Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the great figures of American life. But as much as he is an outstanding figure, he does not stand alone. He’s part of a larger legacy in terms of his political philosophy and his position as an Black American political writer.
1) Leo Tolstoy, you may be surprised to find out, is the originator of the notion of non-resistance to evil – the concept that Mohandas Gandhi would later turn into Satyagraha, non-violent resistance to evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. travelled to India to study Gandhi’s philosophy, making a fascinating cycle that seems to put War and Peace just one degree of separation away from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in a manner of speaking.
What’s doubly fascinating is that Tolstoy was a member of the Russian aristocracy – he was a Count – and he inherited serfs, meaning he “owned” people in servitude. He did free his serfs while also making very public statements about the morality involved in serfdom as a system, but it’s a head-shaker to think that the radical vision that gave rise to Gandhi’s Satyagraha grew from the act of a man renouncing ownership of his own serfs. (It makes sense, but it’s still strange to think about, isn’t it?)
Somehow it doesn’t seem like an accident that half a century or so later, King would take up a political-philosophical thread that began with Tolstoy, political radical and great renouncer of accepted systems, and put it to great use in the cause of Civil Rights in America. But maybe it’s an accident. Either way, the concept of non-resistance to evil makes for a concise case study of how an idea can change the world (and how history is a remarkably close-knit and active thing).
(2) In a specifically American context, King has an even stronger set of connections to a historical legacy (as you’d assume, but in a more pointed way that you may have spent time thinking about). He belongs to a legacy of writers.
The African Americans that have been most impactful on American politics and cultural perspectives have almost all been writers (and often scholars too).
Martin Luther King, Jr. had advanced degrees. He held a Ph.d., which connects him to other highly educated Black figures like W.E.B. Dubois (Harvard), Barack Obama (University of Chicago, Harvard Law) and Michelle Alexander (Vanderbilt, Stanford Law). It’s notable that each of these Black Americans used writing to communicate their political ideas from The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to Dreams from My Father (1995) and The New Jim Crow (2010).
The spectrum on this point is wide though, as you notice when you start thinking about Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin, two fire-brand Black writers who educated themselves.
Douglass famously had to teach himself to read and write and then used his writing to help bring an end to slavery in the United States. That’s not really an overstatement, even if Douglass didn’t end slavery himself.
Once you recognize the perfect structure of his story – a man who made a name for himself by learning to write his own story and who used that story as a cudgel against a system of racial exploitation – you have to appreciate the power of literacy, the power of the written word, and the strange harmonies that characterize Douglass’ tale. His connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. is not limited to the fact that both were writers, but it is an element of their connection that shouldn’t be overlooked.
James Baldwin, as his story goes, “went to college” by reading all the books in the New York City public library, going on to become a prominent public intellectual who happens to have also spoken on the day of the March on Washington. He went on television (it’s an easy video to find). And he said, rightly, that we still had (and have) big work to do.
There is a lot to say about MLK and a lot that has already been said. It just seems worthwhile to point out some of these historical connections so that King doesn’t seem like a complete anomaly, a sort of unrepeatable, one-of-a-kind.
That would not only be a disservice to other prominent and influential people, it would seem to invite passivity.
On that note, it’s no wonder that James Baldwin is enjoying a cultural revival right now. He said our problems were deep and unresolved back at that march in 1963 and he kept saying it until he died in 1987. He is still right.
We have come a long way, but the work remains. New movements have become urgent and necessary (#blacklivesmatter) and our problems undeniable. This means that MLK is still important in both the message he stands for and the legacy he is a part of, which extends to our current cultural moment.
Baldwin and King were both emphatic about one point in common and it’s something that Gandhi and Tolstoy also forwarded as the fundamental principal for progress. It was MLK who said this, but the words could very well come from any of them:
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”