eleanor McCoy. Arguably the greatest political thinker and propagandist black America ever produced, Du Bois spent his last days in relative ignominy in Ghana, his passport canceled by the U.S. State Department in retaliation for anti-nuclear, anti-racist, and socialist politics. Du Bois died on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, denied the chance to witness the moral authority of the civil rights movement crystallize before the world.
In his address, King nevertheless urged that Du Bois’s life—its “committed empathy with all the oppressed and . . . divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice”—had the pedagogical power “to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation.” In King’s judgment, Du Bois had combined the vocations of intellectual and organizer into “a single unified force” committed to the pursuit of justice, resisting both the temptations of wealth and renown that accrue to accommodationist politics, and the mystical authority and catharsis that give racial chauvinism its allure.
Canonization presents an obstacle to an honest reckoning with King’s legacy.
King also admonished those who denied that Du Bois—a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in his youth and a member of the Communist Party in his twilight—was a “radical all of his life.” Stating that Du Bois was “a genius and chose to be a Communist,” King insinuated that Americans’ reflexive aversion to political radicalism remained an obstacle to critical thinking and good judgment. Spoken barely forty days before King was shot dead on a Memphis motel balcony, the remarks honored Du Bois’s trailblazing politics and, in hindsight, suggest worries King may have been harboring about his own legacy.
Those worries are easy to understand. In the year before King’s death, he faced intense isolation owing to his strident criticisms of the Vietnam War and the Democratic Party, his heated debates with black nationalists, and his headlong quest to mobilize the nation’s poor against economic injustice. Abandoned by allies, fearing his death was near, King could only lament that his critics “have never really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”
Fifty years after his death, we are perhaps subject to the same indictment. As we grasp for a proper accounting of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political bequest, commemoration may present a greater obstacle to an honest reckoning with his legacy than disfavor did in the case of Du Bois. There are costs to canonization.
The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” In this familiar view, King and the civil rights movement are rendered—as Cass Sunstein approvingly put it—“backward looking and even conservative.” King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.
Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.
This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality. What follows is an effort to recover those unsettling ideas by shedding light on three of the most important and misunderstood elements of King’s mature thought: his analysis of racism; his political theory of direct action and civil disobedience; and his understanding of the place of ethical virtues in activism and social life.
In King’s work, the point of philosophical reflection on racism is political: “the prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.” Having the right theoretical understanding of racism—one of the “triple evils” of the United States, along with militarism and poverty—is, in other words, a critical element of effective activism.
King’s theory of racism has three main components. First, drawing on the insights of E. Franklin Frazier, King argued that racism is deeply entangled with “irrational fears”—of losing economic or social standing, of contamination, of an unknown future, and, above all, of revenge and retaliation. The desire to escape or sublimate this fear, King reasoned, generates “strange psychoses and peculiar cases of paranoia.” This account of the affective dimension of racism—especially its entwinement with terror—sharply diverges from models which contend that rational argumentation or moral suasion are sufficient tools to undermine racism.
The point of King’s philosophical reflection on racism is political: ‘the prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.’
The second element in King’s understanding of racism is sociopolitical. King insisted that “it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” Instead, King rightly argued, the persistence of racial domination, and the resilience of white racial resentment, “lies in the ‘congenital deformity’ of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception.” Yet, in King’s mapping of U.S. political history, “the democratic spirit that has always faced [racism] is equally real” and remains a source of hope and wisdom. King’s unapologetic identification with this democratic spirit throws down a gauntlet of sorts. It still divides, as it did then, those who see the struggle for racial democracy as a series of exemplary strivings, partial victories, and genuine missed opportunities from those who see the U.S. racial order as originary and permanent, making every revolt, cynical or heroic, always already a gesture of futility.
The third element of King’s understanding of racism is that it arises from cognitive and empathetic failures. The practices we associate with racism—segregation, discrimination, exploitation, political subordination, and even genocide—all, on King’s account, express a “contempt for life.” Indulging “the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value,” racism cultivates a habitual blindness to our fellows’ capacities and even existence. Channeling Du Bois, King links this to an arrogance that precludes racists from believing stigmatized groups have contributed to “the progress of history” or “can assure the progress of the future.” As a practical matter, then, uprooting racial injustice entails critiquing its legitimating ideas. This means targeting the stereotypes, narratives, and stigmas that underpin racial domination, especially ones that espouse “passivity” as a justification.
“The nation,” King lamented in Why We Can’t Wait (1964), “had come to count on [the Negro] as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer and patiently wait.” It was, he insisted, only the spectacle of mass, disciplined, direct action that finally “dissolved the stereotype of the grinning, submissive Uncle Tom” and forced the country to see ordinary African Americans as “active organ[s] of change.” While historians of African American politics have excavated the long history of struggle that belies the myth of black passivity, King was right to admit that enduring domination also extracts real submission. What mass protest enacts, on King’s account, is the transformation of blacks’ own self-respect, as well as a forceful push for the broader public to recognize blacks as co-creators of a democratic society.
What is especially critical about King’s understanding of racism is the synergy of these three components. Debates about racism tend to either get mired in the search for intentional discrimination and malicious prejudice, or drawn into an all-too-easy equation of racial disparity with “institutional” racism or “white supremacy.” King, by contrast, tried to be precise about the various causes of black disadvantage while fashioning a conception of racism attentive to its multifaceted power and formative influence.
For example, if we downplay the role that irrational fears play in racism, we often leap abruptly to charges of intentional discrimination and ill will, and thus a consequent desire to punish racists. This fuels the mob mentality, virtue signaling, and scapegoating that dominate much of what passes now for discourse on racial justice. Or if we treat racism primarily as a question of ignorance without taking its intellectual content seriously, the cure becomes “consciousness-raising,” a didactic, hierarchical, educative politics to reform the souls of fellow citizens. In its professional variant, this paradigm proliferates as “diversity” training; in its protest strain, it is defended as having “started a conversation,” regardless of whether such politics are persuasive or polarizing.
Likewise, if we ignore the sociopolitical dimension, we may treat racism as near-immutable and overstate its explanatory effects. In treating anti-blackness, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, as “a force of nature,” one of “our world’s physical laws,” it can become easy to lose track of the historical and present-day contingencies of race and racial hierarchy. The weight of the past, enormous as it is, must be an aid, not an obstacle, to understanding new features of our racial order. In addition to engaging questions of political economy and gender ideology, thinking about race today means grasping phenomena such as the unprecedented class differentiation among the African American population; the role Islamophobia, nativism, and anti-Latino attitudes play in U.S. politics; the opioid epidemic and life-expectancy decline among white Americans; and how the movement of Asian American men into the top income bracket has become a central concern of right-wing nativism and nationalism. A lack of precision impairs our ability to draw perceptive moral distinctions between different ills and injustices by treating everything—from Hollywood awards and university syllabi to police violence and mass shootings—as all part of a white supremacist totality, which finds full and complete expression in every social phenomenon.
For racial pessimists, the options are even worse. Hope itself becomes a foolish compulsion. Philosopher Calvin Warren, for example, argues that King’s nonviolent politics and ethic of sacrifice offer only “the humiliated, incarcerated, mutilated, and terrorized black body” as the “vestibule” for a democracy that will never come. In the face of this despair, pessimists console themselves with fugitive gestures of dissent and denunciation. Their view of racism is often so profoundly total that they cast black life in late capitalism as intrinsically heroic—whether it takes the form of burdened endurance among the black poor, the mundane “self-care” indulgences of black elites, or the self-professed nihilism of black cultural critics.
King thought that direct action necessitated sacrifice. One could argue this is not just beyond the duties of the disadvantaged, but masochistic.
Finally, if we ignore the cognitive dimensions of racism, we miss King’s contention, in Where Do We Go from Here (1967), that “the value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.” We also fail to grasp the nature of his faith in political resistance, or the scale at which it aims. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” (1961), James Baldwin lauded King as the first “black leader” able “to carry the battle [over racial injustice] into the individual heart and make its resolution the province of the individual will.” This misunderstands King, however, who seemed less interested in the “racism of the individual heart” than in unmasking the ideas of black inferiority that served to rationalize oppression. King’s interests in fear, ideology, and politics led him to believe, as he expressed in “The Power of Nonviolence” (1958), that we must “attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system.”
This systemic focus, crucially, does not inflate “racism” to make it explain allracial disparities, but understands that such inequalities are outcomes of many phenomena that interact with racism, yet cannot be reduced to only racism. These include technology, political economy, and cultural patterns. As early as 1964, for example, King presciently warned in Why We Can’t Wait that “if automation is a threat to Negroes, it is equally a menace to organized labor.” Arguing for an alliance between civil rights and labor activists, King foresaw how capital investments in “efficiency” would dislocate middle-class jobs, stagnate wages, and devastate unions’ political power. Granted, discrimination and historical disadvantage would cause these burdens to fall hardest on poor blacks—yet it still opened the possibility of broader political alliances. Indeed, part of what made King worry in Where Do We Go From Here that black nationalism was a dead end was that it seemed to give “priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.”
In King’s recounting in Why We Can’t Wait and Where Do We Go From Here, the history of black politics included several crucial “discoveries,” such as the black nationalist turn toward black pride, or the litigation strategies of the NAACP. Despite these leaps forward, however, King saw the black political tradition as historically stuck in “dead ends” of accommodationist conservatism, elitism, separatism, and legal fetishism. What had allowed black politics to finally escape these doldrums, according to King, was the adoption and refinement of Gandhian nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. Judging nonviolent resistance to be the “only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom,” as he described it in Stride Toward Freedom (1957), King came to appreciate its unique power to undermine racial domination and revitalize democratic politics from below.
Perhaps because of the outsized influence of his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we tend to think of King’s embrace of civil disobedience as a moral refusal to obey unjust laws that do not conform to higher, natural law. Rarely, however, does civil disobedience manifest this exceptional congruence—nor should it need to. While Rosa Parks, student sit-ins, and Freedom Riders all transgressed particular laws or policies they hoped to overturn, it was more often the case that civil rights activists merely transgressed laws of public order. Thus, as King argued in front of the New York Bar Association in 1965, the justification of civil disobedience is not that it specifically targets an unjust law, but that it is a goad, “call[ing] attention to overall injustice” in communities that “do not work with vigor and with determination to remove that injustice.”
This is among the reasons why King, unlike many liberals of his generation (including John Rawls and later Bayard Rustin), was adamant that civil disobedience should be used to attack unjust economic inequalities as well as civil rights violations and conscription. Lacking faith that rights protections, union politics, and formal political participation were sufficient tools to spur economic justice (especially after the disappointments of the Johnson administration), King worried in Why We Can’t Wait that, without mass action, the poor would be left “on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In the face of accelerating automation and the elimination of living-wage jobs, King endorsed a number of egalitarian policies, including basic income and a full-employment guarantee, which have once again become rallying cries. Our present-day interest in these policies, however, remains too tethered to technocratic governance. King thought only mass civil disobedience would create, shape, and sustain such transformative goals.
Engaging King’s ideas about racism, political action, and ethics is not the same as agreeing with him.
King’s vision for civil disobedience cannot be separated from his concern with the “evil” of poverty. King argued that our species needs to undergo a dramatic ethical shift in how we think about our relationship to resources, now that we no longer face scarcity. “The contemporary tendency,” King protested in Where Do We Go From Here, “is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.” As he wrote in Strength to Love (1963), to countenance “a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty,” or “take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few,” is to cultivate a citizenry of the “cold and conscienceless.” Near the end of his life, King hoped in The Trumpet of Conscience (1968) that the “Negro revolt” would rescue democracy from this “archaic” cruelty by evolving into a full-fledged “challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology” but had left many of scarcity’s habits and hierarchies intact. For King, such persistent failures of reciprocity—political, social, and economic—made civil disobedience legitimate.
To be sure, civil disobedience raises questions beyond moral legitimacy. For King, civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action possess substantial political and ethical merits as well. They are needed to “supplement” procedural liberalism, resisting domination directly. Moreover, unlike the elite politics of lobbying, legislation, and litigation that preoccupied the midcentury NAACP, or the masculinist insurrection that briefly attracted the interest of Frantz Fanon’s self-proclaimed disciples on the left, King noted in Why We Can’t Wait that “a nonviolent army has a magnificent universal quality.” It can transcend many of the kinds of exclusion that other forms of political action place on participation, including those of gender, age, physical disability, education, and wealth. The mass dimension of protest allows for people of all walks of life to be more than spectators, and instead be transformed by their resistance to oppression, rediscovering courage and self-respect in the face of assaults on their dignity.
Indeed, King’s understanding of structural injustice—and the importance of mass participation as a coercive countervailing force—goes a long way toward explaining his radicalization over time. Early in his career, King’s case for nonviolent protest turned primarily on its capacity to elicit shame and spiritual conversion. By 1963 in Birmingham, however, faced with the massive resistance of segregationists (manipulative court injunctions and evasive legal maneuvers, police brutality, surveillance, and outright terrorism), King began to embrace the coercive and realist dimensions of nonviolent direct action. “The purpose of our directaction program,” he proclaimed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “is to create a situation so crisispacked that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
King’s admission of the coercive dimension of civil disobedience raises serious ethical quandaries about the exercise of such power. When should civil disobedients break the law? Or boycotts cripple a business? Or public space and public goods be occupied using intimidation? The hagiography around the civil rights movement has allowed Americans to mostly evade such questions, but the sublime and disruptive force of mass civil disobedience is still apparent wherever it topples a government overseas or invites police surveillance and suppression at home.
King, to his credit, was acutely aware of this and devoted enormous attention to theorizing the ways direct action could be ethically organized and sustained. Combining moral commitments with considerations of political efficacy, King thought that direct action needed to be disciplined and channeled through ideals of nonviolence and public appeal, love and sacrifice, integration and democracy. In our more secular and pluralist era, however, the roots of King’s thinking in a knotty metaphysics of natural law and Christian ethics may invite suspicion. Indeed, given the ample historical record of unrequited love, unredeemed sacrifice, and failed integration, it is easily argued that such sacrifices are not just beyond the duties of the disadvantaged but indeed masochistic.
Yet we should not allow this suspicion of religion, or our era’s narrow focus on duty at the expense of other ethical categories, to narrow our concerns. As philosopher Tommie Shelby has argued, drawing on Rawls, invocations of civic duty first require a serious confrontation with the unfairness of the basic structure of society. Moreover, ethical reflection does not simply concern duties and fairness. We must contend as well with the good, the virtuous, and the heroic. King’s example teaches this, while also demonstrating that ethical judgments and convictions are strengthened, rather than diluted, by clear-eyed realism.
However, King’s realism is easily misunderstood. His defenses of civil disobedience, particularly in his early career, are replete with exhortations to take on unearned suffering and voluntary sacrifice in order to win the “friendship and understanding” of one’s opponents. Psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose testimony played a key role in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), told King that he felt it was “too much” to expect that “a group of human beings who have been the victims of cruelty and flagrant injustice could actually love those who have been associated with the perpetrators, if not the perpetrators themselves.” For Malcolm X, King’s brotherly rhetoric was simply disingenuous because King actually relied upon the threat of violent rebellion from below. It was only when “Negroes took to the streets” in the Birmingham riots following the bombing of King’s brother’s house, Malcolm proclaimed in “Message to the Grass Roots” (1963), that “Kennedy sent in the troops . . . [and] put out a civil-rights bill.”
King’s blindness to the gendered dimensions of charismatic authority and hierarchical leadership is reason enough to be critical of his example. Any retrieval of King’s legacy has to amend his triple evils to include a fourth: sexism.
These are still challenging contentions. If the threat of violence from below is part of what draws Americans’ attention to protest, from Birmingham to Ferguson, what kind of “nonviolence” does this amount to? How should we, in our own time, account for the fact that the cameras disappeared in Missouri when the threat of violent rebellion subsided? Or, likewise, that Ferguson remains far more well known than the reliably peaceful Moral Mondays movement, in which protestors assembled at the North Carolina state legislature weekly for over a year (2013–14) to be arrested in protest of conservatives’ assaults on voting rights, civil liberties, and social welfare?
Yet, for King, despite disobedience’s complicated relationship with coercion, its nonviolent aspect remained crucial, in part because of its unique ability to throw racist ideology off balance. On King’s account, the racist worldview predicts that the humiliation and disregard dispensed in its name will bring back more of the same. Thus, the longstanding obsession—from Thomas Jefferson to Steve Bannon—with the possible revenge of the world of color against the white world. This fear of anti-white reprisal inspires not only backlash, but preemptivesuppression—what Vesla Weaver has called “frontlash.” For King, “adherence to nonviolence—which also means love in its strong and commanding sense,” politically performed a feat of redirection. By unsettling racist expectations and disclosing new possibilities for living together, nonviolence and an ethic of love became vehicles for staging grievance, disrupting distrust and retaliation, and envisioning new forms of cooperation.
This concept of love—which King referred to as agape, to distinguish it from erotic or romantic love—builds on an ethics distilled from the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” King’s defense of love in contentious politics enjoins us to see even our political enemies as moral equals whom we are interdependent with and vulnerable to, and whose needs and welfare we are obligated to consider. We deform the richness of human sociability, King insists, if we allow particularity, enmity, and anger to blind us to this.
While granting the legitimacy of black rage, King argued that it was best, both politically and for one’s own flourishing, to channel anger into less corrosive emotions. Above all, one must avoid the slippage of anger into hatred, a disposition which “destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.” Hatred blankets the world with suspicion, smothering our broad capacities for appreciation, analysis, and responsiveness. As King warned, it can lead us “to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
For King, one of the great lessons of Du Bois’s life was that “he did not content himself with hurling invectives for emotional release and then to retire into smug, passive satisfaction.” “It is not enough for people to be angry,” King argued; “the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” Crucially, King never denied the existence of righteous anger or the threat of rebellion, but incorporated these passions into his political thinking as challenges to be redirected toward worthier ends.
One concrete implication of this view—beyond curbing the impulse to mock and condemn on social media—is to avoid forms of political resistance that seek to “humiliate the opponent” rather than “win his friendship and understanding.” These vengeful approaches deny others the capacities for moral learning. They foreclose unanticipated forms of reconciliation and community, and judge, a priori, the life horizons of others based on their worst transgressions, cognitive mistakes, or group identities. Worse, the misguided notion that such practices build partisan solidarity and affirmation are woefully shortsighted. Inevitably, such passions turn inward, destroying organizations with recrimination, excommunications, and cynicism.
Importantly, however, King’s demand cuts in two directions. His faith in redemptive possibility precludes embittered disengagement and spiteful retaliation, but does not license complacency. It instead demands unyielding confrontation in pursuit of the greater goods of a more just world. To exhort us to the former without insisting on the latter—as many critics of the left continue to do—is to settle for “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
In the decades following his death, cynical appropriations of King have become such a reliable feature of public discourse that many younger Americans greet his name with suspicion. Indeed, even those in the Movement for Black Lives, despite commitments to nonviolent direct action and democratic politics, have often sought ostensibly more “radical” ancestors to claim, such as Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, and Audre Lorde.
King never entertained the indefensible respectability-politics proposition that blacks must ‘prove’ themselves fit for equal citizenship. His politics are better described as a politics of character.
Perhaps this is penance that had to be paid. King’s blindness to the gendered dimensions of charismatic authority and hierarchical leadership within protest organizations—and the black church—is surely reason enough to be critical of his example. And, as Shatema Threadcraft and I have written at length elsewhere, while King became intensely supportive of women-led welfare and tenants’ unions, heralded the inclusive quality of civil disobedience, and promoted the guaranteed-income policy foundational to left feminism, his essentialist views on gender and normative views on the family suffer from severe logical and moral failures. This is the most glaring weakness in King’s thought and the piece that, rightly, has received the most thorough contemporary critique. Any retrieval of King’s legacy has to amend his triple evils to include a fourth: sexism.
Moreover, the black church—which in the nineteenth century Martin Delany called the “Alpha and Omega” in black communities—is today a profoundly weakened institution. The church faces many challenges in our era of political and social integration, prosperity theology, political party clientelism, social conservatism, and heavily publicized sexual and financial corruption. King’s theological commitments were once part of his allure. Now they present an impediment to his embrace among the “unchurched.” One wonders whether the Christian roots of King’s political and ethical vision, and the incredible tradition of church-based organizing that brought it to life, can be suitably rethought in other institutions and traditions, or revived at all in its home.
Some of the present eschewal of King, however, seems less fair and more superficial. In a world irrevocably transformed by the sexual revolution and secularism—not to mention urbanity, black street culture, and the ascendancy of ironic art and self-expression—King can appear both terribly staid and uncomfortably earnest. Burdened with utterly unique political responsibility and his own impossible standards of ethical excellence, King’s words and persona seem weighed down, even beyond the grave, with a self-restraint that can make him feel older, less “cool,” and more distant than black male contemporaries such as Malcolm X or Baldwin.
These qualities lead some to associate King with what has come to be called “respectability politics.” Such critics fail to note, though, that historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham introduced the concept to mark out a dual concern among black activists. The first kind of respectability politics, the version that young activists rightly skewer, is concerned with undermining, through personal conduct, stereotypes about blacks’ deviance from social norms of public comportment, sexual mores, and socioeconomic achievement. This politics is justified only insofar as it works, and, consequently, contemporary debates quickly degenerate into competing judgments of efficacy and how to weigh the worth against the indignity of supplicative appeals to white sufferance.
King can fairly be criticized for not fully interrogating, for example, why Montgomery was able to summon enthusiastic solidarity for Rosa Parks but not for less “reputable” victims of Jim Crow. But he never entertained the indefensible respectability-politics proposition that blacks must “prove” themselves fit for equal citizenship. Even early in his career, when often writing of the need for blacks to improve personal standards, King criticized the cruelty and irrationality of the ostracism and economic burdens visited upon unmarried parents and the incarcerated. Later, King would declare ghetto crime to be “derivative” of “the greater crimes of white society” in housing, policing, employment, and education. And it is absurd to ascribe to King—a prominent defender of a coercive, confrontational politics of civil disobedience with a sophisticated theory of racism—the anodyne view that “respectable” personal conduct would ever be sufficient to cripple racist ideology.
That said, King did articulate strong convictions about certain standards of personal conduct and comportment. But the justifications he offered were more in line with Higginbotham’s second version of a politics of respectability: the age-old concern with the social bases of ethical virtues. King’s interest in compassion, humility, generosity, courage, thrift, and magnanimity was animated by the judgment that these virtues are essential to one’s own dignity and self-respect, and ultimately to the goodness of one’s life. Perhaps better described as a politics of character, King’s standards of personal excellence; his warnings against anger, racial chauvinism, and bitterness; and his overriding emphasis on nonviolence and love are part of this ethical tradition.
If oppression sabotages the oppressed’s strivings to live well mainly through a subtle, pernicious evil that suffuses daily life, then the struggle to cultivate and sustain ethical virtues becomes its own battlefront. To ignore that emancipatory struggle demands certain virtues, or to deny that these virtues have significance for the good life, is self-defeating. Even more ignoble is to present such virtues of character as efforts to imitate whites—thus equating whiteness with virtue and flattering perhaps the silliest, most self-deluded and analytically bankrupt conceit of white supremacy.
Now, one may insist (implausibly, I think) that rage is not corrosive to our judgments of beauty and truth, or of the good and the right. Or one may assail the conception of human flourishing on which rests King’s claims about personal standards (his approach to gender would be a great place to start). One may even reject particular virtues, such as humility or magnanimity, as originating in false consciousness or ressentiment. But these concerns at least engage with King as a serious thinker, rather than reduce these commitments to a certain kind of respectability.
King teaches us that the morphology of protest should be treated as a perpetual question, one experimentally and imaginatively rethought in light of technological, cultural, political changes.
Developing a richer understanding of King’s commitments helps us to better appreciate his departures from conventional markers of respectability, including his qualified support of hippie pacifism as well as his celebration of black student protestors who “threw off their middle-class values” and ceased imitating whites in “dress, conduct and thought.” It also helps us grasp why, when King spent much of 1966 in Chicago’s slums attempting to galvanize a protest movement against ghettoization, he sought to organize gang members, to the consternation of many. Transgressing the norms of a Southern Baptist preacher, King recruited gang affiliates in pool halls and on street corners, and even invited them into his home, engaging them in long debates and training them in nonviolent methods. Such efforts, which have been obscured in King’s legacy, sit provocatively alongside the work of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam, and anticipate efforts of present-day organizers in Baltimore, St. Louis, and elsewhere.
Engaging King’s ideas about racism, political action, and ethics is, of course, not the same as agreeing with him, much less treating him as the object of uncritical adulation. It is simply to treat him as a profound interlocutor and model of political judgment. King teaches us that the morphology of protest should be treated as a perpetual question, one experimentally and imaginatively rethought in light of technological, cultural, political changes.
This learning will not be easy. Our saturation with images of suffering (black and otherwise) and the balkanization of the media have altered how we respond to documentary images, raising doubts about whether we remain as receptive to King’s strategies of public spectacle. Racial stereotypes have also transformed. Few would now identify blacks with passivity; on the contrary, black protestors are regularly labeled as aggressive, ungrateful, and dangerous. Social media has created a low-cost outlet for every utterance of resentment to gain a hearing. The practice of public assembly has been forever altered by the possibility of terrorism. And nonviolent resistance has become ritualized, with police trained in forms of protest management that rob civil disobedience of the drama of punishment and sacrifice that once gave it gravitas. Street marches, as King predicted, now need to reach massive levels of participation and organization if they are not to be “mere transitory drama” absorbed by “the normal turbulence of city life.”
Even the geopolitics of protest has changed. Authoritarian rulers are ascendant at home and abroad, European liberals are in retreat, and Donald Trump (as Barack Obama did before him) issues unilateral, global assassination orders from an office decorated with King’s bust. The idea that Americans will be ashamed in the eyes of the world, central to King’s Cold War–era politics, now seems quaint. In recognition of this shift, the longstanding interest among black activists in symbolic appeals to the United Nations and human rights forums has been eclipsed by a mix of domestic protest and electoral politics.
Still King’s call to internationalize nonviolent social justice movements continues to matter in at least one important respect. We face global existential challenges of climate change, nuclear weaponry, war and terrorism, and wealth inequality (abetted by offshore tax havens and attacks on capital controls). Yet the institutions that exercise the most power over these circumstances remain insulated from democratic action and accountability to citizens. If there is any hope to prevent disempowered citizens’ rage and resentment from being exploited by demagogues and reactionaries, it must be channeled into coordinated, enduring social movements that force electoral and economic reckonings while fostering respect for our shared “garment of destiny.”
King was hopeful, but not blind to the difficulty and costs of these aspirations. Members of such movements will face repression, scorn, prison, and sacrifice. Racism and sexism will threaten solidarity, violence will injure our faith in cooperation, and inequality will breed its rationalizations. But when threats are mortal, retreat and accommodation are avenues to self-destruction. As we scour for exemplars of struggle, we must not write off the United States’ most peculiar radical and his enduring intellectual and political challenge. King calls on us to think and argue publicly about the crises of our present, and collectively determine the broadest range of nonviolent coercive powers at our disposal. “Our very survival,” King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here, “depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” The spirit of King is most alive when we embrace these challenges and endeavor, with courage, humility, and a sense of the great sacrifices ahead, to shape a new world out of divine dissatisfaction with injustice.
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s print issue, Fifty Years Since MLK.