Dr. Martin Luther King
American Philosopher: The Greatest of All Time 🙏
Today I felt that I HAD to write about Dr. King—in the US we are celebrating an annual holiday commemorating his legacy.
I began to write a new essay about Dr. King, but felt a piece that I posted a few months ago still captures perfectly the influence he’s had on my training as a philosopher.
Please enjoy the short story below, leave a comment, and share with your friends as we remember American Philosophy’s Greatest Of All Time.
Above is pictured the final exam in a university seminar called, “Social Philosophy.”
The teacher: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This series of questions has had a special place for me. This was the first philosophy exam I ever took in College.
It was tough, but it was exciting.
My professor at the time had spent much of his academic career in pursuit of the intellect and understanding that Dr. King left behind for us all to glean.
It’s often overlooked that Dr. King was, at his core, a philosopher. It’s why he could see and articulate something like, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”1
He had a real sense of what that arc was, where it was headed, and where it’s been. That should give us all hope.
I remember that after our final exam was finished, my professor called us back to review our performance.
But he was much less interested in grading and evaluating us. Rather, he wanted us to discuss, to think, to grow.
“Do you know where I found the questions for your exam?” he asked.
He explained how this was the test that Dr. King created for one of the seminars he taught while a professor. We spent an hour or so discussing our findings, what Dr. King could have intended for his students to discover, and what we found most challenging and enlightening.
Mainly, us first year philosophy students marveled at Dr. King’s intellect.
He created this essay a year before writing his famous treatise in a jail cell in Alabama. A year before launching himself headlong into that moral arc, riding its bend as far is it would take him.
Below is a copy of his handwritten syllabus he created for this seminar
I love to study the strictly philosophical side of Dr. King because, it not only demonstrates his intellectual prowess, but solidifies and contextualizes his arguments for equality.
They are based on the espoused values and beliefs of a system which used its ethical relevance not to liberate, but to oppress.
Dr. King didn’t just use basic human compassion—though he did. He didn’t just use self-evident arguments—though he did. He brought the establishment to reckon with its own shortcomings, based on its own ideas and values.
That is what we call genius.
In an Alabama jail cell he would pen, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” riffing off the colloquial Cold-War phrase, “Communism anywhere is a threat everywhere.”
I often sense that the subtle brilliance and searing philosophical conscience of Dr. King is overlooked by an easy-to-digest narrative stuffed into the history books.
Dr. King poured over Plato, befriended Thich Nhat Hanh (in fact, King nominated Hanh in 1969 for a Nobel Peace Prize!), organized southern Christian factions, and rallied the world around The Poor People’s Campaign—a justice movement which continues today under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber.
I find it hopeful, exciting, and energetic that the ground upon which Dr. King built was that of ancient philosophy.
I’d like to think he’d rather enjoy our goal here of increasing our compassion and empathy through the study of timeless wisdom. His life embodied this ethic, and for that I am grateful.
Until next week my friends, farewell.