Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a political thinker has long been overshadowed by a romantic view of the Civil Rights Movement he led until his assassination on April 4, 1968, say Harvard scholars Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, co-editors of the new book “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Fifty years after King’s death, Shelby, the Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy, and Terry, an assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies, discussed King’s contributions as a political philosopher and his relevance in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Tommie Shelby & Brandon Terry
GAZETTE: You say that a romantic view surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and King hinders our understanding of both the movement and of King’s legacy. Can you explain?
TERRY: We tend to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement through romantic tropes, in which it becomes a story about unity built from the heroic sacrifice of great men. It’s a nationally bounded story. It’s a story that is heavily moralized about the transcendence of good over evil, in which all we were waiting for as a nation was to hear someone like Martin Luther King and the scales would fall from our eyes and we would see the errors of the past 300 years. It also tends to be a story about “becoming who we already were” — distilling our most deeply held values and bringing them up to be fully realized. The resonance with the sacrifice and redemptive suffering of the Christ story is really important as well. This can become problematic because we lose many of the movement’s radical ideas about economic justice, democratic experimentation, and overhauling the constitutional order. None of those things are on the table. They don’t even become questions we ask because we’re already telling ourselves a story where they don’t fit; even the geopolitics of the civil rights struggle fall out. We don’t understand that King always saw the Civil Rights Movement as part of a global struggle in a Cold War and anticolonial context. King was a global figure. He was traveling to India to meet with Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, and attended the presidential inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. That all falls out of our conventional narrative.