Martin Luther King, Jr. & G.W.F. Hegel

(In memory of Dr. King: 15 January 1929 - 4 April 1968)

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”         

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s Philosophy & the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser during the Montgomery Boycott, King stated that Hegel was his favorite philosopher. [interview with Tom Johnson, published 19 January 1956] In Stride Toward Freedom he maintained that Hegel's analysis of the dialectical process, despite its defects, helped him see that “Growth comes through struggle.” At Boston University he had studied Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy of History, and Philosophy of Right . . .

SOURCE: Ansbro, John. Martin Luther King: The Making of a Mind (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), p. 122. Reported in The Owl of Minerva.

This book is an important source for investigating the philosophical ingredients of King’s education and his thought. King’s basic intellectual method was to incorporate the elements of truth that he saw in various philosophical doctrines into his own, even those he found uncongenial on other grounds, while refusing to accept in toto metaphysical doctrines that contradicted his own Christian world view. Numerous philosophers are treated in the book, and most of them seem to have been absorbed by King in this characteristic manner, which may seem eclectic to some, but was considered a form of Hegelian synthesis by King himself.

Metaphysically, King’s major objection to Hegel comes from the influence of Personalism. King felt that for some thinkers—Hegel and Spinoza among them—the individual tended to disappear into the whole.

The section “Dialectical opposition for total truth and freedom” (p. 119-128) explains the influence of Hegel on King. Most interesting is King’s analysis of the dialectical interaction between repression and nonviolent resistance as the motor of progress of the movement for social justice.

King was also inspired by Heraclitus, whom Hegel claimed to have absorbed completely into his own philosophy. So let me close by quoting Heraclitus—I hope it is accurate; I found it decades ago quoted in another source:

“The unseen harmony is stronger than the seen.”

(Ralph Dumain, originally composed 2 February 1994, edited 15 October 2006)

On Cultural Hybridity, Hegel, and Afro-American Identity

Every man must ultimately confront the question, ‘Who am I?’ and seek to answer it honestly. One of the first principles of personal adjustment is the principle of self-acceptance. The Negro’s greatest dilemma is that in order to be healthy he must accept his ambivalence. The Negro is the child of two cultures—Africa and America. The problem is that in the search for wholeness all too many Negroes seek to embrace only one side of their natures. Some, seeking to reject their heritage, are ashamed of their color, ashamed of black art and music, and determine what is beautiful and good by the standards of white society. They end up frustrated and without cultural roots. Others seek to reject everything American and to identify totally with Africa, even to the point of wearing African clothes. But this approach leads also to frustration because the American Negro is not an African. The old Hegelian synthesis still offers the best answer to many of life’s dilemmas. The American Negro is neither totally African nor totally western. He is Afro-American, a true hybrid, a combination of two cultures.

Who are we? We are the descendants of slaves. We are the offspring of noble men and women who were kidnapped from their native land and chained in ships like beasts. We are the heirs of a great and exploited continent known as Africa. We are the heirs of a past of rope, fire, and murder. I for one am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us.

SOURCE: Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?, 1967.

(Originally posted by R. Dumain on 14 January 1996)

King’s Study of Hegel

There are two articles on Martin Luther King’s interest in Hegel in the journal The Owl of Minerva, as well as a treatment of Hegel (reported to be MLK’s favorite philosopher during the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott) in John Ansbro’s book on MLK’s intellectual development. Recently I came upon another source pertaining to MLK’s study of Hegel in college:

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “An Exposition of the First Triad of Categories of the Hegelian Logic—Being, Non-Being, Becoming”, in: The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.; vol. 2: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November, 1955; edited by Ralph E. Luker, Penny A. Russell, Peter Holloran. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992-2000), pp. 196-201.

This paper (4 Feb.-22 May 1953, Boston) was the “last of six essays that King wrote for a two-semester seminar on Hegel taught by Brightman and Peter A. Bertocci.” There are four other extant essays, listed in a footnote, archived with the King papers. The class read several major works of Hegel. King’s essay concerning the Lesser Logic, which is not distinctive in any way, was derived largely from W.T. Stace’s The Philosophy of Hegel.

(Posted by R. Dumain on 4 September 2000, link note added 10 June 2003)

The Owl of Minerva

“Martin Luther King Jr.’s Favorite Philosopher,” The Owl of Minerva, vol. 25, no. 1, Fall 1993, p.118.

Report from John Ansbro; see quote and article below for references.

Ansbro, John. “Martin Luther King’s Debt to Hegel”, The Owl of Minerva, vol. 26, no. 1, Fall 1994, pp. 98-100.

Miles, Kevin T. “Martin Luther King’s Debt to W.E.B. Du Bois’ Debt to Hegel”, The Owl of Minerva, vol. 27, no. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 227-230.

Appearing in the “Hegeliana” section of the journal, this is a response to an earlier column by John Ansbro on Hegel as King’s favorite philosopher. Miles relies on Joel Williamson and David Levering Lewis as sources and does not cite more recent writings on this subject. Miles questions the practice of citing and possibly exaggerating debts to European thinkers, as if that somehow validated black thinkers’ intellectual capacity. [RD]

Martin Luther King’s Debt to Hegel
by John Ansbro

John A. Williams on Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Black church

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe Study Guide

American Philosophy Study Guide


An Exposition of the First Triad of Categories of the Hegelian Logic—Being, Non-Being, Becoming
by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Editing Martin Luther King, Jr.: Political and Scholarly Issues” by Clayborne Carson

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, September 1951-November 1955

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