How Martin Luther King, Jr. Used Nietzsche, Hegel & Kant to Overturn Segregation in America


Image by Dick DeMar­si­co, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The influ­ence of Georg Wil­helm Friedrich Hegel on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary phi­los­o­phy of Karl Marx and Fred­erich Engels is well known. Marx wrote a cri­tique of Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Right and claimed to have turned the Ger­man ide­al­ist philoso­pher on his head, and the devel­op­ment of Marx­ist the­o­ry among a school of neo-Hegelians, wrote Rebec­ca Coop­er in 1925, occurred in a peri­od “pecu­liar­ly aus­pi­cious for the birth of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social phi­los­o­phy.”

A cen­tu­ry lat­er, on anoth­er con­ti­nent, Hegel’s thought influ­enced the course of a very dif­fer­ent strug­gle. And while the his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions of mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Europe and mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca present entire­ly dif­fer­ent sets of spe­cif­ic con­cerns, the same gen­er­al obser­va­tion applies: the time and place of such rad­i­cal thinkers as Mal­colm X, Angela Davis, Huey New­ton and a host of oth­er activists pre­sent­ed “pecu­liar­ly aus­pi­cious” cir­cum­stances for rev­o­lu­tion­ary social phi­los­o­phy.

But while these fig­ures appear today as the van­guard of rad­i­cal black thought, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., the most wide­ly cel­e­brat­ed of Civ­il Rights lead­ers, “is often con­flat­ed with neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” writes Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, his pro­gram asso­ci­at­ed with “the fail­ure of the civ­il rights move­ment to dis­man­tle the ongo­ing sys­temic white suprema­cy of the sta­tus quo.” And yet, King’s move­ment not only suc­ceed­ed in end­ing legal seg­re­ga­tion and has­ten­ing the pass­ing of the Civ­il Rights Act; it also pro­vid­ed direc­tion for near­ly every non­vi­o­lent social move­ment from his day to ours. King’s lega­cy is not only that of an inspir­ing orga­niz­er and ora­tor, but also of a rad­i­cal thinker who engaged crit­i­cal­ly with phi­los­o­phy and social the­o­ry and brought it to bear on his activism.

We are gen­er­al­ly well aware of King’s debt to Gand­hi and the Satya­gra­ha move­ment that won Indi­an inde­pen­dence in 1947, yet we know lit­tle of his debt to the same thinker who inspired Marx and his contemporaries—G.W.F. Hegel. As philoso­pher and “Ethi­cist for Hire” Nolen Gertz has recent­ly demon­strat­ed on his blog, King was high­ly influ­enced by Hegelian­ism, as much as, or per­haps even more so, than he was by Gand­hi’s move­ment. Marx may have turned Hegel’s sys­tem on its head, but King, writes Gertz, “fought White Amer­i­ca… by turn­ing the ideas of dead white men against the oppres­sive prac­tices of liv­ing white men.”

King Hegel Notes

King read and wrote on Hegel as a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty and Har­vard in the mid-50s, where he stud­ied the­ol­o­gy and the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy and reli­gion. He took a year­long sem­i­nar on Hegel with his advi­sor at BU, Edgar Bright­man (see King’s dia­gram notes of Hegel’s sys­tem above), and found a great deal to admire in the “dead white” philosopher’s log­i­cal sys­tem, as well as a good deal to cri­tique. The two-semes­ter class, King wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, was “both reward­ing and stim­u­lat­ing”:

Although the course was main­ly a study of Hegel’s mon­u­men­tal work, Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of Mind, I spent my spare time read­ing his Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry and Phi­los­o­phy of Right. There were points in Hegel’s phi­los­o­phy that I strong­ly dis­agreed with. For instance, his absolute ide­al­ism was ratio­nal­ly unsound to me because it tend­ed to swal­low up the many in the one. But there were oth­er aspects of his think­ing that I found stim­u­lat­ing. His con­tention that “truth is the whole” led me to a philo­soph­i­cal method of ratio­nal coher­ence. His analy­sis of the dialec­ti­cal process, in spite of its short­com­ings, helped me to see that growth comes through strug­gle.

While King may have dis­agreed with Hegel’s ide­al­ism, he found sup­port for his own phi­los­o­phy of non­vi­o­lence in Hegel’s dialec­ti­cal method, a mode of analy­sis that seems par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to social­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought. In Stride Toward Free­dom, King wrote,

The third way open to oppressed peo­ple in their quest for free­dom is the way of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance. Like the syn­the­sis in Hegelian phi­los­o­phy, the prin­ci­ple of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance seeks to rec­on­cile the truths of two opposites—acquiescence and violence—while avoid­ing the extremes and immoral­i­ties of both.

King’s crit­i­cal appraisal of Hegel extend­ed to oth­er rad­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal thinkers as well, includ­ing Kant, Spin­oza, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Niet­zsche. Gertz offers many sam­ples of the bud­ding civ­il rights leader’s notes on var­i­ous thinkers and philoso­phies, includ­ing the first para­graph of an essay enti­tled “Pil­grim­age to Non­vi­o­lence” (below), in which King con­fess­es that his encounter with Exis­ten­tial­ism often “shocked” him, espe­cial­ly since he had “been raised in a rather strict fun­da­men­tal­ist tra­di­tion.” And yet, he writes—in an allu­sion to Kant’s reac­tion to David Hume—he acquired “a new appre­ci­a­tion for objec­tive appraisal and crit­i­cal analy­sis” that “knocked me out of my dog­mat­ic slum­ber.”

Pilgrimmage to nonviolence

In the essay, King writes, “I became con­vinced that exis­ten­tial­ism, in spite of the fact that it had become all too fash­ion­able, had grasped cer­tain basic truths about man.” He seems par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to Kierkegaard (see his notes on the philoso­pher below). Yet it is Hegel who seems most respon­si­ble for awak­en­ing his philo­soph­i­cal curios­i­ty. As King schol­ar John Ans­bro dis­cov­ered, King “stat­ed in a Jan­u­ary 19, 1956 inter­view with The Mont­gomery Advis­er that Hegel was his favorite philoso­pher.” Lat­er that year, King gave an address to the First Annu­al Insti­tute on Non­vi­o­lence and Social Change in which he used Hegelian terms to char­ac­ter­ize the Civ­il Rights strug­gle: “Long ago, the Greek philoso­pher Her­a­cli­tus argued that jus­tice emerges from the strife of oppo­sites, and Hegel, in mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, preached a doc­trine of growth through strug­gle.”

King Kierkegaard

Inde­pen­dent schol­ar Ralph Dumain has fur­ther cat­a­logued King’s many approv­ing ref­er­ences to Hegel, includ­ing a paper he wrote enti­tled “An Expo­si­tion of the First Tri­ad of Cat­e­gories of the Hegelian Logic—Being, Non-Being, Becom­ing,” the “last of six essays that King wrote” for his two-semes­ter course on the philoso­pher. King also approached Hegel by way of an ear­li­er Civ­il Rights leader—W.E.B. Dubois, who read the Ger­man philoso­pher while study­ing with promi­nent social sci­en­tists in Berlin, and who applied Hegelian log­ic to his own analy­sis of racial con­scious­ness and strug­gle in Amer­i­ca.

Inter­est­ing­ly, what nei­ther King nor Dubois remarked on is the fact that Hegel was like­ly him­self inspired by black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The Hait­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, argues schol­ar Susan Buck-Morss, gave Hegel the impe­tus for his analy­sis of pow­er and his “metaphor of the ‘strug­gle to death’ between the mas­ter and slave, which for Hegel pro­vid­ed the key to the unfold­ing of free­dom in world his­to­ry.” While Hegel’s thought is a philo­soph­i­cal thread that winds through the work of rad­i­cal thinkers through­out the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies, his own phi­los­o­phy may not have tak­en the direc­tion it did with­out the rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles against oppres­sion waged by for­mer slaves in the New World cen­turies before King led his non­vi­o­lent war on the oppres­sive sys­tem of seg­re­ga­tion in the Unit­ed States.

H/T Nolen Gertz

Relat­ed Con­tent:

‘You Are Done’: The Chill­ing “Sui­cide Let­ter” Sent to Mar­tin Luther King by the F.B.I.

200,000 Mar­tin Luther King Papers Go Online

Down­load 130 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es: Tools for Think­ing About Life, Death & Every­thing Between

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • jonathan says:

    This is actu­al­ly quite a help­ful arti­cle for an under­grad­u­ate essay I am work­ing on. The essay seeks to explore Hegel’s influ­ence through DuBois and even­tu­al­ly to the Black Pow­er move­ment.

    I’d like to read more in ref­er­ence to the link pro­vid­ed above, “…applied Hegelian log­ic to his own analy­sis…” but I am denied access.

    Any help? Thanks!

  • Aden wallace says:

    And what about NeitTzsche?

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