Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Personalism and the Politics of Love: Revisiting the Radicalism of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr.

While scholars have recognized personalism as an idiom circulating through leftist US political culture, we have yet to clarify how it reconceived personal experience as a site for transforming society by disrupting prevailing structures of power. This essay considers the personalist projects of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. as exemplary of personalism’s radical political force. Day and King similarly drew from their experiences of the traditionally private domain of Christian religious belief to reconceptualize political participation. They rooted universal claims for social cohesion in forms of intersubjectivity encountered in daily life and social transformation in how the moral and material intersected in everyday scenes. Situating their public protests alongside their published writing, public speeches and sermons, and their private letters, memos, and diaries, I highlight how Day and King articulated personalist political visions that mobilized sacrificial love, devotional practice, and spiritual community to produce systemic change. This revisiting of Day and King aims to recontextualize not only what we think we know about these familiar figures but also what we think it means for the personal to be political.

“The law of love which Jesus preached is a terrible and fearful thing,” Dorothy Day told a crowd of 4,500 at the 1968 US Liturgical Week conference, “Revolution: Christian Responses,” accepting its first award for “‘outstanding contributions toward Christian renewal.’”1 This honor opened proceedings for the annual gathering of the US Liturgical Conference, an organization that had recently seen its call for increased lay participation in Catholic mass formalized in the Second Vatican Council.2 Day was seventy and had taken the stage as an established pioneer of both Catholic activism and the antiwar movement, having founded the Catholic Worker newspaper (CW) and related movement with Peter Maurin during the Depression and dedicated decades to protesting for peace.3 By 1968, Day’s anarchism was a point of reference for those seeking alternatives to institutional politics as well as to mainstream Catholicism. Recalling her prayer vigils for peace, picketing and protest for racial and economic equality, jailtime for civil disobedience, and years living among the poor, Day’s speech extolled the revolutionary potential of small acts of love: “It was only twelve followers of Jesus” who began spreading his gospel, “and the coming of the Holy Spirit brought about the conversion of the three thousand.” The “revolution which much come about,” Day declared, as she had for decades, “must be a non-violent one,” enacted by “laying down our own lives instead of preparing to take the lives of others”—and it must begin today, with us.

Day’s short speech not only opened and set the tone for the 1968 conference but also amplified the resonance of the evening’s keynote address—which had been intended for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the first scheduled speaker for Liturgical Week,” but which was instead given in memoriam of the recently assassinated King by Andrew J. Young, vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC).4 Indeed, Day’s presence foregrounded King’s absence on a night that would have been their first meeting.5 While the [End Page 75] Liturgical Week organizers had functionally paired the figures, scheduling Day and King back-to-back for the opening session and listing them consecutively (as the most prominent guests) on conference materials, Day’s speech pointed toward more profound convergences. In affirming the transformative purchase of nonviolence and the “terrible” and “fearful” power of love, Day not only employed the political idiom she shared with King but also highlighted their mutual commitment to personalism as a vision for radical change.

Personalism is a distinct transatlantic philosophical school with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century origins—but I am interested less in that established tradition than in how a constellation of its beliefs and practices was embraced as radical in the mid-twentieth-century US by those skeptical of or failed by conventional politics.6 Personalism has already been recognized to link Day and King to Dwight Macdonald, Liberation magazine, and so-called New Left political groups, including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—usually in accounts of the postwar era that climax in the late 1960s and argue, like James J. Farrell, that though “few American activists of the postwar world used the word personalism,” many took up its language.7 I believe there is convincing evidence that personalism motivated a wider cast of characters—Robert Coles and Toni Cade Bambara, for instance—and served as an animating force beyond the 1960s.8 Yet what I specifically hope to clarify in this essay is that while scholars have recognized personalism as “a style of dissent” that represented “a confluence of religious and secular philosophies,” or “combination of Catholic social thought, communitarian anarchism, radical pacifism, and humanistic psychology,” the personalist conceptual framework represented more than a “sensibility” or shared discourse: it was a political project identifying personal experience as a site for disrupting prevailing structures of power and transforming society.9 Scholars have noted that the personalist migration of politics onto the everyday scene took place in a distinctly moral register, but it is worth underscoring that its turn toward the relationships, values, and activities organizing personal life—traditionally excluded by formal politics—expressed belief that these were viable sites for contesting the status quo, since they indexed aspects of experience capable of resisting or moving outside the logics of power. Locating transformative politics in familiar reminders of our intersubjectivity and communal belonging, personalism explicitly aimed to undermine both the anonymity structurally produced by collectivist political formulas and the rational pragmatism of political institutions and their mechanisms for change. For if desubjectivization was the hallmark of power, how could it be subverted by abstract claims or impersonal political action?10 [End Page 76]

In this sense, personalism constitutes one of the many projects negotiating liberal humanism and Marxist socialism in the transatlantic mid-twentieth century and can be situated in the intellectual discourse world that Mark Greif associates with “the crisis of man” and Stefanos Geroulanos with competing explanations of “why and how man could have been revealed to be so precarious, violent, and incapable of constructing a better world” in an epoch of total war.11 With origins in nineteenth-century anti-industrialism, the thesis of profound social crisis gained discursive traction in both the US and Europe during the 1930s, partly relayed by interwar modernism, and proliferated into a collective concern (if not a collective experience) in the nuclear postindustrial US, producing a strong reorganizational effect on the national moral imaginary.12 Emerging within this intellectual milieu, personalism located the origins of social crisis in systems it saw grounded in bourgeois individualism and depersonalizing collectivist forms of subject hailing or social organization, especially welfare-warfare statism, scientific rationalization, racism, class- or gender-based social exclusion, militarism, and consumerism. Such systems were understood to erode human dignity and the affective communities and networks traditionally associated with relational social experience, including the extended family, church, labor association, neighborhood, or enclave.13 Explicitly rejecting liberal individualist claims of self-sufficiency and the anonymity of collective subjectivity, personalism emphasized the power of the forms of communalism inhering in everyday social attachments. If many midcentury cultural commentators lamented a social crisis evidenced by loneliness and alienation, moral drift, and existential violence, personalists perceived such phenomena as symptoms of how depersonalizing systems touch down in our personal lives and maintained they were best addressed by transforming those sites of contact. The personal was political because ordinary experiences reflected, reinforced, or challenged—in real and immediate ways—the abstract structures of institutional injustice.

Personalism did not completely reject liberal humanism—it strongly defended the values of unity, wholeness, and social harmony—but it supplanted liberal autonomy with interdependence and attempted to envision values that could be persistent without being static or abstract. Moreover, it championed the person not as a mere synonym for the human but as a biographical, socially enmeshed subject whose worth was morally guaranteed beyond the frameworks of legal recognition. Resituating universalist claims in the everyday lives of actual persons, personalism dislocated the formal boundaries governing who and what counted politically. Doing so challenged the assumptions underwriting [End Page 77] not only liberalism but also radical collective action. Indeed, turn to the personal and moral as means for resisting prevailing power structures reconceived the relay between secularism, pragmatism, Marxism, and mass action organizing the mid-twentieth-century radical Left. Recognizing personalism as an intervention into ordinary manifestations of power grounded in alignment of values and behaviors, aspirations and political practice, is key to understanding its legacy and resonance for US political thought.

In what follows, I consider Day’s and King’s work as exemplary of personalism’s radical force. Though lacking a direct relationship, Day and King similarly drew from their experiences of Christian belief to reconceive political participation. While personalism was not always or primarily religious, Day’s and King’s spiritual activism powerfully articulates its defining features. Positioning these figures’ civil disobedience in relation to their published writings, public speeches and sermons, and private letters, memos, and diaries—genres that traverse mass and local scenes and audiences—I highlight how their mobilizations of sacrificial love, devotional practice, and spiritual community articulated a vision of personalism that could produce systemic change. My hope is that revisiting Day and King will recontextualize not only what we think we know about these familiar figures but also what we think it meant for the personal to be political in the twentieth-century US.

Personalism as a Radical Politics

By 1968 Liturgical Week, both Day and King had elicited considerable national attention for their political dissent. Though Day’s social activism had begun in the era of women’s suffrage, it was in the mid-1950s that both figures, enmeshed in a radical pacifist network, began attracting attention for public acts of civil disobedience—Day for protesting the institutionalized militarism of Civil Defense’s nuclear deterrence policy, King for the Montgomery bus boycott against racial segregation. Groups such as the War Resister’s League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and associated activists A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin were an important shared point of reference for both figures. This political network situated pacifism, rather than socialism, at the heart of radical politics, reformulating the meaning of midcentury radicalism and constituting an influential conduit for leftist thought in the period between the so-called Old and New Lefts.14 The network was, moreover, an important diffusor of political strategy: by the mid-1950s, for instance, FOR had already translated Gandhian nonviolence into its tactical repertoire and boasted significant [End Page 78] expertise in managing the public images of events. FOR’s methods were highly influential on both Day and King, who collaborated with radical pacifists throughout their careers and imported radical pacifism’s direct action tactics, a fusion of the personal and political, and aim of “uprooting violence in all of its forms” into a personalist conceptual framework.15

Yet they did so by drawing from different schools of personalist thought. Day had been introduced to French Catholic personalism by Maurin, the itinerant Frenchman with whom she founded the CW newspaper in 1933. Maurin proselytized the notion of personhood he discovered in the writing of Emmanuel Mounier, who in those same years was theorizing personalism as a religious “third camp” response to a world in crisis—an alternative to the liberal individualism and Marxist collectivism he saw dominating interwar France. Mounier differentiated the person from the individual underwriting those prevailing systems: if the individual was detached, adrift, and lonely, the person was grounded in the divine, communion with others, and engagement with the world.16 Translating Mounier’s work into English immediately upon reading it, Maurin also found it a publisher and began circulating personalist ideas.17 The CW’s call for spiritual revolution through communal obligation, voluntary poverty, and antibourgeois agrarianism married Mounier’s ideas to the nascent liturgical movement’s appeals to ground the Catholic liturgy in everyday life and resulted in the formation of CW houses of hospitality, breadlines, and farm communities.18Individualism has been discredited,” Day impressed upon early CW readers. “Catholics cannot go the other extreme of collectivism. We must uphold personalism as a philosophy.”19

King instead received a graduate education in Boston personalism, a Protestant philosophical school that positioned the person as the epistemological basis for reality. What was perhaps most persuasive for King about the personalist framework was its account of a personal, rather than objective or detached, God, which granted theological authority to the vision of the divine King had grown up with in the Black Baptist church: the God of the African American spiritual tradition, who was a friend and confidant viscerally present in moments of distress.20 Since humans were made in the image and likeness of God, the personhood of the divine represented an important metaphysical basis from which to argue for the dignity of all.21 King understood that if personhood was spiritually, rather than legally or institutionally, constituted, it had radical political implications for thinking about and behavior toward self, others, and structures of racist oppression. “It’s so easy for us to feel that we don’t count,” he affirmed to his Black Montgomery congregation. “We [End Page 79] stand every day before a system which says that to us”—recognizing spiritual personhood became the first step in displacing it.22

Neither King nor Day should be understood as careful adherents to personal-ist schools, but they did mobilize personalist notions of personhood to frame political failure to produce justice and fellowship as a threat to the sacred—a notable move in a postwar era whose unprecedented increase in religious affiliation was dominated by Christian realism.23 Though Social Gospel reformism had given liberal theologians and clergy a strong voice in progressive politics through the New Deal, early Cold War US religious thought was characterized by a privatism and pragmatism that viewed notions of community as dangerous escapism and exonerated political action from ethical critique. Isolating individual conscience from social justice, 1950s religious and political establishments emphasized individual salvation and conflated “faith, freedom, and free enterprise” in a manner that interwove discussions of morality with anticommunism.24 The theological architect of this pervasive Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr, framed structural injustices as the inevitable consequences of human sinfulness, influentially arguing that politics was inseparable from abuses of power and choices among lesser evils.25

Day and King rejected this exclusion of political institutions from moral accountability. They framed transformation of injustice as the fulcrum of religious obligation. Yet they also disavowed the progressive idealism Christian realism saw itself replacing, which they associated with universalistic bourgeois sentimentality and naive emotionalism.26 “Let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in cold, unheated houses in the slums,” Day proclaimed.27 Indeed, their personalism negotiated the era’s realist ethos by rooting aspirational projects of transcendent community in a sober, disciplined notion of Christian love as sacrifice and suffering—refusing to sideline aspirations of social justice and responding to charges of impossibility with references to how divine power anchored and unfolded in the reality of the everyday. Framing social transformation as the objective of disciplined spiritual work, moreover, took aim at the individualistic preoccupation with comfort and security they saw motivating assimilationist Catholicism and midcentury Black Christianity, which Day and King believed had misplaced the communal values of their respective immigrant and enslaved pasts.28 Perhaps unsurprisingly, with personalist visions that subverted 1950s realist and establishment discourses, Day and King were identified as radically militant by mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism.29 [End Page 80]

Love was the key term of their personalism. Day described love as offering oneself to Christ as He appeared in another. For King it was agape, loving as and because God loved, without expectation of reciprocity.

Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate. It means understanding, creative, redeeming goodwill for all men. . . . When we rise to love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them.30

The affective labor required by such love was “terrible and fearful,” because it entailed suffering and “might even mean physical death,” but also because it transfigured individuals so profoundly as to interrupt the desubjectifying effects of systems of power and produce new forms of intersubjectivity.31 The divine origin of such love underwrote its power to fuse the material world to the religious topos of transcendent spiritual community.

Day wrote of love as “the final word” and, “in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing.”32

If only we could learn that the only important thing is love . . . to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven . . . to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. It is a hard, hard doctrine.33

This love was not a feeling but a choice, “a matter of the will,” “a lifetime job.”34 To “keep on loving” meant practicing “the little way” Day had learned from St. Therese of Lisieux: performing ordinary acts of care for others—which were embodied in CW voluntary poverty and hospitality toward the poor and downtrodden, even when they were most difficult to love. Practicing “the little way” of love entailed getting up to make soup and serve it to the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, visit those in mental hospitals and prisons, take someone to the hospital. Valorizing the spiritual power of this traditionally female labor, Day framed acts of mercy as expressions of a love so fierce that it demanded both care for the needs of the other and “personal responsibility for changing conditions” causing their oppression.35 This form of solidarity with the poor meant serving them by living among them and literally taking up some of their suffering; it was a self-disciplined “non-participation in those comforts and luxuries . . . manufactured by the exploitation of others” that was intended to challenge those systems.36

Love for King also entailed suffering but was embodied not in voluntary poverty but in Christ’s turning of the other cheek. Directed even at those “from [End Page 81] whom you can expect no good in return,” King’s agape was “not set in motion by any quality or function of its object” and manifested not idealism but a “regulating ideal.”37 Such “love is the most durable power in the world,” King argued; acting “with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love . . . will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice” but would enable “stand[ing] up with all your might against an evil system.”38 Its most symbolic expression was nonviolence, which “does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.”39 Enacting this new sense of “somebodiness,” moreover, reconfigured the consciences of those toward whom it was practiced: agape was “lov[ing] your enemies to the point that you’re willing to sit-in at a lunch counter in order to help them find themselves.”40 The spiritual work of recognizing the divine in oneself and the oppressor as “a sacred personality with the image of God within them” demanded a faith and fortitude so strong it could consolidate and reorganize subjects, disrupting the racist logics systematically treating Blacks as “depersonalized cogs” in a machine.41 If hearts and minds could not be legislated, the ordinary behaviors and interactions with which they interfaced could nonetheless be transformed. “All of the people of the world cannot do the so-called big things. Some of us will have to be content to do the so-called little things, but . . . in a big way.”42 Finding dignity through performance of the “little things” was an devotional practice bearing witness to one’s divine personhood, spiritual preparation in self-worth enabling agape to produce “qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”43

These conceptualizations of love pivoted on inverted conceptions of subjectivity. While, as Cornel West has pointed out, both Day and King viewed love “as a form of death” that was “self-surrender” to Christ, Day more explicitly mobilized self-abnegation and Catholic ascetic traditions to promote the disintegration of the autonomous bourgeois subject as an ecstatic spiritual experience, while King’s agape framed such surrender as redemptive and empowering.44 Day’s conception of love as sacrifice was, moreover, informed by the profound intersubjective obligation and transcendence she experienced in motherhood—a familiar but fearfully disruptive reorganizing experience producing interdependence and interconnectedness.45 King instead migrated the agency manifested in expressions of responsibility and community building in the Black church—which, functioning outside Jim Crow frameworks, had long been a space encouraging African American organizing—into the political domain from which African Americans were alienated.46 Mobilizing [End Page 82] that “something about religion that gives you a sense of belonging” and the experience of spiritual equality familiar to Black congregations, he framed turning the other cheek as a subversive resignification of the suffering of an oppressed subject into the courageous sacrifice of a divine agent.47

The ultimate aim of both personalist projects was to materialize a Christian vision of cohesive community. Day’s model for community was the Mystical Body of Christ: the shared experience of mystery and communion, first identified by Saint Paul, that had been rediscovered by the liturgical movement and imagined fellowship as “suprapersonal unity” that fused us as “members of one body” regardless of class, race, nation, or denomination.48

“We are all members, one of another,” and, remembering this, we can never be indifferent to the social miseries and evils of the day. The dogma of the Mystical Body has tremendous social implications.49

Accessible in tangible ways in the physical world—in the rites organizing Catholic mass but also the act of giving birth—this vision of transcendent, corporal communion underwrote and motivated Day’s understanding of love and solidarity and required a “new social order” that reflected its reality.50 King’s Beloved Community similarly anticipated the world to come by instantiating cohesion in the present through the coming together of many “to realize [our] oneness and unity under God.”51 Modeled on the sense of belonging and communal nature of worship animating the southern Black church and drawing from the African American prophetic tradition, King envisioned ushering in the Beloved Community to be “God’s appeal to this age . . . an age drifting rapidly to its doom”—a moral obligation embodied in the struggle for racial integration.52 These universalist appeals articulated a personalist vision of unified collectivity rooted in familiar experiences of fellowship; they were reminders of how togetherness, extending us beyond ourselves, fused sacred transcendence to social transformation.

Personalism in Practice: Day’s and King’s Mid-1950s Civil Disobedience

How these personalisms played out in practice largely reflected Day’s and King’s distinct relationships to the failures of institutional politics. Their 1955 civil disobedience in fact highlights how Day and King situated formal protest in relation to their personalist projects of political transformation. Day’s demonstration against US Civil Defense programming was a public manifestation of [End Page 83] personalist nonparticipation.53 When the annual nuclear air raid drill Operation Alert was ruled compulsory (upon penalties of five hundred dollars and up to a year in jail), Day and a small group of local New York activists, primarily radical pacifists associated with CW, FOR, and War Resister’s League, were arrested for challenging the law.54 Having collectively committed to nonviolence before starting their protest, they refused to leave the New York City Hall Park benches on which they sat when the air raid sirens went off. After being approached by the police, they refused to take shelter. Continuing to sit, they were arrested and jailed—an imprisonment that was neither Day’s first nor her last.55 Accused by the judge of being “murderers,” the protestors were held “responsible for the mock deaths of almost three million New Yorkers killed during the air raid drill.”56

Day and the CW protestors considered Operation Alert to coerce complicity with the nuclear militarism structuring the US state: “We believe that the air raid drills are part of a calculated plan to inspire fear of the enemy instead of the love which Jesus Christ told us we should feel toward him.”58 The leaflet they circulated publicizing their protest opposed Christian love to the institutionalized ethos of violence symbolized by Operation Alert’s “order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide”:

Jesus Said: A new commandment I give that you should love others as I have loved you. He laid down His life for his brothers. He refused to call down fire from heaven upon His enemies. love casts out fear, but today our city is compelling its citizens to assist in the buildup of mass hysteria by joining this nation-wide air raid drill.58

Considering the “knowledge the administration of this country has that there is no defense in atomic war,” they identified “this drill to be a military act in a cold war” reproducing and consolidating systemic violence “to prepare the collective mind for war.”59 While the other New York protesters, largely pacifist, framed their dissent as conscientious objection and pled innocent or accepted bail, Day and the other CW demonstrators explicitly stated in a statement prepared for the cameras that their nonviolent gesture was not only moral dissent but “an act of public penance for having been the first people in the world to drop the atom bomb, to make the hydrogen bomb.”60 Pleading guilty, against the wishes of the defense lawyers, they marked their protest as an act of repentance: a way to take personal responsibility for the sin produced by the social order.61 [End Page 84]

Figure 1. Catholic Worker pamphlet announcing the 1955 protest of Operation Alert.
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Figure 1.

Catholic Worker pamphlet announcing the 1955 protest of Operation Alert.

[End Page 85]

Yet in describing her protest to CW readers, Day framed her prison experience as not only a necessary act of sacrifice but also a testament to the myriad faces of the coercive state. An opportunity “to share in some little way the life of prisoners,” Day emphasized her jail time as an expression of solidarity with the imprisoned, both “guilty and innocent,” and documented the depersonalizing treatment and living conditions of those with whom she was incarcerated.62 This repositioning of her protest of the institutional militarism of Operation Alert within the personalist project of disruptive fellowship hinged upon how the CW newspaper functioned as a forum for Day’s activism—telling the stories of those she met and detailing their daily concerns, raising awareness of instances of injustice, galvanizing support for strikes and boycotts, recording conversations with visitors or CW members, commenting on reader correspondence, and asking for prayers, donations, and support. Through the newspaper, the symbolic resonance of her civil disobedience was resituated as but one expression of the ongoing “gentle sabotage” necessary to interrupt systems of violence.63

Outside the radical pacifist network and some limited coverage press coverage, the 1955 Operation Alert protest garnered little attention, but it was nonetheless repeated annually. The 1959 protest, sponsored solely by CW, gained the attention of Mary Sharmat and Janice Smith, young mothers who organized a promotional campaign to attract a wider audience for the protest the following year.64 Though participant numbers had formerly remained under twenty, over one thousand people participated in the 1960 New York protest, and the event was featured widely in the media.65 Sharmat’s and Smith’s organizing, which Day endorsed but did not herself perform, intentionally mobilized growing nuclear anxieties to build mass appeal and effectively catalyzed the 1962 dismantling of the drills.66 Day demonstrated for precisely such formal victories but was deeply skeptical of reliance on institutional solutions for injustices she saw rooted in moral problems. While she acknowledged electoral politics as an important forum for giving us a voice in the social order, and upheld that, given “our present plight under our capitalistic industrialism,” it was “necessary for the State to give help and relief,” she nonetheless believed the state consolidated and reinforced systems of oppression rather than subverting them.67

Yet if Day did not work toward mass organizing for legislative change, she was nonetheless aware that her “little way” had a large audience: “We are, after all, reaching sixty thousand subscribers and countless readers, each one an individual . . . with infinite possibilities. But it is mass action people think of these days. They lose sight of the sacrament of the present moment—of the little [End Page 86] way.”68 As Cheyney Ryan has noted, Day considered systemic injustice far “too pervasive to be transformed in any appreciable way by a single deed.”69 People want “to help the poor, and their very compassion makes them think there must be some quicker way to serve them: make laws, change conditions, get better housing, working conditions, racial justice, etc. But the immediate work remains, the works of mercy, and there are few to do them.”70 Public protest constituted an important but partial piece of a wider personalist project that Day envisioned through the dispersed collective force of the CW readership:

It is only because of the paper . . . that houses of hospitality and farming communes, or even the suggestion of them came into being. . . . People read about our way of thinking and our way of life and want to join us. They come to visit and remain.71

The constellation of personalist activities that grew around the paper—CW houses, weekly gatherings, and peace conferences, Day’s speaking tours, visits to churches and college campuses, picketing and protesting—paired “study and prayer, the manual labor of hospitality and the suffering of community living,” with going “forth ‘to speak truth to power.’”72 Day put more faith in the Holy Spirit than in institutions or organizing to realize social change, but her persistent work of active nonparticipation generated a discursive personal-ist milieu with recognizable impacts for civil defense and antiwar protest—a decentralized community animated by the disruptive potential of collective acts of personal responsibility.73

Day identified similarities between her work and the movement King was helping to grow in the South, which she saw “built on personal contacts” and having begun “in Montgomery Alabama with one woman suffering indignity in a bus, and one man’s protest in the pulpit.”74 Though King’s activism more explicitly aimed at institutional change and dialogue with the political establishment, it was built on small acts of love as resistance intended to produce a “non-violent army.”75 Famously organized in response to Rosa Parks’s 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her seat, the Montgomery bus boycott is often remembered as the accidental result of a courageous but circumstantial hero. Yet Parks had been trained in political activism at the Highlander Folk School and was working for the local NAACP at the time of her arrest.76 As JoAnn Robinson reminds us, local Black community leaders associated with the Montgomery Women’s Political Council and the NAACP had long contemplated a boycott of bus segregation.77 Though several women had been arrested in 1955 for violating segregation laws, it was Parks’s middle-class appeal that catalyzed local leaders to organize the protest.78 Within hours of Parks’s arrest, this activist network announced and mobilized to publicize the boycott.79 The [End Page 87] Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was quickly created to coordinate, sustain, and manage it, with King nominated as leader—likely because, new to the city, he had not yet been drawn into its fractious politics.80 Despite initial fears that many Black Montgomerians would still use the buses out of necessity or self-interest, the boycott was observed almost unanimously.81 Though initially unclear how long it would last, it was over a year later that the Supreme Court decision nullifying bus segregation finally took effect and the boycott ended in success.

Yet when King was appointed leader of the nascent MIA, that outcome was still unlikely and uncertain. One of his first duties was to speak at the Holt Street Baptist Church, the first evening off the buses, to garner support for a protracted boycott. Attempting to encourage the overflowing crowd, King legitimized the boycotters’ racial protest by rooting it in conjoined legal and spiritual authority, “the Constitution of the United States” and “God Almighty,” mobilizing the rhetoric of Cold War American exceptionalism to establish political urgency for their cause.82 Calling for unity and resolve in the Montgomery Black community—“in all of our actions we must stick together”—King’s address resignified Parks’s action and the boycotters’ response through a prophetic call to inject “new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.” The shared experience of “crippling fears on buses in our community,” symbolic of how racism permeated their everyday lives, could be overcome through having the “moral courage” to put “God in the forefront” and recognize the power of Christian love as a tool for equality:

Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian face. . . . There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.

As the two indivisible faces of the divine, love/justice fused infinite generosity with fear-inducing righteousness, framing justice as the calculated use of love. As James Cone notes, love would come to take precedence over justice in King’s thought in subsequent months as he increasingly embraced nonviolence, but his use of the notion always maintained this dual, antipodal association and the realist implication that “tactically, as well as morally, it is better to be nonviolent.”83

As Gary Selby observes, King’s Holt Street Baptist Church speech claimed a significance for the protest it had not yet achieved, hailing into being a Black community extending across denominational and class lines that did not yet exist.84 King’s repeated calls for unity, and the general apprehension in Montgomery that the boycott might not last, signal this initial lack of cohesion.85 [End Page 88] Indeed, though King described the boycott as a “movement” sparked when “God decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle and triumph of freedom and justice in America,” at the time it was not clear that Black Montgomerians enjoyed such “cosmic companionship”—or had the communal stamina to attain this historic importance.86 Yet such rhetoric helped generate and consolidate a unified Black community that King and other local activists increasingly saw as revealing the collective emergence of a “brand new Negro.”87 King recognized that sustaining the boycott required a willingness “to fill up the jailhouses of the South” and “might even mean physical death.”88 It also meant bearing the daily trials and sacrifices presented by commuting, maintaining employment, encountering White fellow citizens as the boycott wore on. King considered the physical and spiritual labor of nonviolently meeting such challenges while standing together in alliance as enabling boycotters to see themselves as persons with dignity.

Yet while rhetorically affirming this new subjectivity, King and boycott leaders were also actively working to produce it by mobilizing networks within the local Black intelligentsia and Black church to circulate nonviolent tactics and shape a united Black front with leveraging power. As Rustin recognized, this organizing approach “used existing institutions so that all social strata of the community were involved” to produce “a comprehensive, unified group” constituted by the “active participation of people who had a daily task of action and dedication.”89 Boycott leaders dedicated considerable energy to sustaining morale and creating endurance in Black Montgomery, including organizing carpooling and multiple weekly mass meetings and offering motivation from the pulpit. King believed the Black church had strategic importance in the struggle for racial equality thanks to “the social structure of the Negro community in the South” and the church’s potential to draw other religious people to the cause.90

While institutional reforms alone could not eradicate racism, King was conscious of nonviolence as a disruptive method with public appeal and believed building “a genuine nonviolent army” could sway democratic processes toward legal change.91 Boycott leaders worked with FOR to prepare Montgomerians to respond with agape to the charged situations produced by the boycott.92 Training sessions enabled boycotters to “rehearse how to react so that they could channel violent reactions,” inscribing nonviolence onto the body until its repeated performance produced a natural response—an internalization technique modeled on devotional religious practice that constituted collective exercise of personal discipline.93 As the boycott neared its end, MIA and FOR also circulated “suggestions” intended to prepare Black Montgomerians for bus [End Page 89] integration.94 Instructing readers how to behave in potential postintegration situations, it perhaps most challengingly insisted that, even if witnessing the abuse of a peer, riders should not “arise to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.”95 Such lessons deployed agape as the “ultimate form of persuasion,” a personalist weapon that would so “touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”96 “Integration is a personal and intergroup feeling,” King maintained, a manifestation of the Beloved Community, and it required collectively wielding love as a tool for transformation even in the most difficult moments.97

After the boycott’s success, this “Montgomery model”—for which “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method”—was perceived by MIA and FOR as a proven, reproducible formula for effecting social justice.98 FOR’s 1957 comic book, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, articulated a personalist appeal in a mass format, reminding readers that “you can do something. Not just the government or some big organization, but you. God says you are important. He needs you to change things.” Offering Montgomery’s nonviolent training sessions and embodiment of Christian faith as a methodology for generating change, the comic concluded with a step-by-step guide for replicating Montgomery’s success.99 Intended to address semiliterate Black audiences, the comic also found significant readership among white clergy and southern university students.100 It was central to FOR’s and MIA’s grassroots outreach following the boycott and has been linked to activism in sites key to the spread of the civil rights movement.101 The comic exemplifies how King’s personalist vision of a “nonviolent army” founded on Christian love circulated to become a durable model for civil rights racial protest.

Toward a Contemporary Personalism

By the time they would have shared the stage in 1968, Day and King had increasingly come to emphasize the interrelation not only of the personal and the political but also of the systems of injustice against which they fought. Both activists had highlighted the mutual reinforcement of capitalism, racism, and institutional violence since the beginning of their careers: “We have not kept silence in the face of the monstrous injustice of the class war, or the race war that goes on side by side with this world war,” Day proclaimed to CW readers [End Page 90]

Figures 2–5. Outline of “The Montgomery Method” from Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
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Figures 2–5.

Outline of “The Montgomery Method” from Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.

[End Page 91]

in 1942, and just months into the Montgomery boycott King was rhetorically linking “the viciousness of lynch-mobs” and “evils of segregation and discrimination” to “the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes” and “the madness of militarism.”102 Discussing this correlation certainly did not mean prioritizing these issues equally in praxis—capitalism undoubtedly anchored Day’s understanding of US social injustice and race was most central to King’s—yet both thinkers drew attention to the reciprocal interests of these forces and how they were undergirded by violence, coercion, and military power. Revisiting Day’s and King’s personalism foregrounds the continued urgency of these issues. Indeed, much of Day’s commentary on eviction practices and urban renewal remains current, as do her critiques of the desubjectification of migrants, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, and the addicted. King’s call to “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” similarly maintains its critical edge: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”103

What would it mean to uphold these personalisms today? Following Day and King would mean aligning means and ends to make daily practices coherent with political aims—the overhauling of lifestyles to live out beliefs at all levels of our lives. Indeed, Day and King advocated a daily discipline extending far beyond what King called mere “intellectual assent.”104 Personalism is demanding. It demands being serious about solidarity that is “ecumenical rather than sectional” and enacting commitment to “worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.”105 Invoking personalism would mean interrupting the institutions through which racialized capitalism desubjectifies the incarcerated, mentally ill, addicted, homeless, undocumented, and unemployed—and protesting as a united front against state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown personhood. Embracing personalism would mean active “non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others,” boycotting products or services produced by putting profit above persons.106 It would mean asking, as Day did, if our “jobs do not contribute to the common good . . . for the grace to give them up,” and refusing to be complicit in workplace practices institutionalizing gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or assault. Personalism would mean adopting a regionalism disruptive not only of globalized consumerism, abstaining “from things not grown in the region where one lives,” but also of nationalism and nativism.107 [End Page 92]

As in the mid-twentieth century, the practice of personalism today would contest prevailing political ideologies on both the right and the left. Yet revisiting Day and King highlights the potential purchase of personalist ideas in a historical moment similarly marked by collective perceptions of the failure of the political and inability to imagine change within institutional channels. Day and King offer potent tools: for detaching localism, challenge to formal politics, and the mobilization of ordinary people from populism; for conceiving personhood outside discourses of productivity, juridical entities, or citizenship; and for delaminating personal responsibility and moral conscience from entrenched individualistic valences and resituating them in relation to solidarity, interrelatedness, and structures of power. Personalism reminds us of the political resources inhering in everyday life and that looking to “the beam in our own eye” reveals our social imbrication and produces communal obligation.108 This vision of personalist responsibility for societal transformation should not be confused with the neoliberal notion of personal responsibility that has prevailed since the 1970s and which, as Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor demonstrates, locates oppression in the lifestyles and purported unreliability or moral deficiency of often-racialized individuals in order to absolve economic and political systems from accountability.109 Personalism cuts across frameworks tying responsibility to individual salvation, merit, or liability, as well as the deep-rooted bipartisan discourses mobilizing “personal responsibility” to elide the systemic nature of injustice and repudiate appeals for structural social change.110

Seriously engaging Day’s and King’s thought today would also mean taking seriously their nuanced conception of love and its implications for how we interact with other persons, even the felon or addict, White supremacist or misogynist. Their personalist idiom of unconditional love and sacrifice raises legitimate questions about the risk of victimization, and it is important to pair their thinking with concern for physical and psychological safety and to highlight that both believed in self-defense and the role of righteous anger.111 Yet their personalist visions of the radical power of unqualified love and redemptive suffering nonetheless present such notions as more than reactionary apologetics: for Day and King they were catalysts for disciplined action, sites for constructing agency, and loci of solidarity. A contemporary conversation about personalist love would recognize its potentially fatal implications, as King often did, without losing sight of its transformative possibilities. Indeed, Day and King both saw love as a creative personalist force animating the everyday, one that incited us to unite and courageously begin—in our own neighborhoods, networks, and workplaces—disrupting structures of power by crowding them with acts of care, solidarity, and active nonparticipation [End Page 93] they could not recognize. One that generated both the resilience to stand up in protest and the imagination necessary to reconceive our personal everydays as sites for creating new tools of political dissent, new “forms of mutual aid, new types of institutions.”112

Amanda Swain

Amanda Swain oversees academic affairs at IES Abroad Milan, where she also teaches undergraduate courses on American literature and culture and on cross-cultural analysis. Her research explores mid-twentieth-century trends in US literary, political, and intellectual cultures and their global contexts. Her current projects interrogate the significance of praxis in twentieth-century American intellectual culture and representations of Italy in the cultural imaginary of the early Cold War US.


In addition to the American Quarterly editorial board and their anonymous reviewers, whose feedback was infinitely useful in helping me develop this essay, I would like to thank Lauren Berlant and Debbie Nelson—both for their comments on earlier versions of this project and for their deeply valuable and ever appreciated mentorship and support.

1. Dorothy Day, acceptance speech, National Liturgical Conference, August 1968, Dorothy Day Papers, Marquette University Archives, Milwaukee; “Still Chance for Non-violent Revolution,” Catholic Free Press, August 23, 1968, 1; James F. Colaianni to Dorothy Day, February 15, 1968, Dorothy Day Papers.

2. The liturgical movement’s calls for more dynamic, inclusive lay participation in Catholic mass culminated in the Second Vatican Council’s structural and spatial reforms. It began in the US in 1925, when a Benedictine monk, Father Virgil Michel, began creating momentum around liturgical renewal at his abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The US Liturgical Conference was created in 1943 after publication of the papal encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (validating the Pauline doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ) to help implement resultant liturgical changes. See Keith F. Pecklers, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America, 1926–1955 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).

3. On Day as a pioneer of the liturgical movement, see Pecklers, Unread Vision; and Katharine E. Harmon, There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926–59 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013). On Day’s role in the US peace movement and influence on the New Left (Abbie Hoffman called her “‘the first hippy’”), see James T. Fisher, The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Kate Hennessey, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother (New York: Scribner, 2017), 257; and Michael Harrington, “Michael Harrington on the Uniquely Orthodox Radicalism of Dorothy Day,” In These Times, September 25, 2015,

4. Program and flyer for Liturgical Week, 1968, Dorothy Day Papers.

5. Day and King, while not direct interlocutors, supported similar initiatives, including the racially integrated Koinonia Farm community and 1967 Spring Mobilization draft-card burning in Central Park—which King presided over, with Day as onlooker. See Day, “Spring Mobilization,” Catholic Worker, May 1967. Hereafter cited as CW.

6. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Personalism” entry offers a useful overview of the various schools and national contexts of this philosophical orientation. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Personalism,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2018, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, It says little, however, about the mobilization of personalism in the twentieth-century US.

7. James J. Farrell, The Spirit of the Sixties: Making Postwar Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 1997), 9. Liberation, understanding itself as an heir to Dwight Macdonald’s earlier (and heavily personalist) small magazine politics, proclaimed in its inaugural editorial that “one of the symptoms of our time is that many people are fed up with ‘politics’—by which they mean the whole machinery associated with political life. To become significant, politics must discover its ethical foundations and dynamite. The politics of the future requires a creative synthesis of the individual ethical insights of the great religious leaders and the collective social concern of the great revolutionists.” See “Tract for the Times,” Liberation, March 1956. Liberation was founded by Bayard Rustin, A. J. Muste (allies and mentors of Day and King) and Dave Dellinger (who spent several months living on a CW farm).

8. Bambara’s work and activism constitute a rich site for exploring the resonance of personalism outside a 1960s framework. Carol Hanisch’s famous 1970 essay “The Personal Is Political” offers a critique of mass action that envisions everyday interactions as opportunities for contesting power relations and employs a personalist frame to reconceive “apolitical” women. Consciousness-raising groups aimed to intervene in the roots of patriarchal systems; this sharing of personal experience as a form of communal meaning-making with transformative political power is also a distinctly personalist idea.

9. Farrell, Spirit, 6. Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 636–37. Personalism also appears in studies of better-known US twentieth-century phenomena, including the deinstitutionalization of psychology, the spread of existentialism, and the emergence of identity politics. See Robert Ellwood, Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994); Marshall Berman, The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society (London: Verso, 2009); Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); George Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); and Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

10. See, for instance, McCarraher, Enchantments; Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); and Ellwood, Spiritual Awakening.

11. Greif, Crisis, 8; Stefanos Geroulanos, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 219.

12. By the 1960s, public discourse in an astonishing range of fields—including theology, philosophy, technology, sociology, politics, literature, and psychology—took this global crisis for granted. Examples in postwar US political thought and social science abound and include the work of Barry Goldwater, Paul Goodman, Whittaker Chambers, William H. Whyte, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, and Lewis Mumford. The crisis thesis also recurred in transatlantic modernism from the interwar years through the late 1960s. For instances in US literature, see the work of J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and William Demby. On this midcentury discourse world, see Berman, Authenticity; Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Ellwood, Spiritual Awakening; Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Andrew Hoborek, The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White Collar Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). On late nineteenth-century expressions of this discourse, see Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Martin Jay, Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

13. See Andrew Abbott and James T. Sparrow, “Hot War, Cold War: The Structures of Sociological Action, 1940–1955,” in Sociology in America: The American Sociological Association Centennial History, ed. Craig Calhoun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

14. Dan McKanan, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Boston: Beacon, 2011), 175. See also Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); and James Tracy, Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

15. Tracy, Direct Action, 94; Marian Mollin, Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 2. FOR and Rustin were interlocutors shared by both Day and King. When Day and New York Catholic Workers protested Civil Defense alongside Ruste and Muste in 1955, they exploited the news cameras to shape perception of their protest. Day arrived at the protest bearing a statement explicitly prepared “to be read before the news reel camera,” while Rustin had instructed protestors to raise their signs high enough to be seen by the press. Day continued to protest Civil Defense alongside radical pacifists until its abolition and famously led a draft-card burning rally with Muste in 1965. Rustin also discussed his work with King when he wrote and met with Day in 1956. See Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, November 1956; Day, “Where Are the Poor? They Are in Prisons, Too,” CW, July–August 1955; and Dee Garrison, Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). King’s career was likewise heavily influenced by FOR; it is largely thanks to their mentorship in nonviolence that he was able to articulate a model of nonviolent action that could be mobilized across the US South. FOR’s fear that Rustin’s homosexuality might discredit the Montgomery protest resulted in Rustin having a marginal public role in the boycott, but he was an important ongoing influence on King—providing feedback, suggestions, and even ghostwriting—and directly involved King in the 1963 March on Washington. See Tracy, Direct Action; John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Larry Isaac, “Movement of Movements: Culture Moves in the Long Civil Rights Struggle,” Social Forces 87.1 (2008): 33–63.

16. Geroulanos, Atheism, 10; Emmanuel Mounier, A Personalist Manifesto (London: Longmans, Green, 1938). Muste gives a similar account of personhood in Saints for This Age (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1962). Maurin read Mounier’s personalist journal Esprit in October 1932 and met Day for the first time two months later; they began the CW in 1933.

17. Maurin “convinced the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey,” home of the liturgical movement, to publish Mounier’s Personalist Manifesto. See Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, “Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, and the Catholic Worker Movement,” Houston Catholic Worker, July–August, 1999, Maurin drew from Mounier’s work in the programmatic free verse he used to spread his ideas. See Zwick and Zwick, “Roots of the CW Movement,” in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays, ed. William J. Thorn, Phillip M. Runkel, and Susan Mountin (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 64–65.

18. This movement developed during the same years, in France and Collegeville, Minnesota. See note 2 above.

19. Dorothy Day, “Liturgy and Sociology,” CW, December 1935.

20. See Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson, “Personalism,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2018, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, See also Lewis V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 189.

21. Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Boston: Beacon, 2010), 88.

22. Martin Luther King Jr., “Overcoming an Inferiority Complex,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, July 14, 1957,

23. McCarraher, Christian Critics, 91, 94. See also Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), xiv, xv.

24. Mark Hulsether, Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2007), 185.

25. Hulsether, 104.

26. See David L. Chappell, “Niebuhrisms and Myrdaleries: The Intellectual Roots of the Civil Rights Movement Reconsidered,” in The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South, ed. Ted Ownby (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007); and James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 30.

27. Dorothy Day, “Why Do the Members of Christ Tear One Another?,” CW, February 1942.

28. Baldwin, There Is a Balm, 54; Fisher, Catholic Counterculture, 32.

29. King’s mobilization of the church for political organizing appeared radical to Black southern leadership and the Black Baptist Church; he also garnered little support from White clergy. See Baldwin, There Is a Balm, 185. It was not until King’s strategic courting of the liberal political establishment was reframed by Malcolm X’s strategic antagonism that King’s approach was perceived as more moderate to the general American public. See Cone, Martin and Malcolm. Day was frequently in tension with the Catholic hierarchy and criticized the church hierarchy’s neglect of the poor and alignment with the status quo; her pacifism was repeatedly condemned by mainstream Catholics. See Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1987).

30. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations,” Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute,

31. Day, “Acceptance Speech”; Martin Luther King Jr., “Address by MLK at 47th NAACP Annual Convention,” Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change,

32. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), 363. This refers to Leo Tolstoy’s Brothers Karamazov, where Father Zossima states that “‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,’” which Day often quoted.

33. Dorothy Day to Dorothy Gauchat, in All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010), 245.

34. Dorothy Day, “Poverty and Precarity,” in By Little and by Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 7.

35. Coles, Dorothy Day, 102; Patrick G. Coy, “Beyond the Ballot Box: The CW Movement and Nonviolent Direct Action,” in Thorn, Runkel, and Mountin, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, 175. Day had a complicated relationship to traditional gender roles that coupled her personal experiences with sex, motherhood, and working-class life with church teachings. She valued marriage and upheld Catholic positions on contraception and abortion, believing the family a primary model for community and sex a spiritual as well as physical union. Though a charismatic leader fiercely committed to her career, whose influence was recognized by the patriarchal Catholic hierarchy, she limited her daughter’s education to the domestic arts and was skeptical of the aims of the feminist movement. See Hennessey, Dorothy Day.

36. Dorothy Day, “Poverty and Pacifism,” CW, December 1944. In Catholic tradition voluntary poverty is distinguished from destitution: the former entails the choice to live simply, the latter is an unjust state of privation.

37. King, Stride toward Freedom, 93; and King, “Address by MLK.” On King’s notion of agape, see Martin Luther King Jr., “Martin Luther King Explains Nonviolent Resistance,” Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change,; and Ralph E. Luker, “Kingdom of God and Beloved Community in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” in Ownby, Role of Ideas, 51.

38. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Most Durable Power,” sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 6, 1956; an excerpt was published in Christian Century 74 (June 5, 1957): 708–9. Garance Franke-Uta, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Amazing 1964 Interview with Robert Penn Warren,” Atlantic, August 26, 2013,

39. King, Stride toward Freedom, 215; King, “Address by MLK.”

40. Franke-Uta, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Amazing 1964 Interview.”

41. King, “Address by MLK”; Martin Luther King Jr., Address to MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, November 14, 1956,

42. King, “Overcoming an Inferiority Complex.”

43. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Birth of a New Age,” Address Delivered August 11, 1956, at the Fiftieth Anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha in Buffalo,

44. Cornel West, The Radical King (Boston: Beacon, 2015), xvi.

45. Cheyney Ryan, “The One Who Burns Herself for Peace,” Hypatia 9.2 (1994): 30.

46. Baldwin, There Is a Balm, 224; Cone, Martin and Malcolm, 25.

47. King, “Overcoming an Inferiority Complex.”

48. Fisher, Catholic Counterculture, 44; David J. O’Brien, The Renewal of American Catholicism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 20. On rediscovery of this doctrine and its implications for twentieth-century Catholicism, see William T. Cavanaugh, “Dorothy Day and the Mystical Body of Christ in the Second World War,” in Thorn, Runkel, and Mountin, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, 457–64; and Pecklers, Unread Vision.

49. Day, “Liturgy and Sociology.”

50. Cavanaugh, “Day and the Mystical Body,” 461; Ryan, “One Who Burns,” 30; Dorothy Day, House of Hospitality (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1939), 87.

51. King, Stride toward Freedom, 11.

52. King, 221; Baldwin, There Is a Balm, 79.

53. Established in the 1940s as a branch of domestic national security, Civil Defense encompassed US nuclear deterrence policy and attempts to legitimize that policy through public support and control of public perception of nuclear war. See Garrison, Bracing for Armageddon, 7–8.

54. Garrison, 69–70. They were the only protestors arrested that year despite similar protests in other cities.

55. Day, “Where Are the Poor?” Day was first jailed in 1917 protesting for women’s suffrage; her last imprisonment, in 1973, occurred picketing for farmworkers with Cesar Chavez. See Dorothy Day, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008); and Day, Long Loneliness.

56. Dee Garrison, “Our Skirts Gave Them Courage: The Civil Defense Protest Movement in New York City, 1955–1961,” in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960, ed. Joanne Meyerowitz (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 207.

57. Catholic Worker Movement, Civil Defense protest leaflet, 1955, Marquette University Archives, Milwaukee; Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, February 1957.

58. Catholic Worker Movement, Civil Defense protest leaflet.

59. While US policymakers knew that it was not possible to protect civilians with such measures, they hoped Civil Defense programming would produce the political capital necessary to enact the preemptive nuclear policies that might actually protect the nation from nuclear attack. In this sense, Civil Defense aimed to frame nuclear survival as possible enough to warrant the risks inherent to continued nuclearism. See Garrison, Bracing for Armageddon, 36.

60. Day, “Where Are the Poor?”

61. Dorothy Day, “What Is Happening? Trial Continued until Nov. 16,” CW, November 1955.

62. Day, “Where Are the Poor?”

63. Dorothy Day, “For Gentle Sabotage, Style, and Economy, Dine by Candlelight,” CW, May 1933.

64. The protest was repeated until 1962. Day was arrested and pled guilty five times. In the 1962 protest, Day, protected by a crowd of admirers, was not arrested. See Garrison, “Our Skirts,” 216.

65. Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, June 1960.

66. Garrison, “Our Skirts,” 212.

67. Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, February 1948. Day had been active in fighting for women’s suffrage but never voted, and she refused both to pay taxes and to elect tax exemption.

68. Day, “Inventory,” 105. This 1951 CW circulation reflects a substantial dip from its high point in the 1930s but was still higher than the contemporaneous circulation of the Nation and the New Republic combined. See Dwight Macdonald, “The Foolish Things of the World,” New Yorker, October 1952, 37–56. Circulation fluctuated over time largely in relation to Day’s pacifism, which cost her significant readership during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. See Bill Kaufman, “‘The Way of Love’: Dorothy Day and the American Right,” in Thorn, Runkel, and Mountin, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, 229.

69. Ryan, “One Who Burns,” 28.

70. Dorothy Day, “Letter on Hospices,” CW, January 1948.

71. Coles, Dorothy Day, 109; Dorothy Day, “Day after Day,” CW, February 1943.

72. See Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, May 1964; Farrell, Spirit, 173.

73. Paul Goodman and Abbie Hoffman met at a CW meeting. Draft-card burners David Miller, Thomas Cornell, and Christopher Kearns were all Catholic Workers. On Day and draft resistance, see Farrell, Spirit; and Mollin, Radical Pacifism.

74. Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, May 1957.

75. Martin Luther King Jr., “Confidential Memorandum,” Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King spoke directly with the Kennedy brothers on several occasions. See Cone, Martin and Malcolm.

76. See Kirt H. Wilson, “Interpreting the Discursive Field of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Holt Street Address,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.2 (2005): 300; and Stewart Burns, Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 81.

77. See JoAnn Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of JoAnn Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987).

78. Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith had both also refused to give up seats to White passengers, but Montgomery’s Black leadership believed their past “moral improprieties” likely to render their cases indefensible. See Wilson, “Interpreting the Discursive Field,” 300–301.

79. Robinson, Montgomery Boycott, 45–46; Burns, Daybreak of Freedom, 87.

80. See Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 137; and Wilson, “Interpreting the Discursive Field,” 304.

81. See King, Stride toward Freedom, 42; and Robinson, Montgomery Boycott, 57–58.

82. Martin Luther King Jr., MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute,

83. Cone, Martin and Malcolm, 62; Franke-Uta, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Amazing 1964 Interview.”

84. Gary Selby, Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 57, 70.

85. See King, Stride toward Freedom, 42; Robinson, Montgomery Boycott, 57–58.

86. Martin Luther King Jr., “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” Address Delivered at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, See also King, “Address by MLK.”

87. King, “Address by MLK.” Robinson noted increased courage and sense of purpose in Black Montgomerians over the course of the boycott, as did Parks and activist leaders at Highlander Folk School. See Robinson, Montgomery Boycott; and “Mrs Rosa Parks Reports on Montgomery, Ala. Bus Protest,” March 1956,

88. Martin Luther King Jr., “Desegregation and the Future,” Address Delivered at the Annual Luncheon of the National Committee for Rural Schools, December 15, 1956,

90. Baldwin, There Is a Balm, 224.

91. King, “Confidential Memorandum.” While King’s relationship to institutional politics evolved, he was hopeful at this stage that a mass front could produce legal change and help improve race relations. After the Watts riots, King increasingly lost faith in democratic institutions and more exclusively grounded political transformation in the spiritual. See Cone, Martin and Malcolm, 268.

92. D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 239. See also Robinson, Montgomery Boycott.

93. Kosek, Acts of Conscience, 217.

94. King, Stride toward Freedom, 85, 157.

95. King, 158.

96. King, 215.

97. Martin Luther King Jr., Interview by Mike Wallace, 1958,

98. King, Stride toward Freedom, 72.

99. See Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnick, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (New York: Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1957). FOR’s Hassler and Resnick wrote and published the comic book; King approved and endorsed it. As its title indicates, the comic figures King as the boycott’s protagonist, eliding the contributions of many other figures. Its appeal for equality hinged on several depictions of Blacks embracing bourgeois Christian values, coded as White.

100. Isaac, “Movement of Movements,” 39.

101. FOR’s Jim Lawson used the comic in Nashville nonviolence workshops with students including Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, C. T. Vivian, and Jim Bevel—figures influential on the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. See Andrew Aydin, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” Teaching Tolerance 49 (Spring 2015); Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 22; and Isaac, “Movement of Movements,” 40.

102. Day, “Why Do the Members of Christ Tear One Another?” The inaugural CW issue had denounced lynching, the Scottsboro case, and exploitation of Black labor by the War Department. See Martin Luther King Jr., “The ‘New Negro’ of the South: Behind the Montgomery Story,” Socialist Call 24 (June 1956): 16–19. We should understand King’s mid-1960s pronounced denunciation of the Vietnam War and campaign against poverty less as a radicalization of his thought than as a shift in political strategy that sharpened and put into practice a critique long present in his writings and speeches. Day understood her acts of 1950s and 1960s racial protest in the South as coherent with her ongoing documentation of racial economic exploitation, disenfranchisement, and housing injustice and critiques of the depersonalizing nationalistic and racist logics underwriting US militarism from World War II through Vietnam.

103. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967,

104. King, Interview by Mike Wallace.

105. King, “Beyond Vietnam.”

106. Day, “Poverty and Pacifism.”

107. Day.

108. Dorothy Day, “Day after Day,” CW, February 1943. See also Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1957, kinginstitute.stanford. edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.

109. See Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

110. Yamahtta-Taylor, 9.

111. See Dave Dellinger, Robert Franklin Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day, “Are Pacifists Willing to Be Negroes? A 1950s Dialogue on Fighting Racism and Militarism, Using Nonviolence and Armed Struggle,” in We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in Twenty-First Century America, ed. Elizabeth Martínez, Matt Meyer, and Mandy Carter (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 21–33.

112. Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, September 1956.

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