Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
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.
The essays in this reading list offer critical engagement in place of canonization, recovering—and scrutinizing—the profoundly radical nature of King’s political, moral, and religious thought. Many essays come from our Winter 2018 issue Fifty Years Since MLK, which is 25% off through Monday with code MLK2520.
We have also included our new interview with Judith Butler and Brandon M. Terry, in which they touch on how Butler’s work on grievability and nonviolence continues King’s legacy. “He said many of the same things you’re saying,” Terry states, “but in his embodied performance, he also tried to disrupt that systemic violence without inviting the destruction of the lives of either the authors or ignoble spectators of oppression. He wanted to preserve his enemies’ lives as well.”
a forum with Brandon M. Terry
Canonization has prevented a reckoning with the substance of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political commitments—he has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.
• • •
Reagan Used MLK Day to Undermine Racial Justice
by Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella
Reagan, who thought little of MLK, used the creation of a national holiday honoring King as a way to coopt his legacy. Ironically, this enabled Reagan to oppose key civil rights laws in the name of aligning himself with King’s supposedly colorblind dream.
• • •
Americans Love King Because They Don’t Understand Him
by Simon Waxman
MLK was a divisive figure. The celebration of his legacy as one of unity serves to erase his politics from public memory and preserve the status quo. In our own divided moment, we must reacquaint ourselves with King’s radicalism.
• • •
The Radical Equality of Lives
Brandon M. Terry interviews Judith Butler
“King tried to disrupt that systemic violence without inviting the destruction of the lives of either the authors or ignoble spectators of oppression. He wanted to preserve his enemies’ lives as well.”
• • •
by Christian G. Appy
“King’s antiwar critique unsettles something very insidious and essential to the reproduction of empire. Cleaving it off was the price of admission into the U.S. pantheon of heroes.”
• • •
Brother Martin Was a Blues Man
a discussion with Cornel West
“72 percent of Americans disapproved of Martin when he was shot in Memphis and 50 percent of black Americans disapproved of Martin when he was shot. We should never forget that. We all love him now that the worms got his body. But when he was speaking the truth, he was radically unsettling folk.”
• • •
Against National Security Citizenship
by Aziz Rana
“In the last year of his life, King went much further than simply declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. He also declared his hostility to U.S. militarism in all its forms and asserted that such hostility was integral to his account of black freedom.”
• • •
by J. Phillip Thompson
King’s calls for full employment, universal health care, affordable housing, and massive investments in education are still relevant today.
• • •
The Almost Inevitable Failure of Justice
by Thad Williamson
The persistence of black poverty has become a permanent feature of U.S. democracy. The question for us is the same as it was for King fifty years ago: “Where do we go from here?”
...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.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.