To Shape a World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Harvard's Tommie Shelby and and Brandon Terry, examines King's writings to separate the thinker from the icon. A review of the book appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
"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. ... 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.” ...
"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. ... 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. ...
"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. ... 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. ...
"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."
Blog sharing news about geography, philosophy, world affairs, and outside-the-box learning
This blog also appears on Facebook: