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  • To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr ed. by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry
  • Jared A. Loggins
To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry, editors. Harvard UP, 2018.

To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Harvard University professors Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, seeks to "rediscover" Martin Luther King, Jr. This is an important and appropriate task for a figure who has achieved mythic status in American political culture, whose words have at times become aphorized in morally bankrupt speeches and corporate campaigns and whose subtly argued theoretical positions have often been diminished in order to "amplify an idea or advance a cause that King actually opposed" (5). King's work and activism developed in concert within a groundswell of grassroots political action and contestation (a point put on fine display perhaps too subtly throughout the volume, though most explicitly in Terry's illuminating essay). For this reason, King, as with more prominent black figures, has tended to not clear the bar for membership set by professional intelligentsia—with its tendencies toward "academic insularity and prejudice against political thinkers who seek a nonspecialist readership" (5). At the same time, the editors point out [End Page 116] that existing historiographies of the civil rights movement that draw on King have tended to reduce his thinking to a kind of historical romanticism: his contributions and those of the broader movement are mainly seen as broad-based attempts by the country as a whole to "[overcome] its long racial divide to forge a more perfect American union" (3). The romantic frame underappreciates his philosophical depth and subtlety on topics such as "labor and welfare rights, economic inequality, poverty, love, just war theory, virtue ethics, political theology, violence, imperialism, nationalism, reparations, and social justice—not to mention his more familiar writings on citizenship, racial equality, voting rights, civil disobedience, and nonviolence" (2). Therefore—and with the help of fifteen political theorists, philosophers, and historians of political thought, as well as a penetrating afterword by the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton—the volume presents a coherent case in defense of King's contributions to public philosophy, over and against efforts to silo him as nothing more than a "masterful orator and inspiring leader" (5) or as a figure whose contributions are merely "tactical and rhetorical" (3). By expanding the canon to account for King's philosophical depth on the wide range of issues in his work, the volume's interventions collectively succeed as a contribution to Western political theory and public philosophy, though focusing squarely on King risks crowding out the radical grassroots milieu so indispensable to his thinking.

Drawing attention to the long history of grassroots mobilization is a crucial task in our own time. More than fifty years after students at colleges and universities around the country (including organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]) were embroiled in struggles against legalized apartheid in the United States and foreign military occupation in Vietnam, students on college campuses today wrestle with a wide array of concerns such as the privatization of university police forces, the ascendance of outward expressions of racism, sexism, and homophobia amid calls for "civility" and "tolerance," not to mention the ongoing corporatization of higher education. Organizing networks such as the Movement for Black Lives are connecting policing to a broader set of economic arrangements that displace and criminalize poor people of color while generating profits for the rich. Workers are struggling to raise the minimum wage, highlighting the indignities of a system that maximizes profits for the rich with no concern for working people. Under the banner of #SayHerName, black women are calling into question a system that erases them from the public scene by delegitimizing the particular oppressions at the intersection of race and gender, especially as it relates to mobilizing around state and extra-state violence against black [End Page 117] women. Meanwhile, professional leadership classes operating under empty notions of tolerance and compromise have hardly shown sympathy for these struggles, sometimes deriding them...


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