Much attention has been devoted in recent years to the personal idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the major contributors to the scholarship in this area is Rufus Burrow, Jr., who places King firmly in the tradition of personal idealism, or personalism, while also uncovering the intellectual unease that made King both a deep and creative thinker and a committed and effective social activist.1 Clearly, Burrow's own sense of his role as a personalist informs his approach to the life and thought of King. Although philosophical personalism figures prominently in Burrow's treatment of King in his writings, ethical and social personalism provides the primary theoretical framework for both Burrow's exploration of King's nonviolent activism and his critique of what he rightly calls the civil rights leader's moral failures.2
Burrow often refers to himself as a fifth-generation personalist and as an African-American scholar who has adopted personal idealism as his own "fundamental philosophical stance."3 Having been trained at Boston University under Peter A. Bertocci and Walter G. Muelder, "two third generation giants in that tradition," who also mentored King, Burrow is uniquely qualified to explore personalism as part of King's cultural and intellectual inheritance.4 In setting the stage for his analysis of King as "a thoroughgoing personalist in both theory and practice," Burrow variously defines personalism as "fundamentally a metaphysics," as "a form of idealism," as "a way of thinking about the whole of reality and experience," and as "a worldview" that "has profound implications for the way we think about God, nature, animal life, evil and suffering, freedom, ethics, and a host of other things relevant to human and other life forms."5 Burrow goes on to identify those personalist ideas that informed King's theology, ethical system, and ministry, the most important among which are "the existence of a personal God, the dignity and sacredness of all persons, the existence of an objective moral order and [End Page 1] corresponding moral laws, freedom, and moral agency."6 This approach is refreshing in that it retrieves much of the intellectual rigor of King, and it also serves as a much-needed corrective to the distorted claims of those scholars who either de-emphasize or completely deny the importance of personal idealism as a significant influence on King.7
Burrow identifies King as "a fourth-generation personalist," while suggesting that King was probably first introduced to the term personalism or personal idealism during his undergraduate years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid- to late 1940s.8 Burrow also reports that King studied personalism at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, under Professor George W. Davis, before moving on to Boston University to study with personalists such Edgar S. Brightman, L. Harold DeWolf, and Peter A. Bertocci in the early 1950s. It was at Boston, Burrow concludes, that "King became a professed personalist, having defined personalism or personal idealism as 'the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality.'"9 Needless to say, Burrow feels that a serious consideration of King's intellectual pilgrimage, from Morehouse to Boston, is primary for grasping his intense loyalty to the essence of the personalist tradition.
The influence of personalism on King's metaphysical and ethical thinking is highlighted at many points in Burrow's writings. According to Burrow, King's exposure to the works of Bodern P. Bowne, who provided the "first systematic and methodological formulation of personalism" at Boston University in 1876, "convinced him of the metaphysical and ethical significance of freedom."10 King's studies with Brightman and DeWolf provided him with "a metaphysical and philosophical grounding" for the idea of a personal God and the belief in the dignity and worth of all human personality, and these third-generation personalists, Burrow concludes, actually influenced King's personalistic ethics, with its emphasis on the moral order and moral laws.11 It is also important to note that King's communitarian vision, which held that persons ultimately find...