Don’t Miss a Thing

Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.

Search Website

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at an AFL-CIO event. Image: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library.

Reading List January 14, 2022

MLK’s Conservative Canonization

“Forget the dream, he called for a revolution.” An MLK Day reading list on how his radicalism was erased.

Though he is widely celebrated as a national hero—martyr to an inspiring dream about our country’s largest possibilities—many younger Americans now greet Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name with suspicion, viewing him as an essentially conservative figure.

“We all love him now that the worms got his body. But when he was speaking the truth, he was radically unsettling folk.”

This is hardly surprising when each year around this weekend, King’s “least controversial words are quoted and contorted to suit every political whim” as Simon Waxman remarks. Indeed, as Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer made clear in their 2017 essay, Reagan used the very founding of MLK day to undermine racial justice. “The day was legislated as part of a strategy to defang King of his most radical qualities while coopting him into the ideology of colorblindness,” they write.

In fact, King was so radical that 72 percent of Americans and 50 percent of Black Americans disapproved of him at the time of his murder. “We all love him now that the worms got his body,” Cornel West commented in a 2018 conversation. “But when he was speaking the truth, he was radically unsettling folk. And he was willing to be unpopular precisely because he loved the people so.”

But others were receptive to King’s message, especially the Institute of the Black World, which worked hard to foreground King’s radicalism. As Andrew J. Douglas and Jared Loggins make clear in a recent essay, there is much to learn from the IBW’s commitment to the critique of racial capitalism, particularly when it comes to present debates about Black scholarship in universities.

When talking about King’s radicalism, it is impossible to ignore his stance on the Vietnam War. Not only did he fervently oppose the War, he declared “his hostility to U.S. militarism in all its forms,” as Aziz Rana writes, “asserting that such hostility was integral to his account of Black freedom.” Unfortunately, as Christian G. Appy makes clear in his essay “Exceptional Victims,” sidelining this critique “was the price of King’s admission into the U.S. pantheon of heroes.”

With all this in mind, today’s reading list offer critical engagement in place of canonization. From nonviolence to nuclear disarmament to full employment, the essays below recover—and scrutinize—the profoundly radical nature of King’s political, moral, and religious thought. 


MLK Weekend Sale

Many of the essays below come from our book Fifty Years Since MLK. Get it for 25% off this weekend with code MLK2522, or get it for free with any print membership with code MLKMBR.

Andrew J. Douglas Jared Loggins

Even as they carve out space for Black scholarship, established universities remain deeply complicit in racial capitalism. We must think beyond them.

Judith Butler Brandon M. Terry

Judith Butler talks with Brandon M. Terry about MLK, the grievability of black lives, and how to defend nonviolence today. 

Brandon M. Terry

Canonization has prevented a reckoning with the substance of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political commitments.

Cornel West

Cornel West on Martin Luther King, Jr., hope, and the future of activism.

Thad Williamson

The persistence of black poverty has become a permanent feature of U.S. democracy. We need an expanded political imagination to dismantle it.

Aziz Rana

Support for the U.S. military has long been seen as a crucial way for black Americans and immigrants to show that they “belong.”

Christian G. Appy

The resistance to the Vietnam War was the most diverse and dynamic antiwar movement in U.S. history. We have all but forgotten it today.

Christopher Petrella Justin Gomer

The holiday was legislated as part of a strategy to defang King of his most radical qualities while coopting him into the ideology of colorblindness.

Simon Waxman

The celebration of King’s official legacy as a cuddly figure of unity and tolerance serves to erase his politics from public memory.

Vincent Intondi

Whether addressing church parishioners or college students, King often demanded an end to the nuclear arms race.

J. Phillip Thompson

Dr. King’s goal was full employment and universal health care.

Our weekly themed Reading Lists compile the best of Boston Review’s archive. Previews are delivered to members every Sunday. Become a member to receive them ahead of the crowd.

Boston Review is nonprofit and reader funded.

Contributions from readers enable us to provide a public space, free and open, for the discussion of ideas. Join this effort – become a supporting reader today.

Sign Up for Our

Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.

While we have you...

…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.

Donate Today

Most Recent


But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.

Hannah Craig

The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.

AbdouMaliq Simone

Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.

Eli Friedman