Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

As a theorist of inequality, King is our contemporary. But he was also a philosopher of equality, and thus of emancipation. At the core of his thought one finds the political subjectivity that the civil rights struggle was helping to engender. Important as his final year was, the radical outlines of this project are visible from 1955 to 1963, as King was drawn deeper into political activism and answered the call to engage in a political sequence that exceeded the boundaries of the existing situation.

He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy

Martin Luther King Jr. in Shreveport, LA, 1958.

On November 2, 1983, Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law as a national holiday. Despite initial opposition from Republican senators, who correctly saw King’s legacy as a threat to their political agenda—Jesse Helms filibustered for sixteen days against commemorating King’s “action-oriented Marxism”—Reagan staked his claim on King for the rising right. Citing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Reagan redirected King’s egalitarian ethic into a vision of a meritocratic nation in which people are judged, in a notorious appropriation, on “the content of their character.”

Reagan read this speech as a vision of reconciliation, emphasizing the language of brotherhood between the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners. And he imagined a colorblind free market utopia in which past inequalities had been magically waved away by executive fiat. In contrast to Reagan’s embrace of the still discriminatory status quo, King opened his 1963 speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial by drawing attention to the unfinished character of the project of emancipation:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

The contemporary betrayal of King lives on in the suppression of this voice of intransigence, and the reduction, by liberals and conservatives alike, of King to an empty symbol. Reagan’s neutralization of his politics is repeated, year after year, in the purple prose of politicians who seek an icon for the transfiguration of business as usual.

Partly to refute this decades-long betrayal, many contemporary scholars have focused on King’s apparent turn from the democratic and reformist dream of the March on Washington to a radical and internationalist vision. This is epitomized in King’s speech “A Time To Break the Silence” on April 4, 1967, delivered exactly a year before his assassination. Distancing himself from his mainstream political allies, King announced his opposition to the Vietnam War and recognized the legitimacy of “a revolutionary government seeking self-determination” in Vietnam, declaring his solidarity with global movements against colonialism: “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.” The remaining year of King’s life revolved around the Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes that while planning the Poor People’s March in Washington, DC, King “called for extralegal protests not aimed at undoing unjust laws but in the name of political and economic demands that represented the interests of the majority. In Memphis, during the sanitation workers strike in 1968, he called for a general strike to shut down the entire city.”

King was not the empty symbol Reagan and others claimed he was. He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy. As political theorist Brandon M. Terry puts it, King was not only an icon, but “a vital political thinker.” A half a century ago, Terry argues, King theorized the foundations of racism in a way that vastly surpasses the fashionable contemporary ideologies that “treat racism as near-immutable and overstate its explanatory effects.” As Terry points out, King understood that the racial question was overdetermined by wage stagnation, the declining power of organized labor, and the expulsion of workers from employment by automation. King had come to believe that transforming this structural injustice could only be achieved through mass civil disobedience.

As a theorist of inequality, King is our contemporary. But he was also a philosopher of equality, and thus of emancipation. At the core of his thought one finds the political subjectivity that the civil rights struggle was helping to engender. Important as his final year was, the radical outlines of this project are visible from 1955 to 1963, as King was drawn deeper into political activism and answered the call to engage in a political sequence that exceeded the boundaries of the existing situation.


In 1955, King had completed his PhD in theology and begun work as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was not yet a political leader. But only a few months later, Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and brought to national attention the self-organized movement of black resistance against legal segregation. King supported the movement, which started meeting at his church, but hesitated to accept a leadership position. However, when he was nominated for president of the Montgomery Improvement Association on December 5, he did not ignore the call. “If you think I can render some service,” he modestly replied, “I will.”

The following month, King had an experience he would return to in sermons and speeches for the rest of his life. He was arrested for giving a ride to three people boycotting the segregated buses, and was locked in jail for the first time. Returning home late the next day from an organizing meeting, the phone rang. It was a death threat. As he later recounted in a sermon at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, King questioned his commitment to the movement. In a lonely, desperate night, he prayed: “Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.” An “inner voice” responded: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”

It is a familiar voice, like the one heard by the apostle on the road to Damascus. What distinguishes this scene of conversion from a general instance of spiritual rebirth is that for King, it is the story of becoming a political subject—of joining a process oriented toward emancipation that exceeds him as an individual, through what the philosopher Alain Badiou, writing about St. Paul, describes as “fidelity to the event.” Though expressed here and often in religious language, this fidelity is a secular political principle: to be faithful to the new truth that emerges from a rupture with the state of the situation, the event that brings about an egalitarian and emancipatory possibility. Montgomery’s significance was universal, King told reporters in 1956: “It is part of a world-wide movement. Look at just about any place in the world and the exploited people are rising against their exploiters.” Speaking to packed crowds, he insisted that “we must oppose all exploitation . . . We want no classes and castes . . . We want to see everybody free.” His use of the tactic of nonviolence referred to the Indian independence struggle and anti-imperialism, which he invoked explicitly: “The oppressed people of the world are rising up. They are revolting against colonialism, imperialism, and other systems of oppression.”

Already with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was a tension between King’s model of messianic subjectivity and the principles of mass organization. Jo Ann Robinson, who spent years laying the groundwork for the boycott as leader of the Women’s Political Council, said: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preachers’ show. It’s the people. The masses of this town, who are tired of being trampled on, are responsible. The leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”

This tension between grassroots organizing and messianic leadership would last throughout King’s career, and he confronted the many paradoxes it presented for political struggle. As the French political theorist and organizer Sylvain Lazarus puts it, the “singular politics” of a particular historical sequence is represented by a proper name (say, Spartacus, Saint-Just, or Lenin). King’s name, and his political thought, give us certain categories, concepts, and notions that are specific to the historical mode of politics of which he is the subject. Yet King’s proper name, increasingly recognizable in the mainstream media, would also continue to manifest the fundamental problem: the attention he brought to grassroots initiatives also tended to overshadow the work and thought of the organizers who had laid the foundations.

When he resigned from his pastorship at Dexter in 1960, he told his congregation: “We must employ new methods of struggle involving the masses of our people.” King joined in building an organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He told his colleagues at a meeting that year: “This is the creative moment for a full scale assault on the system of segregation.” But the creativity and new methods of struggle came from outside his organization. It was the students of North Carolina and Tennessee who, without guidance from existing civil rights organizations, launched “sit-ins” at segregated lunch counters. Ella Baker, a founding organizer of SCLC and at the center of its voting rights campaigns, was the most enthusiastic about the students’ efforts, and organized an April 1960 meeting in Raleigh of what became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What she appreciated was not only the tactic of the sit-in, but also what she describes as the students’ model of “group-centered leadership, rather than . . . a leader centered group pattern of organization.” King’s messianism and charisma brought attention to the group, but risked undermining SNCC’s commitment to participatory democracy. Barbara Ransby, in her Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, distinguishes between the “ministerial” subjectivity of King and the “missionary” subjectivity of Baker:

King’s and Baker’s respective orientations within the church could not have been more different. Ministers were trained to be shepherds of their flocks. The metaphor itself suggests the differences between the notions of leadership that ministers practiced and those that missionary women adhered to. Ministers directed their flocks; missionaries gathered people together.

This tension between King’s model of messianic subjectivity and the principles of mass organization would lead Baker to maintain: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.”

What is profound in King’s thought, however, is his fidelity to the movement and its consequences, despite the turbulence which, in the heat of the struggle, made it difficult to consistently draw the correct practical and organizational conclusions. In 1961, SNCC launched a drive to desegregate Albany, Georgia, and SCLC joined them. It failed to achieve any significant policy changes, and the tensions between the young militants and the older black elite, especially in the NAACP, grew palpable. The leadership of SCLC tried to draw lessons from Albany that it could put to use in its next initiative in Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose thorough commitment to segregation, by city officials, the business community, and an increasingly violent police department symbolized the brutality of American racism.

And so King went to Birmingham in 1963 with the intention of provoking a total crisis. A broad coalition of activists engaged in direct action against segregation in downtown Birmingham. Defying an injunction against the protests obtained by the racist commissioner of public safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, King participated in a march and was arrested along with fifty others on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. In response, a voice of betrayal, disguising itself as caution, came in the form of a letter from white clergymen called “A Call for Unity.” It repeated the seemingly eternal slander that the uprising in Birmingham was a conspiracy of outside agitators. Rejecting autonomous action, the letter called for the demands of desegregation to be “properly be pursued in the courts.” The actions of the disobedient masses were “unwise and untimely”; they were “extreme measures.” “We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry,” wrote the wise and moderate clergy, “to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Writing in the margins of newspapers he was allowed in his cell, King responded in a political and theological language. The law had been suspended—“one has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws”—and the hegemonic “sense” of the white community had been exposed as unjust. In 1963’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King drew an analogy between his conception of politics and the early Christian rebellion against the Roman Empire: “just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” Saint Paul, King wrote, was an “extremist,” while the greatest threat to black freedom was the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” In this letter, King rejected the notion that it is worth waiting for a change in the city administration to result in gradual desegregation; the necessity of direct action is indifferent to the parliamentary game. What matters in King’s thought is a joining of the Pauline imperative to spread the good news with an anti-statist political militancy—what Badiou calls “politics at a distance from the state.”

King’s messianic charisma peaked later that year at the March on Washington, his rhapsodic vision of racial reconciliation standing in stark contrast to the dogs and firehoses unleashed a few months before by police on black people in Birmingham. While the March was an inspiring turning point, it brought the tension Baker described to the forefront. It was for this reason that Malcolm X, in his equally significant oration “Message to the Grass Roots,” given a few months later, dismissed the March as an attempt to contain the black masses. For Malcolm, it was the attempt to contain the increasingly violent mass insurgency in Birmingham that led to the “sellout” of the March, a collaboration between the white power structure and the leadership of the reformist black organizations intended to quell the possibility of further insurrection.

“When Martin Luther King failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the civil-rights struggle in America reached its low point,” Malcolm said. “As soon as King failed in Birmingham, Negroes took to the streets. . . . They began to stab the crackers in the back and bust them up ’side their head—yes, they did.” The initiative for marching on Washington, Malcolm argued, had come from the longer processes by which local leadership, “at the grassroots level,” had begun to “stir up the masses” against the containment of “civil-rights leaders of so-called national stature.” The goal of such a march would not have been to plead for the government to introduce reforms, but “to tie it up, bring it to a halt; don’t let the government proceed.” “That was revolution,” he insisted. “That was the black revolution.”

Malcolm confronts King here not simply in the binaries of violence and nonviolence, separatism and integrationism. He opens a debate on the nature of politics. To decide on one side of this binary, to determine whether Malcolm’s assessment of the March on Washington was correct, is not as interesting as extrapolating the general problems of political practice that the argument between Malcolm and King presents us. The problem of the relation of grassroots militancy to the gradualist, integrationist leadership of the civil rights movement is one that also resonates in the relation of mass movements to the labor and parliamentary bureaucracies of social democracy, or to the party authorities of insurrectionary socialism and socialist construction. King’s position as a “militant figure” within but sometimes against the leadership is a complex manifestation of these questions.

This complexity underlies the contested character of King’s legacy that would already strike movement participants at the moment of his death, as Angela Y. Davis notes in her autobiography. She recalls spending the morning of April 4, 1968 in the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and learning that afternoon that King had been shot. Involved at the time in the growing militancy of the Black Power movement, she recalled that many black revolutionaries “had severely criticized Martin Luther King for his rigid stance on nonviolence” and “his concentration on ‘civil rights’ as opposed to the larger liberation struggle.” Nevertheless, his assassination provoked not only a powerful and overwhelming sadness and disbelief, but also the realization that he had been a fundamental threat to the power structure. “I don’t think we had realized,” Davis writes, “that his new notion of struggle involving poor people of all colors, involving oppressed people throughout the world could potentially present a great threat to our enemy.”


The question of what emancipation means is central to politics. What does it look like? How is it achieved? Does it outlast the moment of its proclamation? Though these questions are often posed, theoretically or in the heat of struggle, definitive answers remain very much open to revision and reappraisal. Following Sylvain Lazarus, we might say that emancipatory politics is “sequential and rare.” In other words, emancipation has not occurred frequently in history. It happens in sequences that have a beginning and an end, and therefore emancipation exists in the form of specific modes of action that respond to the historical moments in which these sequences emerge. To understand these “historical modes of politics” in their specificity, while also pointing to an invariant content of emancipation, remains a core challenge for political thought.

Writing in 1843 and 1844, Karl Marx famously explored the problem of emancipation with a critical analysis of the French Revolution. As he pointed out, this historical example raises questions, rather than solving them. Can emancipation be understood in terms of rights, which are the rights of the atomized individuals of the market? Is emancipation granted by a state which protects those individual rights, or is the state itself an impediment to real emancipation? Finally, is emancipation universal, or is it embedded in the particularity of a community, nation, or identity?

With his great study of the Haitian Revolution, which exposed and attacked the persistence of slavery after the French Revolution, C.L.R. James challenged a presumed European hegemony over the category of universal emancipation. The history of slavery and emancipation in the United States should be understood as just as significant a challenge, and it should be a fundamental axis of political thought. The civil rights movement in the United States is undoubtedly one of the most significant political sequences of the 20th century, which, as King emphasized, took up the unfinished project of emancipation of the previous century. In representing the subjectivity of those who were excluded from the existing social structure, the movement produced the possibility of universal emancipation, aiming at an absolutely egalitarian and self-governing organization of human life.


This emancipatory content gets negated in two ways. The first is the narrowing of the meaning of the civil rights movement to an exclusively and exceptionally American scene, whether this is understood in terms of identity or citizenship. In this conception, problems of oppression or discrimination are essentially static, the result of intersubjective relations with no structural or historical basis. They can only be contested by demanding recognition from the state, whether on the foundation of the interests of a particular community, or of abstract persons who are granted rights by their inclusion in a nation-state. Not only do these positions simply evade the question of the content of emancipation, they erase the historical specificity of the movement and the way it intervened in its historical conjuncture. They fail to recognize the contingent organizational and strategic challenges the movement faced. Particular modes of meeting these challenges came to an end, and had to be followed by new forms of struggle.

The second is the notion that the goals of the movement were achieved with the abolition of legal segregation, while economic inequality remains untouched. On this view, the movement’s relevance remains purely historical, perhaps even academic, and a perspective based purely on class is now necessary. Against this view we should affirm the permanent relevance of the struggle against legal segregation. There is no politics outside of the concrete history of emancipatory movements, which establish the terms from which we begin, just as the emancipatory trajectory of the labor movement is rendered no less vital and urgent by its many achievements in the past centuries.

In other words, we are required to think two thoughts at the same time: the historical specificity of these political sequences, and the lasting truth of emancipation that they establish.

King shows us, in his political thought and his practice, certain principles of this lasting truth. In the practice of mass direct action, he insisted that people should govern their own lives; in the declaration of solidarity across every border, he offered a vision of freedom that extends to all; in the values of mutual aid, he rejected every form of inequality imposed by the market; finally, in the intransigent pursuit of justice, he refused to accept the limits imposed by the state.

The debates internal to the civil rights movement, which often pointed to the limits of King’s organizational and political practices, should be openly discussed. But in the face of today’s betrayal and complacency, which so often adopts a posture of opposition while urging us to accept the established order, we should remain faithful to his lasting truth, the one he heard at the beginning of his struggle and had the courage to pursue to the end.

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