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Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.

Moses Greg. New York: Guilford P, 1997. 256 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by

Hans A. Baer University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Mr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely regarded to have been prominent as a minister, orator, and Civil Rights activist - the latest addition to what Robert Bellah has termed "American civil religion." Greg Moses argues that King also was a significant philosopher who has all too often been ignored by Eurocentric philosophers. Although it is often asserted that King derived his concept of nonviolence from Mahandas Gandhi, Moses convincingly demonstrates that King adapted this notion to the African American experience by also drawing upon the works of Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Howard Thurman, and Ralph J. Bunche.

In the Introduction, Moses maintains that "King's published writings and speeches articulate a powerful analysis of the human condition." He argues that King's philosophy rested upon the notions of equality, structure, direct action, justice, and love. The Civil Rights activist's intellectual achievements saw fruition in his last years, particularly the period of 1966-1968.

Chapter 1 situates King's concept of equality in the work of Fredrick Douglass, who maintained that moral principles must be applied universally; that is, to all peoples, regardless of their race or ethnicity. Although America had been founded upon the notion that "all men are created equal," without defining the equality in a formal manner, King in thought and action confronted white Americans with the contradictory manner in which this concept has been applied.

In Chapter 2, "Structure and Race," Moses argues that King elaborated upon Du Bois's contention that the principal problem of the twentieth century is the color line. King maintained that problems for African Americans were rooted not so much in specific individuals as within the American social structure, which has historically been dominated by racism, poverty, and war. Moses asserts that, in essence, the great Civil Rights leader came to recognize that "capitalism, with its profiteering values, fails to nurture a healthy community." In his last years, King also encouraged African Americans to build alliances with groups, such as the labor movement and the poor in general, committed to structural change. Indeed, on the eve of his assassination, he was supporting the efforts of sanitation workers in their strike against the city of Memphis.

In Chapter 3, "Structure and Class," Moses contends that King elaborated upon his understanding of the intricate structural relationship between race and class in American society by drawing upon the work of both A. Philip Randolph, an avowed anti-Stalinist socialist, and Ralph J. Bunche. Although King reportedly rejected the manner in which Marxist theory had been applied in Leninist regimes, he admitted to having found inspiration in the writings of Marx in late 1949. In following the thinking of A. Philip Randolph, King recognized the need for black and white working-class people to join forces in their common struggle against an exploitative economic system. Moses argues that Bunche instilled in King an awareness of the global nature of the color line - one rooted in imperialism as an international manifestation of capitalism.

Whereas Du Bois, Randolph, and Bunche were important secular thinkers who influenced King's philosophy, in Chapter 4, "Nonviolent Direct Action," Moses reminds us that King drew heavily upon African American religious thought, particularly as it was manifested in the work of Howard Thurman, another Southern-born, Morehouse-educated minister. Indeed, Thurman met Gandhi while traveling in India and drew inspiration, as did King somewhat later, from the world-renowned proponent of nonviolent direct action. Moses asserts that King concluded that "nonviolent direct action invokes public demonstrations of suffering in order to reveal injustice."

In Chapter 5, "Justice and Love," the author argues that King's concept of justice is based upon the Christian value of love, including the love of one's enemies. King rejected the separatist aspirations of those black nationalists who refused to join forces with white allies. Moses, however, fails to observe that the one group of black nationalists who chose to form alliances with white radicals, the Black Panthers, became the leading victims of the repressive tactics of the U.S. police apparatus. At any rate, as a committed integrationist, the author contends that King's notion of justice challenged and transcended the liberal conception of incremental social change by calling for the eradication of structural arrangements that foster "glaring contrasts of poverty and wealth, automation that displaces workers as it maintains profits, capitalists who extract profits from other continents with no concern for their social betterment, Western arrogance, war, and the 'conflict' in Vietnam."

Upon reading Revolution of Conscience, I strongly suspect that many philosophers will not be convinced of Moses's claim that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a noteworthy philosopher. If indeed this is the case, such a refusal is in keeping with the larger society's tendency to sanitize the radical King, who in his last years viewed the struggle for African American civil rights within a larger context, namely that of U.S. and international capitalism. Perhaps Marx indeed was correct when he asserted in his essay on "Theses of Feuerbach" that ". . . philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Although King exhibited a certain ambivalence about Marx, both of these figures as philosopher-activists attempted to engage in a merger of theory and social action, or what some refer to as praxis.
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Author:Baer, Hans A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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