Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fall 2000

Marist College

Dr. Greg Moses

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Course Description:

In this course we will survey the life and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., exploring terms of value used in assessing King's life and work, investigating keywords and concepts that characterize King's philosophy, and interpreting King's contributions for our own time. We will pay special attention to recent contributions to King studies by Rabbi Marc Schneier, Michael Eric Dyson, Charles Johnson, and Clayborne Carson. This course satisfies the Core/Liberal Studies requirement for an elective in Philosophy or Religious Studies

Required Texts (in order of use):

  • Schneier, Rabbi Marc. Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr., & the Jewish Community. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1999.
  • Washington, James Melvin. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper, 1986.
  • Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000.
  • Johnson, Charles. Dreamer. New York: Scribner, 1998.
  • Carson, Clayborne & Peter Holloran, Eds. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner, 2000.

Assignments and Grades: The final grade will be based on the following components:

  • 20% Classroom preparation and participation
  • 20% Paper on terms of value used to assess King's life and work (6 pages)
  • 20% Paper exploring conceptual keywords in King's life and writings (8 pages)
  • 40% Paper on the search for "the real King" considering Johnson, Dyson, and the new collection of sermons (15 pages)


By the end of the course, students should be able to identify and explore terms of value used to assess King's importance, critically examine keywords and concepts used in King's texts, and contstruct creative interpretations of King's value for our own time, in each case demonstrating skills of scholarly precision, sympathetic understanding, and critical evaluation.

Attendance Policy:

Regular attendance is expected. Documentation of an excused absence will be accepted within two weeks of the absence. More than two unexcused absences will result in the deduction of a letter from the final grade. More than three unexcused absences will result in the deduction of two letters. More than four unexcused absences and the instructor reserves the right to issue a failing grade for the course.

Schedule of inquiry:
Part I. Getting Acquainted with Activities and Values in King's Historical Work
In the next two weeks, we will explore two accounts of King's life, taking special interest in terms that are used to appraise the value of King's activities. At the end of this period, students will be asked to write a 6-page paper exploring three terms, chosen according to student interest (two terms should be chosen from existing literature; students will be encouraged to propose one term that has no precedents.) For each term, students will be asked to critically explore (1) King's relation to it, i.e. on what basis is it legitimate to associate King with the term? and (2) critically explore its significance in human affairs, i.e. whether or not the term actually applies to King, would it signify an important value? In sum, we want to open critical inquiry into the value of King's life and the worthiness of terms associated with his legacy. Assessment will be based on completeness, careful scholarship, sound reasoning, composition, difficulty, and originality.

Sep. 6-Introduction. Review syllabus.

Sep. 11-The Fifties
Read: Schneier, Chs. 1-8.
Prepare: First impressions of the early King: one paragraph summarizing what you take to be his most important activities; one paragraph proposing a few terms that best convey the value of his early life and work.
Workshops: Please take turns, with each member of the workshop sharing the results of preparation. Select two values to share with the class, in each case (1) showing how the value is exemplified in King's activities and (2) exploring the significance of the value whether or not it actually applies to King's activities.
Forum: Beginning to explore the activities and values of King's life and work. We will share our thoughts on the activities and values that we find most significant in King's early years.

Sep. 13-The Sixties, Part One
Read: Schneier, Chs. 9-14.
Prepare: As above, one paragraph on activities, one paragraph on values.
Workshops: As above, please take turns sharing. Look at the second hand on the clock. Each participant should have about two minutes of space for opening remarks.
Forum: After discussing activities and terms for the early sixties (first half), we will pause to consider comparisons with the fifties (second half).

Sep. 18-The Sixties, Part Two
Read: Schneier, Chs. 15-19.
Prepare: As above, paragraphs on activities and values.
Workshops: As above, taking special care to give each group member two minutes of space.
Forum: (1) Activities and terms for the late sixties, (2) comparisons with the early sixties, and (3) comparisons with the fifties.

Sep. 20-Video presentation. Early years. Discussion: How does the video affect our assessment of activities and values? What terms does King use to appraise the value of his activities?

Sep. 25-Video presentation. Later years. See discussion above.

Sep. 27-First Paper due on values and activities. Workshop.
Papers will be evaluated for thoroughness (i.e. are all the parts there?), relevance (i.e. are values clearly related to activities?), and critical appraisal (i.e. is the importance of values clearly assessed?) The grade for this paper will be the grade entered on the midterm report.

Part II. Digging into the Details of King's Thought and Text
In this section of the course we want to review King's texts in order to reconstruct concepts that mark his own philosophical understanding. To do this, we will investigate and connect uses of interesting terms or keywords in King's writings. An eight page paper will explore one key term in King's text, presenting a careful review of usage and explication of what the usage suggests about King's own concept of the term (4 pages), presentation of a philosopher who has taken a critical position on the term (2 pages), and your own critical assessment of King's concept (2 pages). In other words, this section of the course will encourage students to gain familiarity with King's writings, focus on one key concept, and evaluate King's contribution to that concept. Assessment will be based on completeness, careful scholarship, sound reasoning, composition, difficulty, and originality.

Oct. 2-Love, Justice, Nonviolence
Read: Washington, Ch. 8, plus one other selection from "Religious: Nonviolence."
Prepare: (1) One paragraph that focuses on a keyword or concept in the two selected readings, citing King's usage and reconstructing his meaning. (2) A second paragraph responding to King's concept. How do King's claims impress you?; how do they concern you?
Workshops: Please take turns sharing your selected keywords, citations, reconstructions, and responses. As before, please make sure each group member has two or three minutes to fully share results. Select one keyword or concept for presentation to the class.
Forum: Group reports and discussions. We are just beginning to look carefully at King's own conceptual framework. What are some preliminary assessments?

Oct. 4-Race, Integration, Ethics
Read: Washington, Ch. 22, plus one other selection from "Social: Integration."
Prepare: (1) Review of keyword usage & meaning, and (2) How your own approach to the keyword compares to King.
Workshops: Sharing keyword developments.
Forum: On King's concepts, (1) in the current readings, (2) related to previous readings.

Oct. 9-Racial Consciousness, Equality, Civil Rights
Read: Washington, Ch. 26, plus one other selection from "Political: Wedged between Democracy and Black Nationalism."
Prepare: (1) Review of political keyword in King, (2) compared to your own concept.
Workshop: Sharing keyword developments.
Forum: Keywords in politics. Review relations between religious, social, and political concepts in King.

Oct. 11-Ballot, Labor, and Dream
Read: Washington, Chs. 33-36 (one plus Ch. 36).
Prepare: Select a passage from, "I Have a Dream" and show how your study of King's keywords thus far may inform King's meaning in an interesting and important way.
Workshop: Sharing interpretations of, "I Have a Dream."
Forum: The dream referred. The place of dream in King's philosophy.

Oct. 16-Martyrs, Peace, God
Read: Washington, Chs. 37-40 (one plus Ch. 40).
Prepare: Selection of passage from, "A Time to Break Silence," with Kingian interpretation and personal assessment.
Workshop: Sharing interpretations and assessments of "A Time to Break Silence."
Forum: On the moral significance of killing and dying.

Oct. 18-Peace, Revolution, Where do We Go?
Read: Washington, Chs. 41-45 (one plus Ch. 42).
Prepare: Reading, "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," (1) looking for something new or exciting (2) some preliminary thoughts on King as a whole philosopher.
Workshop: Sharing thoughts on King's last Christmas sermon.
Forum: Looking for the stable and changing values in King.

Oct. 23-Research Day
At the library, we will locate good sources of commentary on King's keywords, either from authors who definitely had King in mind, or from authors who have interesting treatments of keyword, independent of any interest in King.
Report: To hand in at the end of the period-your three finalists.

Oct. 25-Research applied to "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Read: Washington, Ch. 46.
Prepare: A commentary that would model the response of your author. One paragraph establishing King's meaning (with reference to other works), one paragraph establishing the point of view that would be taken by your author, and one paragraph suggesting how you would respond to the meanings before you.
Workshop: King and critical responses to concepts and keywords in "The Letter."
Forum: Where are the interesting discussions?

Oct. 30-Draft workshop for keyword critical paper.

Nov. 1-Papers due. Select readings. Get ready for Dyson.

Part III. Looking for the Real King
In this section of the course, we will look at two interpretations of King and the most recent collection of his sermons. Considering this material, we will want to construct an interpretation of King's philosophy that best satisfies our own review of the evidence. The final paper of 15 pages will (a) summarize your own version of King's philosophy from the previous course materials (5 pages), (b) compare your version to those that may be found in Johnson and Dyson, (5 pages); and (c) investigate the most recent edition of sermons for clues to how they might be used as evidence that would either challenge or support the various versions of King (5 pages). This paper should reflect a comprehensive acquaintance with course materials, an ability to address several possible interpretations of King, and an ability to employ the latest edition of the sermons as evidence to test the various interpretations. Assessment will be based on completeness, careful scholarship, sound reasoning, composition, difficulty, and originality.

Nov. 6-Dyson on King's Ideology
Read: One chapter from Dyson, Part I.
Prepare: Two paragraphs: (1) summarizing Dyson's interpretation of King, (2) assessing Dyson's interpretation based upon previous course readings. What is Dyson saying and do you think he has a case?
Workshop: Sharing interpretations and assessments of Dyson.
Forum: Dyson's King & unsettling transformations.

Nov. 8-Ideology Revisited
Read: One more chapter from Dyson, Part I.
Prepare: Summary and assessment as above.
Workshop: Sharing summaries and assessments.
Forum: On King's relevance. If what Dysons says is true, what are the challenges for our world?

Nov. 13-Dyson on King's Identity
Read: One chapter from Dyson, Part II.
Prepare: Summary and assessment as above.
Workshop: Sharing summaries and assessments.
Forum: Dyson's King and challenges to identity. What do challenges to King's identity suggest about ongoing challenges for us?

Nov. 15-Dyson on King's Image
Read: One chapter from Dyson, Part III.
Prepare: Two paragraphs: (1) summarizing Dyson's challenge to King's image (2) assessing Dyson's claims about King's image.
Workshop: Sharing challenges regarding King's image.
Forum: On re-imaging King. Is there value in a re-imaged King? King as philosopher.

Nov. 20-Johnson, Part I
Read: Dreamer, Chs. 1-3.
Prepare: Two paragraphs: (1) exploring what kind of interpretation of King is found in Johnson, either as ideology, identity, or image (2) assessing Johnson's presentation in light of course materials.
Workshop: Sharing explorations and assessments in Johnson.
Forum: On Johnson's King.

Nov. 22-Johnson, Chs. 4-6.

Nov. 27-Johnson, Chs. 7-9.
Prepare: Two paragraphs: (1) exploring the use of King's double in Johnson (2) reflecting on what the double suggests about King.
Workshop: Sharing reflections on King's double.
Forum: The anti-King.

Nov. 29-Johnson, Chs. 10-13.
Prepare: Two paragraphs (1) exploring the gospel according to Matthew Bishop, considering the limits and depths of his witness to King (2) suggesting how our own voice might compare, considering the limits and depths of our own witness.
Workshop: Personal perspectives on King: Matthew and me.
Forum: Where King meets his audience. Who are we such that King makes a difference to us?

Dec. 4-Reviewing for Final Project:
At this point, we should have a comprehensive acquaintance with King's life & works and some expertise with respect to King's interpreters. As we prepare for the final paper, here is an opportunity to collect some thoughts.
Prepare: (1) Preliminary thoughts on the kind of interpretation of King that will be most important to you, with some indication of textual sources that would be especially important to your interpretation. (2) Preliminary comparisons between your interpretation and those offered by Dyson and Johnson.
Workshops: Sharing our working thoughts on how King may be interpreted most fruitfully for each of us.
Forum: Where we are, compared to Dyson and Johnson. Preparing to investigate the recent collection of sermons with our preliminary thoughts in mind.

Dec. 6-First evaluation of sermons.
Read: One sermon of your choice.
Prepare: (1) Summary of your proposed interpretation of King, (2) how your selected sermon either helps to confirm or problematize your proposed interpretation.
Workshops: Sharing first evaluations.
Forum: Reviewing the latest collection of evidence to test our interpretations of King. How does this first consideration affect the formulation of our interpretations? How does the sermon affect interpretations presented by Dyson and Johnson?

Dec. 11-Second evaluation of sermons.
Read: A second sermon of your choice.
Prepare: (1) Summary of a selected interpretation from Dyson or Johnson, (2) how your selected sermon either helps to confirm or problematize that interpretation.
Workshops: Sharing results of investigations into sermons and interpretations.
Forum: What the sermons say to Dyson and Johnson.

Dec. 13-Third sermon.
Prepare: (1) Summary of how the sermon affects your interpretation (2) how it affects interpretations by Dyson or Johnson.
Workshops: Sharing investigations.
Forum: Getting ready for final paper.

Final-Final papers due.
Workshops. Sharing results. Nominating presentations for sharing with class.

Contact Information Office: Fontaine 322
Phone: 575-3000 x2217
Email: Greg.Moses@Marist.edu
Web: gregmoses.net
Home: 473-4737