Martin Luther King Jr

On this celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., it is worth re-reading one of his most famous letters – the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  First published in the Atlantic, they republished it today here.

One thing a re-reading will show is that the contemporary appropriation of MLK has banished the moral foundations which he himself saw that as necessary for morally justified civil disobedience.  MLK Jr appeals, in almost every case, to the natural law.  He specifically cites St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas in this letter on the natural law, as he defends his civil disobedience by explaining that the segregation laws are unjust –   precisely because, and indeed only because, they violate the eternal and natural law.

Something else I find noteworthy.  When I learned about Martin Luther King Jr in school as as child, he had been completely secularized.  That he was a Christian preacher was a historical footnote.  It is clear from reading this letter (and indeed all of his works), that MLK did not see his Christianity as a footnote.  Quite to the contrary, his whole work followed from his Christian calling, and it is in explicitly Christian terms that he understood all of his own work.

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
This entry was posted in Catholic thought/religion/culture, Polis (politics, culture). Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Martin Luther King Jr

  1. ~J says:

    After re-reading this letter it is clear to me that Malcolm X ultimately won the “racial culture war” (for lack of a better term) between him and Dr. King.

    In Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom argues that affirmative action and the GI Bill allowed less educated black and lower-class students to be accepted in to higher universities. Recognizing their deficit (he argues) those students refused to integrate into the other student population and remained segregated. Bloom is right that the students did not integrate, but he is wrong about the cause. For Malcolm X, we are fundamentally our racial identities which hue our experience, and as a result, it is impossible to have a shared, common experience with other races. Students did not integrate because there is no common nature between the black and white students to ground a common good. They saw that if they did integrate with white students, they were somehow abandoning and betraying their own racial identity and community. During the civil rights movement, Malcolm X constantly criticized Dr. King’s idea of unification as a destruction of the black identity and Olaudah Equiano responds to the exact same criticism when he advocated for unification in the late 1700’s. With Marc Lemont Hill calling black celebrities “Mediocre Negros” for even meeting with Trump, or others being called “Uncle Toms” for attempting reconciliation after the election, Malcolm X’s idea of unification-as-destruction is still very much alive and arguably the norm. Safe-spaces banning white students (especially white-male), POC-only dorms, rejection of the classics because they are written by white men, identity politics et cetera are all evidence of this. Dr. King’s dictum “judge me not by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character,” is now read, as Aristotle says, “only as an actor in a play” – void of its meaning.


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