The Political Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Winter 1999

POSC 351

Prof. Barbara Allen


Willis 408

Library 344

Mon-Thurs by appointment


Sign up sheet at office

The Course

This interdisciplinary seminar will examine the speeches, sermons, and writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We will study King's ideas as part of the larger discourse of non-violence and social justice that is foundational to the political action. King's articulation of these ideas can be understood in several contexts: as partaking of tradition of African-American political thought (constitutionalism), as embedded in African-American Christian tradition, as a contribution to American civil religion, as an example of self-governing, vigilant citizenship expressed by The Federalist, and as part of an American tradition of optimism and eclectic liberal philosophy and action. We will look at King's ideas in the context of the civil rights movement using historical assessments of the movement and its goals and through the lens of contemporary models of collective action, especially the dilemmas of coordinated, voluntary political participation. Our goal will be to draw out the complexities of these ideas to see how they challenge the practice of democracy in the US and liberal political theory today.


The following books have been ordered for the course:

M L King, A Testament of Hope, James M. Washington, ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. 006 250931 4

ML King Strength to Love, (some of this text is in Testament)

M L King Stride Toward Freedom, New York: Harper & Row, 1958. (optional text; it's edited in Testament) 0 06 250490 8

M L King Why We Can't Wait, New York: Harper & Row, 1964. (optional text for your library; also edited in Testament)

Taylor Branch, 1988. Parting the Waters, New York: Simon & Schuster. 0 671 45097 8

Taylor Branch. 1998. Pillar of Fire New York: Simon & Schuster.

David Garrow, 1986. Bearing the Cross, New York: Vintage. 0 394 75623 1

In addition to these texts we will use The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, two important newspapers which we have purchased on microfilm for this course. We will also view the award winning PBS series Eyes on the Prize and hear audiotapes of King's speeches and sermons.

Course Requirements

This research seminar focuses on the political thought that we extract from King's writings. These ideas were understood by the American "public" in several contexts of public opinion. Not only do we see differences in the response of several opinion groups within African-American and "white" America, we also find regional, and partisan differences in American response to King's ideas. These differences reflect the many ways Americans understand race, class, protest, citizenship, and government. King's writings and life give us a unique case study for looking at many questions combining American politics and American political philosophy. Your research papers will reflect this link between theory and practice. To aid your research, you will be asked to lead one class discussion and write a discussion paper on the day's readings. In this paper you will choose one theme from the reading to explore as your thesis for an analytical five page paper. It would also be appropriate to bring your own research to bear on this analysis of King's ideas.

Grades will be computed as follows:

Seminar Paper


Discussion paper & presentation


Research Presentation




Topics for Discussion and Reading Assignments:

Part 1 Political Theory and Practical Politics

Tues Jan 5 Language and Perception: The Meaning of Race

Read Parting the Waters Ch 1-4

Thurs Jan 7 Political Thought and Action

Writings of ML King, approaches to the text

Read MLK "Nonviolence and Racial Justice," "The Most Durable Power," "The Power of Non-Violence," "An Experiment in Love," "Our Struggle," "Walk for Freedom" "My Trip to The Land of Gandhi"

Tues Jan 12 Religion in American liberal democracy

Read MLK "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

Bearing the Cross Ch 5

Part 2 King's Political Thought

Thurs Jan 14 King on Justice, equality, and liberty

Read MLK "A Testament of Hope," "Equality Now: The President Has the Power," "The Case Against Tokenism," "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins," "The Ethical Demands for Integration"

Montgomery Context

Read Parting the Waters Ch 5-9

Tues Jan 19 King on the Individual and the African American in History

Read MLK "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," "The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness," "Give Us The Ballot," "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," "Black Power Defined"

Thurs Jan 21 King on History and Social Progress

Read MLK "Bold Design for a New South," "Behind the Selma March," "The Current Crisis in Race Relations," "Who Speaks for the South," "Next Stop: The North"

Obstacles to Success

Parting the Waters Ch 9-15

Tues Jan 26 Discussion of Research Design; Library "Tour"

*** Bring ideas (one paragraph) for topic (a thesis statement) to class *****

Thurs Jan 28 King on Individual and Community:

Civil Disobedience in Democratic Theory and The Civil Rights Movement

Read MLK "The Social Organization of Nonviolence" "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience," "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom," "Showdown for Nonviolence," "Hammer on Civil Rights," "Where do We Go From Here?" "Transcript of 'Meet the Press'" "Transcript of 'Face to Face'"

Remaining Nonviolent

Read Parting the Waters Ch 16-20

Tues Feb 2 Civil Religion and Religion in the Civil Rights Movement

Read MLK "I Have a Dream," "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech," "Our God is Marching On!" "A Time to Break Silence," "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," "The Drum Major Instinct"

***Topic Proposal For Project Due in Class******

Thurs Feb 4 Love as Power: Agape in King's Thought

Suffering and self purification

Redemptive love and Direct Action

Read MLK "Suffering and Faith," "A Gift of Love," Playboy Interview," "I see the Promised Land" From Strength to Love, "Tough Mind and Tender Heart," "Love in Action," "Love Your Enemies," "Three Dimensions of a Complete Life," and "What is Man?"

Tues Feb 9 The Beloved Community as Political Community

Read MLK from Strength to Love, "On Being a Good Neighbor," "The Man Who Was a Fool," "Shattered Dreams," (reserve) "The Answer to a Perplexing Question," "Paul's Letter to American Christians"

Part 3 King's Thought in Action

Thurs Feb 11 Developing the Idea of Direct Action in Practice

Watch Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings (1954-56)

Read MLK Stride Toward Freedom esp. Ch 6 and 8

Bearing the Cross Ch 1

Review Parting Ch 5

Tues Feb 16 Developing an Organizational Structure

Read Bearing the Cross Ch 1-2; review 5

Watch Eyes on the Prize: Fighting Back (1957-62)

Review Parting the Waters Ch 18

Thurs Feb 18 Role of Federal Government, esp. executive Uses of Media

Watch Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared Of Your Jails

Bearing the Cross 3, 4, 5

Review Parting the Waters Ch 19

Pillar of Fire, Part 1

Tues Feb 23 Public Opinion, Ethics of Direct Action in Action

Watch Eyes on the Prize: No Easy Walk (1962-65)

Read Bearing the Cross Ch 6-8

Pillar of Fire, Part 3

****Draft of Research Paper Due in Class******** 

Thurs Feb 25 Dissent in the Movement, Organizational Tensions

Watch Eyes on the Prize: Mississippi: Is This America?

Read MLK Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Bearing the Cross Ch 9

Pillar of Fire, Part 4

Tues Mar 2 Movement Analyses of Economic Justice and Civil Rights

Watch Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom

Read MLK Trumpet of Conscience

Bearing the Cross Ch 10, 11, epilogue

Thurs Mar 4 Class presentations

Tues Mar 9 Class presentations

*****Turn in Final Version of Paper******

My Office by 5:00 p.m.