By Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler
Special to The Florida Courier
In “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?’’ (1967), Martin Luther King Jr. examined the impact on African-Americans of “the white man’s problem.”
Asserting that “the central quality of the Negro’s life is pain,” attributable to economic exploitation and racial oppression, Dr. King added that “No society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay.”
A year later, King was assassinated.
King continues to be revered as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. Nonetheless, his political philosophy has rarely been examined in depth.
Edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, both of whom are professors of African American History at Harvard University, “To Shape a New World’’ contains more than a dozen essays by distinguished scholars who engage King’s ideas on a wide array of subjects, including non-violent resistance; color-blind and color-conscious policies; economic justice; Black Power; patriarchy, masculinity, and feminism; conscientious citizenship; hope, hate, despair, dignity, and love.
As with so many collections, the quality of the essays in “To Shape a New World’’ vary considerably.
One contributor, for example, focuses almost exclusively on slavery, conflates logical inference with historical fact, and has little to say about King.
Another essayist takes gratuitous shots at Barack Obama’s “deference” to political violence. Most important, perhaps, several contributors to the book offer interpretations that seem designed to pull King closer to their own political positions.
The most insightful essays in “To Shape a New World,’’ it seems to me, identify and analyze unresolved tensions in King’s political philosophy.
In “Gender Trouble: Manhood, Inclusion and Justice,” for example, Shatema Threadcraft, a professor of Government at Dartmouth College, and Brandon Terry “think with King against King” to illuminate sexism in the civil rights movement.
Women were central to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Threadcraft and Terry demonstrate.
Traveling to work as domestics, Black women spent more time than men on buses; drivers often subjected them to verbal and physical abuse.
Despite the image of Rosa Parks’ quiet resistance, female protestors could be “profane and militant.”
Nonetheless, King tended to depict Montgomery women less as agents than as victims, leaving them unnamed in his accounts of the boycott.
On the other hand, Threadcraft and Terry, indicate, King challenged prevailing ideas about African-American manhood “by staging and performing an enactment of manhood commensurate with non-violence.”
In contrast to militants who were “all talk,” King emphasized, non-violent protestors put their bodies on the line, exhibiting self-mastery, “a higher order vision of manhood.”
Reformation over nationalism
In “Requiem for A Dream,” Brandon Terry points out that King showed, “with unmasking clarity,” that Black Power radicals “never exercised, and perhaps could not exercise,” the capacity to “begin, lead, or control” the urban uprisings of the 1960s.
Seeing no separate road to power and fulfillment, King devoted more attention to Black cultural reformation than to Black nationalism.
At the same time, Terry adds, the Black Power movement stimulated King to go into the slums, fight for better schools, better jobs, and a guaranteed minimum wage, and embrace “color-conscious” remedies.
In a concluding essay, Cornel West, a professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard, reminds us that 50 years after King’s assassination, the “intense fight” over his legacy continues.
Attributing King’s depression at the end of his life to his sense that American was a “sick, neurotic nation,” West asserts that, more recently, many African-Americans have been “seduced” by the success of Black elites, allowing social misery to become “an afterthought in public discourse,” while Blacks “break-dance in the air and sleep walk on the ground.”
Trying to think with King against King in “this ugly Trump moment,” West writes that even as he gave up hope as his sole comforter, Martin Luther King remained a Christian who chose “to be a hope” – and a fighting force for good.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.