Tommie Shelby is the Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (2016) and We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity.
His most recent project is To Shape a New World, a collection of essays on the political philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Shelby with Brandon Terry (who has written previously in our pages on #BlackLivesMatter and the legacy of the civil rights movement), and including contributions from Cornel West, Danielle Allen, Martha Nussbaum, Lionel McPherson, and others, the collection illuminates the principles behind King’s politics. Returning to the philosophical foundations and nuanced moral vision overshadowed by his monumental life, To Shape a New World reimagines King as a political thinker for our—and for all—time.
I interviewed Shelby about To Shape a New World and his essay “Prisons of the Forgotten: Ghettos and Economic Injustice,” over Skype in March 2018. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Julian Lucas: Your introductory essay suggests that when it comes to King, contemporary thought is held “captive by a picture.” Do you think that there can be a coexistence between King the political icon and King the serious philosophical thinker?
Tommie Shelby: Well, I suppose there’s not a lot we can do about his iconic status. But it’s possible to show a world-historical figure like him due respect without treating him like an infallible oracle. In philosophy as a field, we revere a small canon of figures. We also disagree with them, point out their limits, and take them down new avenues which might be more productive. One way of re-engaging King is to read him in the way we would thinkers like Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey—as interested in fundamental moral principles, what aspects of society deserve our allegiance and which do not.
He’s also engaged in a public discussion. No great thinker is just sitting in their study coming up with everything on their own. Everybody builds on what came before, and King is no different. Scholars have rightly focused on Christian theology, but we thought it was important to situate him within broader philosophical and black intellectual traditions.
JL: You argue that there is a bias in professional philosophy against activist thinkers, and that the field has failed to sufficiently recognize King’s contributions. Yet the implicit argument of the book is that the tools of this field are nevertheless useful for arriving at a fuller appreciation of his thought.
TS: It’s rare for a non-academic of any race or gender, especially writing in the mid-twentieth century, to be considered with great care in philosophy. There is a bias within the discipline against treating someone politically engaged—whether as a statesman, politico, or grassroots activist—as a thinker.
We’ve had figures like that in the past, when philosophy didn’t exist as an academic discipline in many places. In the nineteenth century and earlier, a lot of the central people—Hume, Mill, Rousseau—were not professionals. Kant was one of the first.
But once you’re in the twentieth century, and in American universities especially, philosophy becomes an aspect of higher education. King had some aspirations toward an academic career before he pursued the ministry. Had the times been different, he might have been among us in that way. But academic philosophers are slow to accept outsiders as thinking with the depth and rigor that they expect from their peers. There are exceptions—even exceptions who are black, like Frantz Fanon—but it’s a hard bias to get over. Someone like King is up against a lot.
King is also not just an activist but a Christian activist, and not only a Christian but a minister. Contemporary philosophers don’t often speak about their religious background, and it can be difficult for people in such a secular discipline to see someone who takes to the pulpit as engaged in a similar intellectual pursuit.
There is also a general bias that you see even among activists, an impatience with foundational questions and the slow and painstaking thinking characteristic of philosophy. And people can’t always see a figure who is speaking in public and trying to motivate people, move people, especially someone with such rhetorical gifts, as a philosopher.
JL: What surprised you most about King’s philosophical commitments while compiling this collection?
TS: I hadn’t appreciated how important the idea of dignity is to his thought. It structures his critique of the limits placed on human liberty and opportunity by Jim Crow, and his objections to the impoverishment and ghettoization of northern black people. Maybe I also I hadn’t appreciated some of the more pragmatic features of his thought. It’s easy to see King as an idealist, but there’s a strong streak of realism in his work. He’s thinking very hard about what forms of political pressure one must bring to bear in order to realize the most fundamental ideals and principles. There’s a lot of focus on psychology, on diagnosing the mindset of allies and opponents. People often imagine that as a Christian minister he was aligned with moral suasion as the principal means of realizing his political ideals, and neglect the other forms of political maneuvering that are central to his thought.
JL: That struck me in Lionel McPherson’s essay and especially in Brandon Terry’s essay—that King’s commitment to nonviolence was not just optimism. He was considering the possibility of anti-black genocide in the United States, and believed that mass nonviolent disobedience was the strategy least likely to result in such a terrible consequence. The idea that nonviolence was anti-pragmatic, rather than a response to a realist appraisal of the world, seems like one of the elements of his thought that is most often misconstrued.
TS: I think that’s right. I also see him as arguing differently depending on the audience. Sometimes he is moved by moral considerations alone. His opposition to political violence was a moral commitment, a Christian commitment, and he would often say that it’s better to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator. But he also realized that others do believe in defensive harm—that it’s appropriate to use violence in self-defense or to advance one’s cause under extremely oppressive conditions. He tried to persuade others that even if they didn’t accept his moral commitments, violence would be self-defeating. Often, those arguments are quite, quite powerful.
JL: And often that engagement could lead to a deepening of his own positions. Brandon Terry argues in his essay that the challenge of Black Power and their objections to his strategy pushed King to embrace the coercive dimensions of nonviolence.
TS: Yes, that’s right. There are two parts there: Terry is emphasizing that for King it was important even in the political realm to provide a proper justification for his positions. He wouldn’t just say, “I’m leading this, so, do it my way,” but really try to persuade people. He had a strong democratic commitment to the justification of his actions, even to his opponents. That meant being willing to debate with them on their own terms, rather than by invoking values they don’t necessarily agree with.
There’s compelling people with the strength of the better argument, then there’s putting pressure on them by literally affecting their options, affecting what they can do. King was worried about certain kinds of boycotts for instance, so even as early as the Montgomery bus boycott, you might say “Isn’t this a kind of extortion? Isn’t he just saying, I’m going to use economic coercion to get what I want?” I think he felt like it was possible to see him as engaged in a morally problematic act by putting this kind of economic pressure on people—which you can do with other boycotts or rent strikes or wildcat strikes or what have you—and felt the need to explain why, while it is coercive, it’s not a morally impermissible form of coercion.
He’s not limiting himself to making a powerful moral argument and hoping that people will be persuaded. He can respond to someone like Stokely Carmichael, who insisted that King’s whole philosophy depended on the idea that white people have a conscience. Carmichael doesn’t think that white supremacists really have a conscience—you can’t really persuade them through moral reason alone. King’s response is to, for one, resist the dehumanizing move Carmichael made when he imagined that his opponents were no longer moved by a sense of justice. But he also concedes that moral suasion might be insufficient. Other actions might be necessary to get them to take your moral arguments seriously, in this case economically coercive actions that will make them see the seriousness of your commitment and reconsider their stubbornness.
JL: Right. And in advocating nonviolent coercion, he made use of—and in many cases subverted—the masculinist rhetoric more closely associated with Black Power.
TS: He uses martial language a lot, and some of that rhetoric is in the Bible. But using the language of army and war and struggle and fighting—speaking that language while rejecting physical violence allowed King to say to those who think this nonviolence, love, and hope business is not strong enough stuff given what we’re facing, “What shows more fortitude and courage and solidarity and self-respect than fighting to politically empower people in the violent, racist South? Doesn’t that exemplify these martial values better than standing in Harlem or Detroit, telling people who already agree with you how horrible the white man is?” By contrasting mere tough talk with the tremendous bravery and willingness to put things on the line in his campaigns, he could turn the masculinist rhetoric often associated with black power to his advantage.
JL: One thing I really took from this collection is that in the general repetition of isolated quotes from King, there’s a constant suggestion that his activism and his philosophy relied on a naïve or overly optimistic idea of human nature. So many of these essays manage to put King’s thought back in an intellectual and political context that shows that the strategies that he developed were actually founded in that, rather than in spite of the dire situation.
TS: He has a political sophistication that many professional political philosophers do not. Being engaged practically every day with local municipal, state and national government forces, being in dialogue with senators, sheriffs, attorney generals and the president—being in the thick of it rather than just in his study. He had a real appreciation for the nuances of strategic political struggle while never losing sight of his broader ideals, never never just seeing it as all a cynical game of maneuvering. He realized that maneuvering needs to be shaped and constrained by a commitment to principle. You almost never see this in politicians, an extreme effectiveness combined with unshakeable commitment to principle. He wasn’t constrained by running for office, of course, but it’s still a remarkable combination of high-minded thinking and tough, hard-nosed strategy.
JL: Many of the essays emphasize that King not only fought against discrimination as an evil but for civic participation as a good. Why has he become so indelibly associated with struggles against discrimination rather than the moral effort of, as your title suggests, shaping a new world?
TS: He gets associated with Great Society American liberalism, which he did have sympathy for, but if you fix him in that framework you might focus too much on non-discrimination. But even in fairly well-known texts like “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you see a person with a robust conception of democracy as tied to a sense of collective self-governance on fair terms. That requires a citizenry empowered to shape the course of public life. You need more than just a formal right to vote, as important as that is. You need to be at the table, to discuss the direction of policy, to work in conjunction with others so that your actions have more power. If you consider King as a robust democratic thinker, you can see him as not just concerned with the protection of basic constitutional liberties—important as those are—but with building a truly democratic society, one where the citizenry is empowered to control their fate. That opens up possibilities for seeing him as a more radical thinker.
JL: And that empowerment relies, of course, not just on abstract rights but the economic means to make use of them. You make an interesting point about economic justice and full democratic participation in “Prisons of the Forgotten,” where you discuss King’s move to Chicago and his focus on the urban poor in the “second phase” of the civil rights movement. You claim that King was not just anti-poverty but egalitarian, in the sense that he believed persons who are poor can’t maintain their equal civic standing in the presence of extreme inequality and great wealth. That’s a more radical idea than the common image of King on economic justice gives us.
TS: You can get the impression that all he really cares about is making sure that there’s a proper safety net. He certainly is concerned with that, but egalitarian commitments also figure in his anti-poverty stance. Some of it has to do with what philosophers call “relational equality.” It’s not just that you’ve fallen below an absolute poverty level, it’s that when you’re sharing a society with others, you have to share not just in the burdens but the benefits of that common form of life. There’s no way to be an equal in this common project if some people have extraordinary wealth and spend lots of money on unnecessary leisure items when others are struggling to maintain shelter and a decent diet. There’s no way for you to see yourself as an equal when even your most basic material needs have less weight than others’ access to $4 million penthouse apartments in New York.
JL: It was interesting to read that King advocated for a guaranteed basic income, the decoupling of social worth from labor when full employment wasn’t possible. Now we’re in a moment where people from Mark Zuckerberg to Richard Branson have endorsed that policy, but it seems less driven by a commitment to egalitarianism than making sure that those who are marginalized don’t bring down the system. So, many of King’s egalitarian policies have been accepted by a growing consensus, yet we seem farther and farther away from his deeper commitment to economic justice as enabling civic equality.
TS: He noticed the impact of automation on labor, especially low-skilled or moderately skilled labor, early on. The Great Migration happened because a lot of these cities were industrializing. With a large manufacturing sector, people with limited educations and skills could find jobs to support their families in relative economic security. But as deindustrialization and globalization accelerate, people are left with precarious, insecure jobs without benefits. They end up largely in the service sector, where there tends to be a bias against men. So you end up with a lot of jobless men, and having a lot of young men with nothing to do is not great for any society.
JL: Unless you’re building an army of conquest.
TS: Exactly, it’s a recipe for disaster. What came out of this—which King didn’t live to see—was the growth of the penal system, mass incarceration, and an underground economy that draws a large number of people with no real work. Some might turn to alcohol and drugs, others might be overcome by depression, others will rebel and act out in frustration. There’s a question of what to do with them. King thought you couldn’t justify an economic structure to everybody within it if there’s not a dignified avenue for everybody to fulfill their basic material needs. If you can do that through employment, whether in the private or the public sector, that’s perfectly fine. But if you can’t, these people have a justice claim on a minimum set of resources to meet their material needs, and you need to meet that minimum set of material needs in order to enable their participation in public life as an equal.
JL: I think when you say dignified avenue, that’s key. I’m thinking of the Trump administration plan to replace food stamps with a set menu that poor people just have to accept. These questions of dignity and relational inequality are far from solved, and that’s where King’s thought—and your intervention into King’s thought—are important.
TS: I think he would have seen these conditional requirements on access to material necessities as an expression of public contempt for a segment of the citizenry. Especially when these conditions are imposed by a small affluent elite. He rejected the ideology that says your worth depends on your economic independence. When people don’t have dignified avenues to secure their basic needs, pushing an ideology of that sort just looks like a way for the affluent to maintain power and to capture the lion’s share of the economic spoils at the expense of their fellows. It stigmatizes them, and King would clearly see this as incompatible with mutual respect and inherent dignity. We express our esteem for the dignity of others by how we arrange our social affairs.
JL: And, as you write in Dark Ghettos, many people don’t put up with this contemptuous treatment. I’m interested in your argument that in many cases shoplifting, tax and welfare fraud, and refusal to work can be seen as legitimate forms of dissent, dramatizing systemic injustices that arise from this lack of access to material needs. Is there an analogy to be drawn between this “impure dissent”—as you call it—and civil disobedience?
TS: I’m certainly inspired by how King thinks about dissent, though I probably depart from it in some ways. His conception of political dissent can be seen as having two parts. One part emphasizes non-cooperation with evil. We’re permitted to withdraw our support as a way of disassociating ourselves from evil. We can refuse to comply with some social expectations—sometimes even the law itself—as a way of withdrawing our support from what we regard as unjust. But he would add that the way we withdraw should be connected to a positive form of political engagement concerned with altering things for the better.
I think that some instances of shoplifting, underground economic activity, and other forms of nonviolent law-breaking can be appropriately conceived as, at least in part, a form of symbolic political dissent. But that leaves open the question of whether doing that will also have a positive effect. It may or may not. Is it coordinated? Does this form of “impure dissent” publicly convey that it’s a condemnation of an unjust system, or does it seem opportunistic? You owe it to others to make plain that your refusal to submit is principled, rooted in a sense that things are unjust, rather than cynicism. It’s not just, “Oh, it’s gangsters all the way down, from the White House to the boulevard, so I’m gonna get mine.” So it’s important to avoid making it seem like that’s what you’re doing.
But there’s a second part where maybe I disagree with King. It seems permissible to dissent without making the case that it will make things better. Sure, it might alienate potential allies, or invite political repression, or burden, to some extent, others who are oppressed. But if you think of it by analogy to slavery, some people just refused to go along. They were defiant, and that would often bring repression from slaveholders upon those who were more obedient. Is that okay? Sometimes it is. I think it would be permissible to escape or resist slavery without actually making anything better. That’s permissible, even though I think that where possible, one should turn one’s dissent toward lifting the burdens of the oppressed. So, I agree with King—that’s ideally what you try to do. But even if you can’t, resistance can be a defensible way of affirming your own self-respect and escaping the burdens imposed by an unjust scheme.
JL: Do you think that what you’re calling impure dissent could ever have the principled effectiveness of King’s nonviolent civil disobedience?
TS: I like to think so. Quite often—and this is true of many black people, too—people see the dissent of ghetto denizens as pure hopelessness, despair, cathartic action arising from deep frustration. If one could effectively convey through these acts a principled opposition to injustice, it might show others that these are people who could potentially be allies in a collective struggle. From the other side, you need the people who might be inclined toward contempt for the more rebellious, alienated members of the ghetto poor to see their actions in a more positive light. It requires a little give and take from both.
JL: I was fascinated to read that at the end of his life, King was organizing gang members in Chicago and with the Poor People’s Campaign was planning to build, essentially, a shantytown in Washington, D.C. It seems like the beginning of an effort to apply that idea of theater in civil disobedience to these problems of urban poverty which might be more difficult to dramatize than discrimination.
TS: I think that’s right. King was a democrat in the small-d sense. He believed in the political efficacy of ordinary people, and didn’t think that their oppression made them unsuitable to engage in public action for the improvement of society. To see even the most alienated elements of the populace—gang members, the poor, sometimes even the homeless—as political actors who could be drawn into a collective struggle conveys a deep commitment to the democratic ethos. We are all capable of playing such a role, and we shouldn’t give up on people because they’re oppressed.
Sometimes he’d talk about “somebodiness,” a conviction that you have equal worth to others, that you don’t deserve to be treated as an inferior, and that you won’t put up with a society that does so. Insofar as people are able to maintain that sense of dignity, they are potential allies, people you can draw into collective struggle and treat as comrades. People who’ve lost their self-respect, who don’t have a sense that they have inherent, equal worth, will often submit. “Well, that’s just the way things are, right? Well, you know how white people are, right?” And King believed that was something that had to be combated. You need to convince people that you are their equal, and you should affirm that in various ways, including just not putting up with their nonsense. And when you look at the more alienated members of the ghetto poor, they are already expressing that. They’re not just going to go along. They’re not going to take your crappy job and go along with the law and respect the police who are just there to contain them. So they’re already conveying self-respect. That doesn’t have to be built. What has to be built is a sense of hope. That’s what they’re missing.
JL: In other words, he wasn’t there to “fix” everybody Treemonisha-style. He was meeting people where they were. Do you see that commitment to not giving up on the oppressed because they were oppressed as connected to not giving up on the oppressor?
TS: That’s the other side of it. He realizes that we’re human beings with lots of moral weaknesses. We’re tempted to do the wrong thing. We sometimes perversely take pleasure in our domination over other people, in their suffering, and this is as much a part of the human condition as sacrifice and being a good servant. The other side of seeing the oppressed as not hopelessly lost or incapable of playing an important role in our society’s future is also seeing members of the privileged as capable of change and of being moved by moral reason. That’s partly from his Christian background, seeing us all as vulnerable to temptation and vice but revering a God who gives us a chance to repent.
JL: You structure the collection through thematic sections—Traditions, Ideals, Justice and Conscience—and I wonder why you ended with Conscience, rather than Justice.
TS: King believed that we need to embody the ethos and spirit of the society we’re trying to bring about. At the end, you want to come back to the idea that this is a commitment of conscience. It involves a cultivation of political virtues that you know make you an appropriate ally, a trustworthy comrade. Not, you know, let’s just figure out what justice is and get there by any means, but the embodiment of that commitment to justice in everyday practice, in how you’re relating to your fellows all the time.
JL: Which is important whatever the outcome. So many of the essays remind us that King’s moral vision was rooted in an outlook that did not necessarily see victory as assured. As Paul Taylor writes in his essay on moral perfectionism, “The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, unless it doesn’t.” The second possibility, too, was a part of King’s teaching. And Cornel West reminds us of King’s never-delivered last sermon, “Why America May Go to Hell,” where he wonders if all his teachings and methods were misguided. King’s high ideals are so often contrasted with the terrible setbacks his movement faced, as though the failures invalidated the vision. Yet it seems like they have an intimate connection. I know Brandon Terry is working on a book about the “tragic vision” of the civil rights movement.
TS: It’s easy to lose sight of King’s tragic sensibility, partly because he plays such an important role in keeping other people’s spirits up. He’s playing [that role] as a leader, and in a way he’s not allowed to publicly indulge in pessimism about the prospects of the movement. Seeing him struggle with these demons himself—that’s for his closest friends. And there’s also again the theological dimension, King’s sense of needing to turn to God for the strength to overcome that temptation to give up.
But we thought it was important not to obscure—and certainly Brandon Terry emphasizes this in his work—the realistic sense that you can lose. We can lose. Being honest about that can have positive effects. There’s always the threat of nihilist withdrawal or submission, but the possibility that victory is not assured also brings us back to the point you made earlier about why we end on issues of conscience. The arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice if we bend it. It’s not going to just come to us, it’s not going to just happen. It will happen when people of conscience commit to making it so.
JL: It seems like having a tragic sensibility—seeing that, in the short term, certain gains might be impossible—might encourage people to embody the end in the present, and to concern themselves with foundational values.
TS: Yes. If you see all of your political action as strategic and tactical or rhetorical, your activities become very sensitive to your sense of the likelihood of success. That can thwart your motivation, particularly in moments like we’re in now. But if your political outlook is rooted in a commitment to the improvement of self, to live in a dignified way that you can be proud of despite the fact that you might lose, that opens up the possibility for continuous action and continuous struggle, even in the face of great odds. It turns the question from a purely means-ends or cost-benefit calculation to a question of how to live, what the good life is for each of us individually and what kind of ambitions we should seek out so that we can be proud of the life that we lived.