It’s hard to think of a more celebrated figure of the 20th century than Martin Luther King Jr.
He has a national memorial in Washington, D.C. His birthday is one of just 11 federal holidays. And his words and legacy are routinely evoked by politicians of both major parties.
But the paradox of King’s legacy is that while many revere him, very few actually read him. Most of us can cite a handful of his most famous quotes, but King’s actual teachings span five books, countless speeches and sermons, and years of detailed correspondence.
There’s perhaps no scholar working today who studies Dr. King’s political philosophy as deeply as Brandon Terry. Terry is the John L. Loeb associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, where he specializes in Black political thought. He is the co-editor of “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the editor of “Fifty Years Since MLK,” and the author of numerous popular and academic articles on King’s political thought. His work is committed to rescuing the nuances of Dr. King’s philosophies and forcing a confrontation with what King actually said and believed, rather than what he’s come to represent.
In this conversation, we follow the commitment that animates much of Terry’s work: to take King seriously as a philosopher, rather than as purely a political actor. And it turns out that King understood a lot about politics that we’ve lost sight of today. We discuss why a “romantic narrative” of the civil rights era stops us from taking King seriously as a philosopher; the true radicalism of King’s nonviolent philosophy; King’s complex views on the relationship between race and class; how King wrestled with the demands of “respectability politics”; King’s wide-ranging economic views, including the idea that the economy should be subservient to the community (and not the other way around); King’s enthusiasm for tenant unions and welfare rights unions as critical democratic inventions; whether the state should embrace the same nonviolence it often demands of protesters; the roots of King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam; whether we’ve lost the ability to grapple with “virtue” in politics today; and more.
“Imagining the nonviolent state” by Ezra Klein
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” by Martin Luther King Jr.
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton
“Rethinking the Problem of Alliance: Organized Labor and Black Political Life” by Brandon M. Terry and Jason Lee
The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson
Where Do We Go From Here by Martin Luther King Jr.
The Trumpet of Conscience by Martin Luther King Jr.
The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph
A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis
Dark Ghettos by Tommie Shelby
Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at email@example.com.
You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Kristin Lin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Rollin Hu. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Sonia Herrero.