I am honored to engage these thoughtful responses from such a distinguished group and even more honored to be part of a forum that aspires to bring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thought to bear on our present crises. I focus here on three themes that emerge from the responses: race and political economy; violence and the security state; and political imagination, ethics, and judgment.
All respondents acknowledge the significance of King’s critique of U.S. capitalism and economic inequality, especially the extreme disadvantage of the country’s ghetto neighborhoods. Jeanne Theoharis rightly argues that our memory of King obscures the connections he saw between the ideological and material foundations of the Jim Crow South and the practices that built urban ghettos: residential and school segregation, job and housing discrimination, unjust policing and sentencing, social isolation, systemic disinvestment, and political subordination. Andrew Douglas adds that King’s critique of a “thing-oriented” society exposes how “racial capitalism” persistently frustrates and forecloses efforts at human connection. Broaching the problem of political economy, Douglas presses “the question of how King’s call for a revolution of values is complicated by the production and circulation of value in capitalist society,” especially one shot through with racist ideology.
This approach to King helps us imagine, as E. P. Thompson did for England, an expanded domain for political economy—beyond the traditional concerns of trade regulations, monetary policy, labor, and the market—that includes disruptive political action and ethical demands of ordinary citizens. For King, collective action (especially when informed by religious and moral traditions) has the capacity to disrupt and transfigure prevailing circuits of value. This is in part why King insisted that nonviolent mobilization and democratic uprising be arrayed directly against businesses.
Recognizing the importance of such actions for King, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor highlights King’s advocacy of a general strike during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ campaign, as well as his vision for mass direct action during the ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign that same year. Missing from Taylor’s list is Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s effort to protest, boycott, and negotiate with leading businesses in major cities with the goal of increasing black employment, black vendor contracts, and corporate contributions to civic programs.
After King’s assassination, Operation Breadbasket became most closely identified with Jesse Jackson’s personality-centered movement in Chicago and its obsessive focus on racial representation and black capitalism, neither of which flows inevitably from King’s aspirational model. Operation Breadbasket’s enduring force lies in the fact that concerted political action enabled African American activists and their allies to reroute entrenched pathways of profit, contest arbitrary corporate power, and redirect millions of dollars in jobs and contracts to disadvantaged blacks. Another significant effort to emerge from King’s Chicago work was the formation of tenants’ unions, which organized to secure (through threat of rent strike and direct action) bargaining recognition, building improvements, and anti-eviction rights directly from large property owners. From these activist energies, King hoped a movement would emerge to restructure the unacknowledged bases of economic value in our society, from municipal boundaries to public schooling, while establishing guaranteed basic income and various schemes for bargaining and arbitration as bulwarks against conventional market outcomes. King did not live long enough to further test and champion these ideas, nor did he develop a more comprehensive theory of how economic injustice is structured by gender injustice. His radical proposals, however, designed to uproot basic presuppositions of U.S. federalism and constitutional law, should spark our contemporary political imagination and surely deserve far greater consideration than they currently receive, even in today’s revival of interest in the black radical tradition.
A great deal of the urgency behind King’s turn to ghetto poverty stems from his horror at the rage, disaffection, alienation, and nihilism of the youth he met during the “long, hot summers” of rebellion between 1965 and 1968. My colleague Elizabeth Hinton not only revisits this period and this population, but also recovers the forgotten history of many minor revolts and the cruel dynamic of unjust state repression and street rebellion cemented in the wake of King’s murder. Crucially, Hinton shares King’s investment in excavating the ethical and political dimensions of ghetto youth revolt, and in doing so echoes King’s judgment that such “violent revolts are generated by revolting conditions and there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose.”
While acknowledging the “understandable” fear and sense of menace that riots create (even among blacks who live in ghetto neighborhoods), King nevertheless counseled Americans to “resist the impulse to seize upon the rioter as the exclusive villain.” King understood that ghetto looting and revolt contains, despite its ills, a kernel of egalitarianism; the “experience of taking” involves fleetingly “redressing the power imbalance that property [distribution] represents,” and its violence is usually an attack against available “symbols of exploitation” or the police. Indeed, King urged police to “cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protection residents.”
Despite acknowledging their legitimate anger and declaring his solidarity with these youth, King criticized chaotic and episodic revolt. He worried about its self-undermining “sense of futility” in the face of economic injustice, and its inevitable defeat in the face of military and police power. For King, the critical task was to organize dissent into ethically sensitive forms of mass protest that stood a fighting chance. “To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot,” King argued, “because it can be longer lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive.”
King worried—and accurately prophesied—that ghetto rioting would “strengthen the right wing of the country” and contribute to a “fascist development” within U.S. politics. Indeed, as Bernard E. Harcourt writes in his response, just as ghetto rebellion in the 1960s intensified the illegal state surveillance, repression, and assassination of activists, most notably through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO program, our own era’s uprisings and violence have apparently given the FBI the license to create the absurdly amorphous category of “Black Identity Extremists.” Liberals who, in desperation, have placed their faith in the FBI to save democracy from Donald Trump should bear in mind that the FBI has historically advanced our nation’s most pernicious racist repression and is now at the heart of an unprecedented expansion of national security power.
Harcourt also addresses the ethical questions raised by political violence. He declares his “respect” for “others who rise up even when they deploy tactics [he] might not” and foregrounds the “deeply subjective” dimensions of ethical commitment. I admire Harcourt’s stance, especially its humility, but I harbor two worries. First, as King (and Gandhi, for that matter) argued, how we respond to injustice resounds through “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” One great difficulty in explicating the ethics of oppressed groups stems from the need to balance our deeply felt personal interests, such as dignity and self-respect, with the claims for consideration, fairness, care, and even mercy that others in and outside the group have on us. King hoped that nonviolent, mass direct action could incorporate these myriad considerations without a “slide to subjectivism,” as Charles Taylor might put it. The angst that he suffered throughout his career stemmed from his visceral understanding of how human interconnection was especially heightened among the oppressed: how reckless rebellion could invite indiscriminate group repression, how selfish accommodation could entrench group stigmas of inferiority, and how political violence can tragically delimit the indeterminate horizons of how and with whom the world should be shared.
Fueled by these worries, and devoted to genuine solidarity building, King demonstrated respect for other political philosophies and tactics. Yet this respect was exercised through criticism and engaged disagreement. Thus my second concern. I agree with Harcourt that condemnation and intransigence should rarely be deployed against those resisting oppression, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of critical exchange in a spirit of reciprocity as itself a sign of respect for people’s abilities to give and respond to reasons. King’s engagement with Black Power often reflected this approach to disagreement and remains a model for political debate in an era far too prone to social media bromides, ad hominem argument, and flights of speculation about the motives of our interlocutors.
Finally, I want to respond to ethical questions raised by the discourse of the “politics of respectability.” Barbara Ransby, historian of the civil rights movement and mentor for activists today, rightly argues that their rejection of “respectability” stems from the callous use of class, comportment, or sexuality to exclude some from civic equality and even sympathy. Indeed, as political scientist Cathy Cohen has long argued, these axes have constituted internal “boundaries of blackness,” a shameful legacy of marginalization in African American political solidarity. Accordingly, I consider King at his least coherent and most counterproductive where he traffics in heterosexism or patriarchal gender norms; among his most admirable moments are those when he breaks with conventional norms of respectability to celebrate the dignity of stigmatized work, the countercultural revolt against consumerism, or the political agency of those that society would write off as criminals, dependents, and deviants.
Nevertheless, contemporary uses of “respectability” as a term of opprobrium are overinclusive. Ransby’s invocation of righteous anger is instructive. In reducing arguments against the sustained expression of anger to conformity with “middle-class norms,” it implicitly associates righteous anger with the poor and does not take seriously enough the complicated normative debates raised by political emotions, which have been at the heart of theological and ethical disagreements in black letters and black communities (including poor ones), and which are presently the topic of intense debate among philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Myisha Cherry. The question is how to evaluate ethical claims and understand their justifications. King’s arguments for channeling anger into other emotions are rooted primarily in the idea that anger is corrosive of our own abilities to live a good life and not an appeal to assimilation. King’s claims that anger undermines the ability to sustain constructive political solidarity, tempts human beings toward unjustified retribution, and blinds us to the ethical demands of others are critical arguments to evaluate on their own terms. They are vital concerns for politics, and for life.
My own judgment on these difficult normative questions is far from settled, but I hope these offerings—and all the essays in this issue—will generate the kind of extended discussion that such ideas deserve in our own desperate struggle to discern where we go from here.