Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s Handwritten Syllabus & Final Exam for the Philosophy Course He Taught at Morehouse College (1962)

On his way to saint­hood as an avatar of love and jus­tice, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. lost too much of his com­plex­i­ty. Whether delib­er­ate­ly san­i­tized or just drawn in broad strokes for easy con­sump­tion, the Civ­il Rights leader we think we know, we may not know well at all. King him­self rue­ful­ly not­ed the ten­den­cy of his audi­ences to box him in when he began pub­licly and force­ful­ly to chal­lenge U.S. involve­ment in the Viet­nam War and the per­pet­u­a­tion of wide­spread pover­ty in the wealth­i­est coun­try on earth. “I am nev­er­the­less great­ly sad­dened,” he remarked in 1967, “that the inquir­ers have not real­ly known me, my com­mit­ment, or my call­ing.”

As WBUR notes in its intro­duc­tion to a dis­cus­sion on King’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, the “specifics of his rad­i­cal pol­i­tics often go unex­am­ined when cel­e­brat­ing his lega­cy…. His polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic ideas are clear in his speech­es against the Viet­nam War and his call to work toward eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty.”

His rad­i­cal stances did not sit well with the FBI, nor with many of his for­mer sup­port­ers, but their roots are evi­dent in his most-pub­lished work, the 1963 “Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham Jail,” in which he coined the famous phrase, “injus­tice any­where is a threat to jus­tice every­where.”

We know of King’s indebt­ed­ness to the thought of Mahat­ma Gand­hi and Hen­ry David Thore­au, and of his the­o­log­i­cal edu­ca­tion. He was also steeped in the polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of the West, from Pla­to to John Stu­art Mill. In his grad­u­ate work at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty and Har­vard in the 50s, he read and wrote on Hegel, Kant, Marx, and oth­er philoso­phers. And as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at More­house Col­lege—one year before his arrest in Birm­ing­ham and the com­po­si­tion of his letter—King taught a sem­i­nar in “Social Phi­los­o­phy,” exam­in­ing the ideas of Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Augus­tine, Aquinas, Machi­avel­li, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Ben­tham, and Mill.

At the top of the post, you can see his hand­writ­ten syl­labus (view in a larg­er for­mat here), a sweep­ing sur­vey of the Euro­pean tra­di­tion in polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Fur­ther up (or here in a larg­er for­mat) see a type­writ­ten exam with sev­en ques­tions from the read­ing (stu­dents were to answer any five). King not only asked his stu­dents to con­nect these thinkers in the abstract to present con­cerns for jus­tice, but, in ques­tion 3, he specif­i­cal­ly asks them to “appraise the Stu­dent Move­ment in its prac­tice of law-break­ing in light of Aquinas’ Doc­trine of Law” (refer­ring to the Catholic theologian/philosopher’s dis­tinc­tions between human and nat­ur­al law).

The syl­labus and exam give us a sense of how King sit­u­at­ed his own rad­i­cal pol­i­tics both with­in and against a long tra­di­tion of philo­soph­i­cal thought. For more on King’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, lis­ten to Har­vard pro­fes­sors Tom­mie Shel­by and Bran­don Ter­ry dis­cuss their new col­lec­tion of essays—To Shape a New World: Essays on the Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.—in the WBUR inter­view above.

via Dai­ly Nous/The King Cen­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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

Read Mar­tin Luther King and The Mont­gomery Sto­ry: The Influ­en­tial 1957 Civ­il Rights Com­ic Book

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

On the Pow­er of Teach­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Pris­ons

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

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