U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Intellectual Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr: A Series of USIH Posts

Starting on March 22, I’ll be doing a series of posts studying the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. within American and international intellectual thought. While most Americans will spend April 4, 2018–the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination–thinking about how far the nation still has to go, I’d like to spend the weeks leading up to that commemoration thinking about what King meant to the ways in which intellectuals, politicians, and so many others thought about the world around.

We do a disservice to King if we do not give him his due as an intellectual. He drew from a wide range of intellectual traditions: African American and “mainstream” American thought, the church and the secular, leftism and Cold War liberalism. Scholars have recognized King’s eclectic influences for many years. Richard King’s Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom is a critical text in this regard, as is Thomas Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights. More recent books, such as the edited collection To Shape a New World, edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry, also seek to ground King in a mixture of intellectual and cultural influences. Also, publications such as Boston Review and The Atlantic have released special issues devoted to King’s life and thought, going beyond a technicolor-soaked memory of his life to include a great deal of analysis and debate about his legacy.

Most of my analysis will be grounded in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. They’ll cover the wide range of his professional career. I worry sometimes that a little too much attention is paid to the final two years of King’s life. While the 1967-68 period was King’s most radical period in his public life, we would do well to remember that King always had to joust with ideological adversaries on the Right and, sometimes, even within Cold War liberalism during the “heyday” of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 through 1965. At the same time, arguably some of the most interesting debates King was involved in were those with other members of the broad ideological stripes of the Movement–from activists closely aligned to him to those who were of a more Black Nationalist bent. Such debates shaped and tempered King’s own evolution in thought during these years.

I hope you’ll join me on this brief intellectual adventure through King’s own speeches. They make for fine reading and, often, even better listening. I am confidence we here at S-USIH can give the speeches the kind of intellectual analysis they deserve.

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