Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Legacy of Boston Personalism

The Pluralist 17 (3):45-70 (2022)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Legacy of Boston PersonalismJ. Edward Hackett1. IntroductionWhen the question of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophical legacy arises in the academy, so far, the question remains open-ended (though, as I will shortly argue, the question has already been answered by King himself). Beyond his presence in public American consciousness, King left behind speeches, sermons, correspondence, and writings that inspire both philosophical and theological reflection. However, King is also interpreted on the merits of the biases and philosophical traditions that we scholars navigate. Such biases and philosophical traditions mediate our experience of encountering King, and this mediation can impact our understanding of what exactly King’s philosophical legacy is.1Accordingly, we should seek to reconstruct King’s thoughts in the philosophical vocabulary King employed rather than displacing King from his own agency and the contexts that shaped him.2 In doing so, we prevent mistakes and misunderstandings that plague the public knowledge of King’s legacy. And yet, serious misunderstanding occurs every January with light fluff pieces in major newspapers and websites from authors who do not read King’s corpus. What’s more, some scholars are guilty of this lack of reading King widely. Consider Martha Nussbaum and her glaring error and omission in her recent contribution to a recent book that purports to look at King as a philosopher: “Although a religious man, [King] did not advance in his political writings a comprehensive and religious doctrine, as Gandhi did” (Nussbaum 123). In an otherwise interesting article about political emotions, Nussbaum completely neglects any historical consideration or development where King describes himself as a personalist.3 Like others, Nussbaum disregards King’s own self-description. This disregard is tantamount to a silent [End Page 45] and implicit racism that results in scholarly efforts that deprive King of his own intellectual agency when interpreting his work. This tendency prevails in both philosophy and theology departments, and this neglect has also been the larger challenge of African American philosophy gaining more acceptance as a field of philosophical inquiry (McClendon and Ferguson 38). My efforts in this article are to put an end to continual misreadings of King. First and foremost, King is a personalist.While this essay defends the personalist interpretation of King, let me lay out briefly those pieces of evidence. The interpretation of King as a personalist rests on four evidential sources: (1) King’s own words, (2) family background, (3) influence of personalist ideas on his writings, and (4) the tradition of King’s reception by other Boston personalists. First, King describes himself in his own words as a personalist. This is perhaps the biggest piece of evidence for why we should read King as a personalist. Second, King was influenced by personalism before studying Brightman’s philosophy with Gregory Davis at Crozers Theological Seminary.4 Before Morehouse College and Crozers Theological Seminary, according to Rufus Burrow, homespun personalism emerges out of King’s upbringing within the Black Church. For this reason, scholars should not doubt that King synthesizes personalist influences with how he was raised (Burrow, God and Human Dignity 17–31). Moreover, given that King chose to go to Boston University to study with Brightman and to be where Boston personalism was known to be strong, all of these facts indicate that King was a personalist (Burrow, God and Human Dignity 24).Homespun personalism gave King a vocabulary to bring together and synthesize many intellectual forces in his life, and this synthesis is recognized by other personalists. Walter Muelder is one such personalist. Muelder was Dean of Boston University’s School of Theology from 1945–1972 when King attended. Muelder and King exchanged correspondence, and Muelder delivered many lectures, some published and others unpublished, on the personalism of King. The most famous of these lectures is one Muelder gave to Morehouse College in 1983, in which Brightman’s moral law system is read into King’s own words. Taking this historical background and also that, to this day, some teachers at Morehouse College, like Lawrence Carter, make their students learn the personalist moral law system from Muelder and Bright-man, the personalist interpretation...

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J. Edward Hackett
Southern University

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