Martin Luther King's Debt to Hegel

While concluding my research for Martin Luther King: The Making of a Mind (New York: Maryknoll, 1982), I learned that King had stated in a January 19, 1956 interview with The Montgomery Advertiser that Hegel was his favorite philosopher. This was especially significant for me because my dissertation was on Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel—with emphasis on how Hegelian Kierkegaard had become.

At the Boston University School of Theology, King enrolled in a Hegel seminar with Edgar Brightman. King’s notes indicate that Brightman stressed that Hegel's early theological writings viewed love as the central religious idea. When Brightman became ill in the first month, Peter Bertocci taught the seminar. In my first interview with Bertocci in 1973, he recalled how King "almost took over the class” in his enthusiasm for Hegel's insight that the master is dependent on the slave for his consciousness of himself as master. As King traced his "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" in Stride Toward Freedom (New York: Harper, 1958), he referred (p. 100) to his study of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Philosophy of History, and Philosophy of Right.

In a 1956 address to the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, King reassured his followers that racial tensions did not represent retrogression and meaninglessness:

Long ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that justice emerges from the strife of opposites, and Hegel, in modem philosophy, preached a doctrine of growth through struggle. It is both historically and biologically true that there can be no birth and growth without birth and growing pains. Whenever there is the emergence of the new, we confront the recalcitrance of the old. So the tensions which we witness in the world today are indicative of the fad that a new world order is being born and an old order is passing away.

He had written a summary of Heraclitus' insights into the role of opposition in nature and human development for an examination in L. Harold DeWolf’s course on personalism. Bertocci, in the Hegel seminar, developed the thesis that Heraclitus and Plato were precursors of Hegel's notion of dialectical unity.

Within the first paragraph of Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), King affirmed that Hegel held truth to be found neither in the thesis nor in the antithesis but in the emergent synthesis which reconciles the two. King used this doctrine to explain some of the basic aims 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" (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 213). King recognized that the partial truth in each of these two positions can be included in an effective synthesis to achieve more social justice, while each of the positions, if considered in isolation from the other, must be rejected as extreme and immoral. He explained that the nonviolent resister can agree with the person who submits to social evils that one should not inflict physical harm on the opponent but can also agree with the person who endorses violence that social evils must be resisted. By appealing to the limited truths in both positions, the nonviolent resister is able to avoid the extremes and pitfalls of nonresistance and violent resistance.

"Our Struggle: The Story of Montgomery" (Liberation, April 1956), King's analysis of the Montgomery boycott, demonstrated his awareness of the dialectic pervading the protest. It contained several examples of how every attempt to end the boycott, by encouraging the blacks to inform, by trying to intimidate them, or by violence, only further unified the black community. For instance, the arrest of twenty‑four ministers for their participation in the nonviolent tactics generated even more national support for the boycott. But King could also testify to the pain of the dialectical process: "Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals" (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 197).

King could appreciate the work of the "cunning of reason" in the boycott. He described Rosa Parks as "a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny" and maintained, "She had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the time" (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 44). Though initially he had not sought to be a leader, he came to realize that he himself was in the grip of the Zeitgeist. He told his Montgomery congregation in a farewell sermon in 1959, "I can't stop now. History has thrust something upon me which I cannot turn away. I should free you now.” In his Nobel Lecture, after reaffirming his faith in a provident Spirit who controls the history of the struggle for freedom, he proclaimed that the Negro in the United States "consciously or unconsciously . . . had been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America and the Caribbean . . . is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice."

For the exposition of his notion of human nature, King relied on a dialectical approach: "An adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo‑orthodoxy, but in a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both" (Strength to Love, p. 136). Furthermore, in his dissertation, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” (1955), he employed this dialectical approach when he warned, "There is always the danger that in revolting against any extreme view one will go to the opposite extreme, failing to see the partial value inherent in the former" (p. 279). He charged that Wieman was guilty of this failure when he so focussed on the immanence of God that he completely overlooked the truth in the doctrine of the transcendence of God. King was also dialectical in his general evaluation of Wieman and Tillich. Both of them, he concluded, were partially correct in what they affirmed and partially wrong in what they denied. He argued that Wieman was correct in emphasizing God’s goodness but wrong in minimizing God's power, while Tillich was correct in emphasizing God's power but wrong in minimizing God’s goodness. King defended the synthesis that acknowledged both God's omnipotence and infinite goodness (pp. 297‑298).

Moreover, in a 1959 speech to the Mississippi Christian Leadership Conference, King revealed that he attempted to be dialectical even in responding to criticisms leveled at himself and the Movement: "Whenever we are objects of criticism from white men, even though the criticisms are maliciously directed and mixed with half‑truths, we must pick out the elements of truth and make than the basis of creative reconstruction."

Influenced by some of his professors—particularly L. Harold DeWolf, who wrote The Religious Revolt against Reason (New York: Greenwood, 1968, c1949)—King did offer criticisms of the Hegelian system (Stride Toward Freedom, pp. 100‑101; Strength to Love, p. 137). King contended that Hegel's "absolute idealism was rationally unsound to me because it tended to swallow up the many in the one." Impressed with insights from the existentialists, he challenged what he viewed as Hegel's apparent attempt through his system of thought to reconcile life’s conflicts. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, King, inspired by Hegel, held that life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites. He also asserted that Hegel's contention that "truth is the whole" led him to a philosophical method of rational coherence. Personalism, his main philosophical position, extolled coherence as one of the norms of truth.

John Ansbro           
Manhattan College

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

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