The Critique of Nonviolence
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Philosophy
Mark Christian Thompson



Ontology and Nonviolence

I. King’s Black power

WHAT IS BLACK POWER? On June 16, 1966, in the wake of the James Meredith shooting, Stokely Carmichael publicly announced his preliminary formulation of Black Power, which he continued to refine for years after.1 It was an occasion Martin Luther King, Jr. recalled with great restraint in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (originally published in 1967), given that Carmichael admitted to having used him to gain the widest audience possible for the announcement. Representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King, along with Carmichael, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Floyd McKissick, the national director of the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), organized a joint march meant to continue activist James Meredith’s solitary “March Against Fear.” In the wake of the Voting Rights Act (1965), Meredith had set out to walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to rally Blacks to vote. He was shot June 6, 1966—the second day of his march. Having survived the attempt on his life, Meredith remained hospitalized as the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and any other Civil Rights organization that would join, immediately continued his journey, now dubbed Meredith’s Mississippi Freedom March.

“Once during the afternoon,” King recounts,

we stopped to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The voices rang out with all the traditional fervor, the glad thunder and gentle strength that had always characterized the singing of this noble song. But when we came to the stanza which speaks of “black and white together,” the voices of a few of the marchers were muted. I asked them later why they refused to sing that verse. The retort was: “This is a new day, we don’t sing those words any more. In fact, the whole song should be discarded. Not ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but ‘We Shall Overrun.’” As I listened to all these comments, the words fell on my ears like strange music from a foreign land. My hearing was not attuned to the sound of such bitterness. I guess I should not have been surprised. I should have known that in an atmosphere where false promises are daily realities, where deferred dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence toward Negroes are a way of life, nonviolence would eventually be seriously questioned. I should have been reminded that disappointment produces despair and despair produces bitterness, and that the one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness. Bitterness has not the capacity to make the distinction between some and all. When some members of the dominant group, particularly those in power, are racist in attitude and practice, bitterness accuses the whole group. (King 2010a, 182)

Stunned by the sound of this “strange music from a foreign land,” King seeks to decipher this new musical language in conversation with Carmichael. It is then King realizes that Carmichael has used him to announce the “Black Power” slogan to mainstream America, and the world. Carmichael admits to his ruse and rejects nonviolence, calling the new movement “Black Power” after refusing in private King’s request he use some less aggressive alternative.

The fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested names for Black Power to Stokely Carmichael may seem odd.2 Yet, King already possessed his own definition of “Black Power” before Carmichael went public with his. In his trenchant response to the movement increasingly identified with Carmichael’s use of the “Black Power” slogan in 1966, King writes: “There is a concrete, real black power that I believe in. I don’t believe in black separatism, I don’t believe in black power that would have racist overtones, but certainly if black power means the amassing of political and economic power in order to gain our just and legitimate goals, then we all believe in that. And I think that all white people of good will believe in that” (King 1998, 320). How to avoid the “racist overtones” of “black separatism,” yet orient political and economic goals based on racial community, begs the question of racial ontology. How is the distinction between racial essence and racial existence decided and exceeded?3 How can there be racial communities in the absence of essential difference, where race is not a matter of ideological and historical contingency? Once Black political and economic power is amassed and equality achieved, will race disappear from American society?

In other words, Black Power intellectuals including King did not present a systematic understanding of racial ontology. That is, they did not explicitly ask, what is the being and end of race? What is the being and end of Blackness? What is racial being and what are the ends of race? Of course, it is perfectly understandable they did not. With more practical matters in mind and a wider public to reach, Black Power leaders did not bother to expound theories of gnostic being and eschatological end. Nevertheless, they could engage in high theory in public speeches, meetings, and writings; among Black radicals, reading philosophy and philosophizing were thought crucial to understanding racism.

Additionally, when they posited Black community in the face of white supremacy, Black radicals made philosophic decisions to clarify their practical aims. Although concerned with the material means and ends of racial oppression, their mode of apprehending racism’s concrete causes and conditions identifies race as a naturalized (when not natural) phenomenon. Rarely distinguishing between race as a construct and race as a metaphysical truth, many Black radical thinkers of the period left ambiguous how they understood Blackness ontologically, as either a cause, product, or event. Indeed, their conceptual separation of Black and white went beyond race as the ideological imposition of white supremacy, implying instead a metaphysical force. In this understanding, race’s teleological unfolding has been either unjustly altered or is about to undergo revolutionary change according to a greater plan of justice. In other words, even though Black Power thinkers do not overtly describe a racial ontology, they nevertheless still possess one, both as an effect of the philosophical tradition in which they intervened and as a condition of their practical analyses of racial oppression.

While that tradition includes Fanon, Du Bois, Douglass, Wells, and many others, it also means Plato, Augustine, Marx, and Marcuse. Many studies have examined Black Power’s relationship to philosophers belonging to the Black radical tradition, but this study concentrates on Black Power’s investment in European philosophy.4 Black Power thinkers took all philosophy seriously, and they absorbed the philosophic principles of those thinkers they admired and appropriated, both Black and white. The Critique of Nonviolence does not deny the living presence of the Black radical tradition in Black Power philosophy; to do so would be absurd. Instead, it addresses the question of racial ontology as adduced in European philosophy and disputed in the Black radical tradition. Focusing on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s anti-racist, anti-humanist metaphysical thought, this book asks: How did the most prominent Black radical conceive an anti-racist racial ontology, and how might the answer to this pressing question continue to be relevant today?5

To respond to these questions within Black Power’s hermeneutic circle, King requires an ontology of race, free of Black separatism. This book thus explores Martin Luther King, Jr.’s way of Black power, which distinguishes itself philosophically from the Black Power directly confronting him as a race-based alternative to nonviolence. King countered with his own understanding of Black power as a rejection of essential, hierarchical racial community, privileging instead the beloved community of radical human equality. Black power was the ability to forgive and to integrate while still retaining historical specificity, cultural traditions, and significant racial attitudes. In conceptualizing Black power, King did not develop a theory of Blackness as a series of positions and practices; to do so would have been contrary to his anti-essentialist and anti-relativistic understanding of race to human separation.

For Carmichael, “Black Power as a slogan” demanded that an “organization which claims to speak for the needs of a community . . . speak in the tone of that community, not as somebody else’s buffer zone” (Carmichael 2007, 17). Criticizing King’s nonviolence as “somebody else’s buffer zone,” Carmichael sees Black Power as community advocacy and self-defense for “those who do not attach the fears of white America to their questions about it” (Carmichael 2007, 17). Carmichael identified members of this fearless group as “black Americans [who] have two problems: they are poor and they are black” (Carmichael 2007, 17). Here, class and race converge in the articulation of Black Power, with neither category reducible to the other.6 Although addressing two “problems” simultaneously, Black Power nevertheless theorizes race and class separately, as two categorically discrete yet conceptual related fields. In so doing, Black Power ultimately seeks to transcend white supremacy’s definition of “black Americans.”

Throughout his career as an activist and public intellectual, Carmichael insisted that Black Power possessed a longer history, in a global network of racially oppressed communities, than the one he could provide.7 Even as early as 1966 he insisted “the concept of Black Power is not a recent or isolated phenomenon: it has grown out of the ferment of agitation and activity by different people and organizations in many black communities over the years” (Carmichael 2007, 19). Despite this, neither Carmichael’s direct expression of Black Power nor any aspect of the deeper, more complex history to which he alluded became the basis for Black Power’s popular image among those unsympathetic to its cause. The highly distorted, derogatory notion of Black Power as the promulgation of separatist violence in the name of insurrectionary anti-white hatred derives from the suppressive ideological exploitation of Black Power ideas and imagery.8 This presentation of Black Power obscures the movement’s social, political, and philosophical complexity, and collapses all Black radical movements into a single caricature.9 Combating this form of marginalization, the specialized literature devoted both to Black Power, the historical movement, and to Black power, the movement into history, continues to grow.10 Thus, while Black Power can appear two-dimensional in the popular imagination, both it and Black power can also be found in their diverse, multilayered mode of being, encompassing an array of philosophies and approaches to the longer Black Freedom Movement.11

The popular, negative misconception of Black Power lay partly in the misapprehension that Black nationalism and Black radicalism are synonymous.12 Yet, as Bogues has shown, Black nationalism

is a different species of intellectual practice from that of a political intellectual, although the latter includes some elements of the public intellectual. Because even though “speaking truth to power” as a form of social criticism is to some degree a political act, any observation of black radical intellectual production would illustrate that the central figures of this tradition were explicitly political, seeking to organize, having the courage to stand by or break with organizations and programs while developing an intellectual praxis that made politics not a god but a practice for human good. Theirs was not just a practice of social criticism but oftentimes of organized efforts to intervene in social and political life. (Bogues 2015, 7)

In other words, Black radicals sought to change the political system to integrate it more fully rather than separate further from it. For Bogues, Black radicals provide a critique of modernity and not a wholesale rejection of it. From this perspective, Joseph’s contention that Black Power begins at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 rather than later in the United States makes historical and philosophical sense (Joseph 2006a, 7). As Joseph writes:

Presided over by Indonesian president Sukarno and convened by the prime ministers of Indonesia, India, Burma, Ceylon, and Pakistan, the conference featured representatives of twenty-nine nonwhite nations whose populations together exceeded one billion. Bandung’s declarations against racism, colonialism, and imperialism represented a watershed event: a “third bloc” opposing both capitalism and totalitarianism. (Joseph 2006a, 7)

In this way, Joseph “reperiodizes the Civil Rights–Black Power era by pushing the chronology of black radicalism back to the 1950s and forward into the 1970s” (Joseph 2006 8). In so doing, he rebrands Black Power as a constituent part of Black radicalism and working in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement, all toward the same goal of Black freedom.13> Differentiating between Black nationalism and Black radicalism, then, performs an essential historiographic function.

Robinson differentiates even further by insisting on separating Black nationalism from “a black version of ethnic pluralism” he sees as prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s (Robinson 2001, 2). While this may be so, ethnic pluralism itself took on many forms and would need further clarification. That said, of the many Black ethnic pluralist groups, the Black Panther Party (BPP) seemed the most capable of reflecting the doctrines and agendas of each in the popular imagination. Indeed, according to Spencer, “Panther imagery was a reflection of the connective tissue linking protests nationwide” (Spencer 2016, 22). While Panthers, Morgan comments, “self-represented to promote Party doctrine and agendas,” their images also represented the connections between various Black Power philosophies and practices (Morgan 2018, i). This sometimes led to merely surface distinctions between Black radical groups and movements. The Panthers’ specific trajectory stretches back to Newton’s and Seale’s life experiences and early involvement with underground East Bay groups in the 1950s. As Kathleen Cleaver and Katsiaficas insist, the “question of the underground was a principal issue for the Black Panther Party from its inception. Prior to founding the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale was a member of the Revolutionary Action Movement, but Seale did not share RAM’s insistence on the revolutionary vanguard being clandestine. RAM preferred primarily to interact with the public through mass front organizations; RAM structure, membership, meetings, and other activities were secret” (Cleaver and Katsiaficas 2001 6). Ultimately, as Spencer relates, the culmination of these experiences and influences created the BPP belief

that revolution was both internal and external and strove to create an organization that would be a microcosm of the world they were trying to create. Party members grappled with sexism, classism, individualism, and materialism and attempted to create alternative structures, institutions, and lifestyles. Their goal was not only to challenge and change the conditions in America but to politicize their membership and their mass following. In short, Black Panther Party members not only tried to transform the world; they tried to transform themselves. (Spencer 2016, 4)

A major part of these beliefs was the conviction that violent self-defense was necessary. “With the Panthers, of course,” Lazerow and Williams write, “the issue to some extent has always been about violence. But their critics make violence the only issue, and they remain frozen in one moment in time” (Lazerow and Williams 2006, 7). In the wake of urban rioting, by 1966 many Black Power activists rejected nonviolence as ineffectual and even accommodating. The question of tactical violence included that of leadership. As Austin and Brotz note:

Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer balked at a change in tactics; traditional protest measures had secured substantial public support and laws that ostensibly brought about a new day in race relations. Since most movement people understood that established leaders would not, indeed could not, change tactics at a time when things seemed to be improving, the younger, less experienced activists had to answer the question of who was going to lead this next phase of the movement. Would it be the older, more middle-class oriented blacks? Would it be the college-educated, the group W. E. B. Du Bois had dubbed the “Talented Tenth”? Would it be the mass of workers who made up the bulk of black America? Or would it be the dispossessed, the unemployed and underemployed people who lived by their wits; those who had no stake in the system, the group that Karl Marx and later Huey Newton dubbed the “lumpen proletariat”? (Austin 2006, xx)

Chappell sees that the “core belief of King’s ‘militant’ opponents was that only defensive violence would deter the offensive violence that had long defined life in cotton field and ghetto” (Chappell 2021, 516–517).14 This suggests that “militants” saw King as wittingly or otherwise in collusion with racially oppressive forces. They did not understand King to be espousing Black Power; rather, they took him to be preaching Black submission. This, of course, was a strategic misunderstanding meant to change the terms of Black radical leadership seen to have grown ineffective. As Chappell also insists, “King was often willfully misunderstood in his lifetime and remains widely misunderstood today. King’s critics seized on his word nonviolence” (Chappell 2021, 516). For some Black Power leaders, “nonviolence” meant abandoning the right to self-defense in everyday life and not solely at historical inflection points when cameras were rolling. The threat of Black reprisal was meant to curtail lawless acts of violence between individuals, committed away from the public sphere. King’s nonviolence was criticized as organized civil disobedience that acknowledged the legitimacy of the racist state power it transgressed against.

Yet as a manifestation of Black power, King’s nonviolence may have been far more radical than a way of preserving the constitutional order by aligning it more effectively with its normative principles. As Hills and Curry suggest, Black power is “a universal call for justice, which he engages as the transition from ‘thingification’ to personhood. #BlackLivesMatter is the theopolitical demand for Black personhood, which we believe to be housed in King’s philosophy of Black Power” (Hills and Curry 2015, 454). In this understanding of Black power, the idea’s most fitting image would not be that of Huey P. Newton armed and enthroned, but rather that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describing his dream to the world in Washington, D.C.15

That said, there is not an either/or choice to be made between the images’ representative quality; both display versions of the same struggle equally well. They form part of what Terry calls the “comprehensive cartography of Black Power contestation,” which

would cover roughly eleven themes: (1) political violence, (2) the politics of “self-determination,” (3) identity and culture, (4) the social theorization of the ghetto, (5) gender, sexuality, and the family, (6) the political agency of the poor, (7) theories of racism, (8) social justice in an age of emerging postindustrial capitalism, (9) mid–Cold War geopolitics, (10) the political critique of African American religion, and (11) philosophical reflections on hope and pessimism. Constraints of space here do not allow for a full elaboration on each of these domains, but I hope to use the more familiar theme of violence—especially as topics of integration and racial identity are covered elsewhere in this volume—as a generative point of entry toward a sketch of this larger terrain and King’s movements therein. (Terry 2018,a 295)

A philosophy of race is not included among these eleven themes. Citing “self-determination,” “identity and culture,” and “the social theorization of the ghetto,” Terry’s “comprehensive cartography” instead charts an ethics of race that tacitly identifies racial ontology with group formation and social responsibility. This is what Terry calls elsewhere “the ethics of oppressed groups,” while pointing out that the

one great difficulty in explicating the ethics of oppressed groups stems from the need to balance our deeply felt personal interests, such as dignity and self-respect, with the claims for consideration, fairness, care, and even mercy that others in and outside the group have on us. King hoped that nonviolent, mass direct action could incorporate these myriad considerations without a “slide to subjectivism,” as Charles Taylor might put it. The angst that he suffered throughout his career stemmed from his visceral understanding of how human interconnection was especially heightened among the oppressed: how reckless rebellion could invite indiscriminate group repression, how selfish accommodation could entrench group stigmas of inferiority, and how political violence can tragically delimit the indeterminate horizons of how and with whom the world should be shared. (Terry 2018b 62)

While this is certainly understandable, it also risks deferring questions of racial legitimacy and the metaphysics of authenticity at racism’s origin and thereby effectively ensuring that racism persists in some Platonic-like form. For it remains to be seen if social problems can be solved without first or simultaneously addressing philosophical differences in ontology and formulating an alternative means of envisioning being together as a political goal. This would be not a “slide into subjectivism” but rather a negotiation of the objective, competing values defining human being among various groups, each attempting to be recognized as such. Ontology must be considered, not to take it seriously as an explanation of human being, but rather to take it as a way of understanding the fundamental attitudes preventing the full resolution of racially motivated inequality and injustice. Indeed, King avoids a slide into the subjectivism of racial categorization by considering and overcoming racial ontology as part of his Black power philosophy. In this way, King calls for the end to race and any other category of human being that creates division and, by extension, injustice.

In so doing, King is both true and false to his philosophical training. While he embraced the basic categories of the Western metaphysical tradition, he refused its essentialism to articulate an ontotheological theory of human difference made commensurable in what I call Being-in-love. Positing equality beyond racial distinction, King rejected racial essentialism before ever having practiced nonviolence publicly. This means King possessed an anti-essentialist ontology of race in advance of his work as a Civil Rights activist. He developed it studying philosophy, and in particular German philosophy, during his studies at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, Boston University, and individually. King’s thought, then, has its ontological roots in this tradition as well as in the Black experience. This understanding of King’s philosophy is not meant to supersede or exclude any other but rather is intended to supplement and enhance King’s already significant standing in African American philosophy.

II. King and African American Philosophy

Stephen Ferguson and John McClendon’s recent history of African American philosophers sees King as so well known as an African American philosopher that the authors find it unnecessary to dwell on him in a vital project designed to recuperate lesser-known figures. This decision seems even more appropriate given that King’s life and work command their own branch of study. Within King studies, a restitution project has been under way insisting on a more radical reading of his political philosophy and on a thorough understanding of the ideological function King’s image plays in contemporary culture.16 Both aims of this project entail rescuing King’s legacy from its right-leaning appropriation as commemorative and memorializing, yet without any politically transformative capability. As Rose insists, “King’s legacy is purposely deployed to promote the neoliberal idea that America has overcome its struggles with racism, poverty, and militarism, thereby discouraging contemporary Americans from engaging in the work necessary to combat these forms of structural injustice” (Rose 2019, 4). In other words, the radical force of King’s philosophy has been neutralized by its acceptance in mainstream political discourse as edifying and complete. This result would be considered essentially right-wing because it protects institutional and interpersonal racism as having been overcome.

Part of this project of recuperation has been made possible by the much wider availability of King’s unpublished work combined with a fuller documentary history of his movement. Livingston notes, “Reading King’s best-known works, like Where Do We Go from Here?, in a broader historical context outlined by his unpublished speeches and movement documents reveals not only a radical King, as much recent scholarship has sought to recuperate, but a militant theory of nonviolence that resists the domesticated portrayals of civil disobedience” (Livingston 2020, 702).17 Shelby and Terry see the reevaluation of the radical King as produced by consideration of a wider range of topics in his work, as scholars no longer “neglect King’s well-considered and wide-ranging treatments of many important philosophical and political issues, including labor and welfare rights, economic inequality, poverty, love, just war theory, virtue ethics, political theology, violence, imperialism, nationalism, reparations, and social justice—not to mention his more familiar writings on citizenship, racial equality, voting rights, civil disobedience, and nonviolence” (Shelby and Terry 2018, 2). According to this recent work, part of the problem has been the misrepresentation of King’s nonviolence, in which his acknowledged, extortive threat of violence is obscured for a more congenial, appropriative presentation of the Civil Rights leader (Hinton 2018, 50).

Another radical, dangerous aspect of King’s philosophy is its understanding and conscious manipulation of white racism as a set of “irrational fears” paradoxically provoked by American democracy itself and preventing the recognition of Black humanity at the level of cognition (Terry 2018b, 14–15). King used these fears to provoke scenes of white violence while limiting that violence under threat of violent Black revolt behind nonviolent civil disobedience. Because, as Scheuerman points out, King’s philosophy of nonviolence “appealed to traditional (mostly Christian) natural law ideas when explaining why some (unjust) laws could potentially be violated by prospective civil disobedients”: any violence it brought about would be justifiable before God (Scheuerman 2015, 429). This calls into question both the nature of Christian (non)violence and that of the civil disobedient.

Relying on traditional Christian natural law to legitimate its violence, King’s nonviolence implies an ontology in addition to a faith. As King writes in Stride Toward Freedom (originally published in 1958), “There is something about the protest that is suprarational; it cannot be explained without a divine dimension. Some may call it a principle of concretion, with Alfred N. Whitehead; or a process of integration, with Henry N. Wieman; or Being-itself, with Paul Tillich; or a personal God. Whatever the name, some extra-human force labors to create a harmony out of the discords of the universe” (King 2010b, 82). Referring to the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, King carefully avoids writing “supernatural,” choosing instead “suprarational,” which refers to the ability to comprehend the protest, and nonviolence generally, rather than to the protest’s inherent quality. As a quality of mind, then, the protest transcends human reason without surpassing humanity itself. In other words, King understands the protest philosophically first, and only then possibly theologically, indicating his epistemological approach by referencing the philosopher Whitehead, along with the philosopher-theologians Wieman and Tillich, with both of the latter forming the joint subject of King’s dissertation. While the dissertation’s subject division is nearly equal, King betrays a clear preference for Tillich’s philosophical theology, showing particular interest in Tillich’s Heideggerian concept of Being-itself. Indeed, King studied Heidegger’s philosophy closely, writing in a longer version of “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (originally published in 1960):

During the past decade I also gained a new appreciation for the philosophy of existentialism. My first contact with this philosophy came through my reading of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Later I turned to a study of Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre. All of these thinkers stimulated my thinking; while finding things to question in each, I nevertheless learned a great deal from study of them. When I finally turned to a serious study of the works of Paul Tillich I became convinced that existentialism, in spite of the fact that it had become all too fashionable, had grasped certain basic truths about man and his condition that could not be permanently overlooked. (King 2013, 73)

King did not overlook them; instead he incorporated them into his Black power philosophy.

Indeed, King’s Black power philosophy is grounded in these “basic truths,” and specifically in how Heidegger’s fundamental ontology articulates them. That said, King’s use of Heidegger identifies and rejects the German philosopher’s putative racism while maintaining Heidegger’s understanding of Being and critique of metaphysics. In this sense, King’s thought falls well within Cornel West’s general understanding of “philosophy and the Afro-American experience” (1977). Surprisingly, West begins this metaphilosophical essay with a lengthy explanation of Heidegger’s correlative importance for African American philosophy’s basic critical assumptions (or basic truths). As an anti-Cartesian, indeed anti-Platonic philosophy meant to question all the Western philosophical tradition’s assumptions about human being, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology provides the metaphilosophical basis for African American philosophy’s challenge to Western metaphysics. West writes:

Afro-American philosophy appropriates from Heidegger the notion of philosophy as interpretation of what it means to be for people who, as a result of active engagement in the world, reconstruct their past, make choices in the present and envision possibilities for the future. Yet Heidegger’s conception of philosophy is inadequate. His understanding of the “historicality” (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein, or the way in which historical circumstances influence individuals’ choices in the present, is unsatisfactory. His constitutive categories of “historicality,” namely, fate, destiny and heritage, fail to incorporate the current perceptions of the historical forces which constrain human activity. (West 1977, 9)

For West, Heidegger’s critique of ontology is essential to African American philosophy, which appropriates it as a condition of its existence. That said, Heidegger’s philosophy fails as a historical account of the material forces shaping social existence, for which West looks to Wittgenstein and Dewey. Yet as the critical negation of the Western tradition in metaphysics, Heidegger’s philosophy articulates the ontological or “human” condition of African American experience. A fundamental ontology that could speak meaningfully to the history of racism and other forms of dehumanization premised by Western metaphysics would satisfy well West’s metaphilosophical conditions for defining African American philosophy.

Bernard Boxill takes a different view of the relationship between African American philosophy and the white Euro-American tradition. Leaving aside Western metaphysics and metaphilosophical speculation, he suggests the “history of African American political thought can be divided into two great traditions—the assimilationist and the separatist. The assimilationist tradition maintains that a society in which racial differences have no moral, political, or economic significance—that is, a color-blind society—is both possible and desirable in America. The separatist tradition denies this, some separatists maintaining that a color-blind society in America is not possible, others maintaining that it is not desirable” (Boxill 1992, 119).18 Notably, Boxill holds this view regarding African American political thought and not African American philosophy. His understanding of African American philosophy can be described as a critical conversation with the Western philosophical tradition “about the nature of justice, liberty, equality, individuality, community, tolerance, solidarity, and other important political values, a conversation that stretches back for centuries,” in which “Martin Luther King, Jr. is as much an interlocutor about when civil disobedience is permissible as are Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls” (Shelby 2010, 344). In addition to his reading of King as a philosopher of civil disobedience decisively influencing the work of Dworkin and Rawls while revising Thoreau considering the African American experience, Boxill’s use of Locke to consider African American reparations provides another example of his integrative philosophical practice.19 Boxill is not engaging in ontological speculation; rather, his concern is analytical and legal, starting from the premise that traditional arguments in Western philosophy can illuminate African American activism, while African American philosophy can clarify, rather than destroy, positions within the tradition.20

In what would be agreement with Boxill, West labels Heidegger’s philosophy inadequate to the specificity of African America’s historical experience. Yet West’s tacit appropriation of Heidegger for a form of African American meontology is problematic both for Boxill’s conception of African American philosophy and for reading Heidegger in philosophical and historical context, for West conflates African American experience with fundamental ontology, to ambiguous result. Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics is not experientially descriptive, as West himself points out; it addresses the ontological conditions facilitating the thinking of Being. In other words, Heidegger’s concern is only partially anti-Cartesian critique, and therefore not solely negative. His is not meontology; it is ontology. In this respect, any appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy is an ontological investment in Dasein’s existential analytic. To avoid the potentially crushing weight of its burden, West has stopped short of racial ontology. Yet as Naomi Zack points out, “If we give race a fraction of the kind of systematic thought reserved for traditional philosophical topics and begin to sort out some of the current disagreements in the literature with the standing tools of the trade, it is obvious that race is not a burdensome subject. It is not difficult to get the empirical and semantic facts about race right. Even if the full and final theory is elusive, plausible abstract clarity can be brought to the issues. If individuals who are not philosophers find the ontology of race conceptually confusing and emotionally distressing, this does not mean that philosophers, who for the most part do earn a professional reputation of detachment, need be confused and upset” (Zack 1999, 249–250). Implicit or overt, racial ontology forms a part of any definition of African American philosophy. Is there, however, an African American ontology?

The fact that Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 1992 question, “African-American Philosophy?,” for example, remains silent on the matter speaks to these issues of metaphilosophy and ontology. To answer “African-American philosophy?” it might be best to interrogate the query’s construction. For Appiah’s essay title does not ask, “What is African American philosophy?” Yet an essay entitled “African-American Philosophy?” must offer an example of African American philosophy, assuming the essay meets the conditions articulated. Appiah’s essay does not do this. Pointing out that Africana philosophy and African American philosophy are not the same thing, the essay argues instead for subsuming both under the heading “ethnophilosophy”: “the attempt to explore and systematize the conceptual world of Africa’s traditional cultures” (Appiah 1992, 17). This approach assumes African American philosophy exists and has been clearly defined, only to deconstruct this definition and place its existence under erasure in ethnophilosophy’s wider text.21 Appiah’s suggestion would appear to be very similar to what Lucius Outlaw described in 1987 as the “deconstructive appropriation of philosophy as a privileged notion and its decentering extension to products of the intellectual labors of Africans in the New World” (Outlaw 1987, 78). For Appiah and Outlaw, debates on philosophy are “inherently ideological and political” rather than essential (Outlaw and Roth 1997, 35). Yet Outlaw differs from Appiah insofar as ideological-political context signals a difference within Africana philosophy between the various diaspora discourses, indicating the existence of a related yet unique African American philosophy.

George Yancy develops Outlaw’s approach when he writes, “African-American philosophy emerges from a socio-existential context where persons of African descent have been faced with the absurd in the form of white racism” (Yancy 2011, 551). Yancy theorizes “the meaning of African-American philosophy within the context of Black sub-personhood” as construed within the American ideological-political context (Yancy 2015, 1145).22 In addition to Blackness as a diasporic condition of contingent African American Blackness, African American philosophy investigates the ideological-political complex that is American whiteness. This “racial contract,” as Charles Mills would describe it, also means, as Lewis Gordon suggests, that “whiteness premises itself on ignoring blackness, and blackness premises itself as a relation to whiteness (and other symbolic purveyors of thought), leads to a subverted realization: Whiteness is only universal to the extent to which it ignores reality. It is thus a particular asserting itself as universal. That blackness admits its relationality means that it is, albeit not the universal, more of a universalizing commitment. This observation is found throughout African Diasporic thought” (Gordon 2014, 96). From this, Gordon concludes that “blackness, broader in scope, unmasks the false security of whiteness” (Gordon 2013b, 730). As Howard McGary insists, it reveals the moral paradox of racial universalism, for “people cannot be said to have made a moral judgment if they intend their judgments to apply only to members of their family, religious sect, or race” (McGary 2009, 4). Rather than a moral imperative, race is defined contractually among the dominant group. This “domination contract,” as Mills puts it, “makes exclusion conceptually central, which corresponds to the actual historical record. Instead of taking ‘person’ as gender- and race-neutral, it makes explicit that maleness and whiteness were prerequisites for full personhood” (Mills 2000, 453).

In this respect, Mills’s racial contract relies on philosophical anthropology for its basic definition of human being. Along with Mills, Gordon also draws out the philosophical implications of defining blackness in this anthropological sense. He writes, “Philosophical anthropology examines what it means to be human. Unlike empirical anthropology, which presupposes the legitimacy of the human sciences, including their methodologies, philosophical anthropology challenges the methods themselves and the presuppositions of the human offered by each society, and by doing so, offers the transition from method to methodology and methodological critique. That area of research makes sense for Africana and black philosophy from the fact of the challenged humanity of Africana and black people in the modern world” (Gordon 2013a, 48). By framing the question “African American philosophy?” in this way, it becomes clear why Gordon seeks to honor that “the political commitments of Africana studies and Black studies sometimes elided the importance of their location in academic institutions. Those proponents’ search for a practice or praxis, although well intentioned, at times undermined the value of thought” (Gordon 2020, 42–43). He understands these commitments as fundamentally different from other disciplinary tendencies, which suffer from “the problem of ‘compartmentalism’ and ‘disciplinary decadence,’ two tendencies that continue to be features of not only much race theory but also most disciplinary practices in the academy. The former offered disciplines under a separate but equal rule, which, if history has taught us anything about such formulations, is never actually so. The latter sought methodological conquest. These constrained what one could talk about when it came to human matters and how one is supposed to do it” (Gordon 2018, 30). In philosophy, this is the result of a colonial attitude that accepts “the historical rise of a particular cultural group as the self-avowed sole progenitor of philosophical practice” (Gordon 2019, 17). The danger of this self-understanding is the reinscription of racial essentialism, and therefore racism, through contractual exclusion within Africana philosophy itself. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, “We cannot, finally, succumb to the temptation to resurrect our own version of the Thought Police, who would determine who, and what, is ‘black.’ ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Blackest One of All?’ is a question best left behind in the sixties. If we allow ourselves to succumb to the urge to build an academic discipline around this perverse question, we will, like the fairy-tale witch, die from our own poison. For if the coming century in this country is black and brown, it is a blackness without blood that we must pass on” (Gates 1992, 9).

To avoid this mistake, that of essentialism, Gordon defines Blackness within the parameters of an existentialist humanism. He writes, “Critics of existentialism often reject its human formulation. Heidegger, for instance, in his ‘Letter on Humanism,’ lambasted Sartre for supposedly in effect subordinating Being to a philosophical anthropology with dangers of anthropocentrism. Yet a philosophical understanding of culture raises the problem of the conditions through which philosophical reflections could emerge as meaningful” (Gordon 2017, 105). Gordon sees an opposition between existentialist African American philosophy and essentialist phenomenology, which for him is anti-humanist and therefore unconcerned with the complex experience of racial oppression. The division he articulates refers to his discussion of Black studies’ development and the critical disciplinary division between literary critical and philosophical method, where the former is essentialist and the latter existentialist.23 Africana and African American philosophy are epistemic enterprises that concentrate on existential ideological and political phenomena and their historical contingency. African American theory engages in ontological speculation, sometimes without attention to the philosophical history embedded in its method.

Bearing the essentialist/existentialist disciplinary division in mind, Anita Allen writes:

African-American philosophy has played at least six broad roles: (1) to critique law and government authority; (2) to critically analyze power, and institutions and practices of oppression, subordination, slavery, class, caste, colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia; (3) to articulate the bases of African-American identities and the grounds of responsibility, community, solidarity, and collective action; (4) to express African-American existential, spiritual, psychological, and moral joys and discontents; (5) to celebrate and interpret African-American art and culture; (6) to assess the discipline, canon, and history of Western philosophies, by reference to gaps, logical and moral inconsistencies, methodological limitations, epistemologies, and exclusions. (Allen 2013, 19)

Critique, analysis, articulation, expression, interpretation, and celebration: these are the activities that define African American existentialist philosophy. Nowhere in this list, however, does Allen suggest the aesthetic activity of “rendering,” in the sense of “service” and “cause to be.” African American philosophy does not render African America or African Americans. While it may perform a duty, there is no aspect of creative “making” in this service; it never “causes to be” through an act of creation. In philosophy, ontology provides this service. It is the task of ontology to articulate being through critique, analysis, expressivity, interpretation, and even celebration. Most of all, however, ontology describes being creatively, insofar as being cannot merely be said to be, or described, but must also be enacted. African American philosophy also enacts being. The salient question, then, is, does it enact essential African American Being, and being that is contingently African American? This ontological question of African American being has been left to African American Theory, and not to African American philosophy.

Yet ontology is at the heart of African American philosophy. Without it, there is no way to know the answer to “African American philosophy?” without making a series of unphilosophical decisions. These decisions would assign essential meaning to “African American” instead of interrogate it; they would determine the definition of race in any configuration (essentialist, constructivist, situationist, etc.) instead of questioning its conditions of possibility; they would assume a common professional experience instead of suspecting a layered field of engagement; they would assume a common personal formation and motivation for the study of philosophy instead of positing diversity of background. From this wide perspective, African American philosophy can be defined as philosophical critique that doubts Western philosophy’s fundamental assumptions about what it means to be human. This is ontology not as racial essentialism but rather as critique. This was King’s philosophical project.

Whereas in the 1980s Outlaw began the deconstructive project of articulating African American philosophy as a counterdiscursive force or differend within Western thought, Gordon and Appiah changed course in the early 1990s and attempted to define African American philosophy as a part of Africana philosophy, or even more broadly as an example of ethnophilosophy. One effect of this shift was to make African American philosophy’s ontological concerns those of the diaspora. Realizing the inadequacy of this definition, Allen and Yancy present a philosophy specific to African American concerns while avoiding any articulation of Black ontology that would subsume these issues completely under the heading of Africana philosophy or ethnophilosophy. Their philosophy owes much to Gordon’s existentialism in outline while being more attuned to the characteristics that define the singularity of African American life.

That said, neither Yancy nor Allen suggests anything like an African American ontology, which would rely on the validation of race as African America’s ens realissimus. Also avoiding articulating racial ontology, Charles Mills’s racial contract acts as a powerful conceptual tool for understanding African American singularity politically and socially without recourse to metaphysics, or “Blackness” as “being,” in any sense. Doing so, however, assumes a uniform African American experience, without which the racial contract becomes the transcendental analytic by which all African Americans are subject to the same form of racist elaboration. From this perspective, Yancy’s, Allen’s, and Mills’s sociopolitical philosophies would be parts of a critique of “pure” racist reason that recognizes uniformity of African American “being” in relation to the racial contract itself, whereby all African Americans were recognized and discriminated against in the same way.24

III. King and Ontology

Before showing how King alters Heidegger’s thought to contextualize this uniformity ontologically, it may be useful to lay out broadly those aspects of Heideggerian philosophy King adopts, beyond West’s more schematic approach. Heidegger’s fundamental ontology articulates the “conditions constitutive of the interpretability of entities as the entities they are” (Carman 2003, 85). Dasein, or being-there, is “the kind of entity that in each case we human beings are” (Wrathall and Murphy 2013, 1). As entities, or beings, we are situated in the world at a certain time, which we discover though our intentionality, or care, which Heidegger understands as Dasein’s fundamental structure (Denker 2013, 71). “Being-in-the-world” names Dasein’s intentionality, with “the world” as the structure of intentionality’s content, and “being-in” the way Dasein means that content (Richardson 2012, 87). Furthermore, because “Dasein is a temporal unfolding, because it is finite and must die, it constitutes a unified ‘structure.’ Heidegger calls this ‘structural whole’ ‘being-toward-death’” (Trawny 2018, 37).

Dasein is attentive to these structures as they are reflected in language. “For Heidegger, the key feature for understanding language is to focus on our responsiveness to it, the way that it shapes and guides our understanding of ourselves and the world around us ‘before we are speaking’” (Wrathall 2005, 89).25 As “the house of being,” as Heidegger puts it in the “Letter on Humanism” and elsewhere, language “is a medium in which Being takes hold of us, appropriates us, and allows us and all beings to come into our own” (Polt 1999, 177). We come into our own in the world, which itself is conditioned by “earth,” a later and notoriously esoteric Heideggerian concept. As Trawny puts it, “‘World’ is the ‘openness’ in which the earth’s coming forth can unfold itself. ‘Earth’ is the ‘sheltering’ on the basis of which ‘world’ can be founded” (Trawny 2018, 96). “From this perspective,” Trawny continues, “the ‘reciprocity’ between ‘earth’ and ‘world’ is a ‘struggle.’ Heidegger considers this ‘struggle’ to be characteristic of the ‘truth of being’” (Trawny 2018, 96–97). Finally, “‘Earth’ here does not, of course, refer to the globe but rather to the specific ‘place’ of an ‘origin,’ i.e., the ‘homeland’” (Trawny 2018, 97). Dasein’s experience of “earth” as the ground in which it is rooted as in the world is shared communally as the “homeland” of a people or Volk. The “openness” of world allows the earth to come forth to a people so that they may recognize themselves as such in “the house of being.”26

How does this relate to King’s philosophy? King, too, seeks to render the conditions under which beings encounter each other in their truth, believing that racial segregation has obscured and obstructed the fundamental truth of human being, the ontological drive toward unity. In attempting to describe the current social situation, King seeks the terms under which it may be interpretable. The autobiographical accounts of his intellectual journey provide the narrative basis for the attempted elaboration of a legitimate epistemological standard with which to encounter Being existentially as Other. To this end, King fully accepts that the existential priority of human being is Dasein or being situated in and constituted spatially and temporally by a fundamental relation to finitude. King’s promised land is not to be attained in the afterlife; it is reached in human existence by striving toward the freedom defined by the philosophical critique of segregation, through which God’s presence in history is revealed ontologically. For King as for Heidegger, Dasein is structured by care, which in King’s philosophy means care for the self and other, conditioned by God’s love. Care is the intentional expression of God’s unconditional love as realized in the confrontation with human finitude or being-toward-death. Said differently, the fear of death and anxiety of living bring Dasein to seek God’s love for comfort and meaning in existence. God’s love can only be experienced existentially in the authentic relation to others provided by certain knowledge of the self as ontologically conditioned by it. In so doing, the subject thrown into the world and confronted with finitude finds the plenitude of meaning in existence through the experience of God’s love in the beloved community of others who have also encountered and acknowledged this truth.

Because the truth of Being can only be intuited and experienced obliquely in the unity of community, “essential” designations of human difference serve to pervert being. For King, race (like any other segregated category of human being) is sinful, because it is a tool by which the experience of God’s love, ontologically premised on community, is prevented. This beloved community is one of care for the self and other, as premised by Being and mediated by language as an inherently nonviolent mode of communion between self and other, and between the community and God. While language can be made violent, King’s notion of language as the vehicle of ontological truth is one of love’s expression. All languages at base are meant to express care conditioned by God’s love. This is because all peoples share the same origin of earth as God’s creation. Race is a displacement of Being’s truth as the unity of human being discovered in the anxiety of existential experience and realized in care as the beloved community.

King accepts there is a fundamental ontological relation that precedes and conditions existence. This ontology accepts Dasein as Heidegger defines it, and Dasein’s situatedness in time and space. These existential qualifications ultimately disclose the dimensions of Being, or for King, Being-in-love, as it is disclosed in worldly existence. In this respect, King’s existentialism is Heideggerian Existenzphilosophie, in that Heidegger’s existential analytic, or systematic exhibition of “the conditions necessary for the discovery of meaning,” is translated as pious acts of love performed in response to Dasein’s realization that God’s love precedes and determines existence (Martin 2013, 112). King does not suggest that the existential analytic synthesizing acts of neighborly love in God’s name reveals the path to salvation after death; rather, he thinks, it shows the way to the direct and immediate amelioration of life in existence qualified by death.

For King, attaining the promised land is possible on earth; his is not an ontology of the afterlife, but is oriented toward daily existence lived within the light of Being. This worldly attainment creates the beloved community, within what he calls the World House. The beloved community consists of those who live life oriented toward Being and therefore against Nonbeing, which for King is death understood as human separation. Importantly, King here removes Heidegger’s linguistic qualification, to eliminate essentialism from his philosophy. God’s love strives to bring all humanity together equally in Being, grasped in existential acts of love reflecting this ultimate, universalist reality. Humanity’s segregation propagates Nonbeing, the dialectical negation of God’s love, hence King’s need to excise linguistic hierarchy from the House of Being. For King, then, salvation and damnation occur on earth, the former as the beloved community and the latter as Nonbeing, or segregation. Earth, or “the promised land,” discloses the type of community Dasein recognizes as historically, existentially valid, and therefore Dasein’s fate in the eyes of God. The clearing allows Dasein to encounter its choice, its judgement. This powerful existential choice—for love or for Nonbeing—is revealed in potentially violent confrontation, with nonviolence striving toward the Being of the beloved community and violence embracing alienation from God’s love as Nonbeing and death.

Along with presenting his ontology, The Critique of Nonviolence demonstrates its relation to King’s political-theological reflections on police violence and the state of exception. It shares several concerns with a key early text in these debates in Germany, Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). A comparative reading of King and Benjamin, along with later philosophers such as Jacob Taubes and Giorgio Agamben, reveals the depth of King’s ontological attack on police violence as the illegitimate appropriation of the state of exception. For King, police violence against African Americans is the basis of sovereign American being. In part through its ontological appropriation of German philosophy and theology, King’s philosophy condemns the perpetual American state of racial exception that permits unlimited police violence against Black lives.

Reading King with Benjamin, then, shows how King’s ontology of what I call divine nonviolence condemns police violence as the consummate exercise of illegitimate power. Benjamin and King’s critique of police violence can mean an overcoming of racism in divine violence. While the ontological basis for King’s nonviolence belongs to Heidegger, the formal, political elements of the argument are like Benjamin’s. They come from direct consideration, mainly through Rudolf Bultmann’s work and other sources in contemporary Continental theology, of the same debates in Germany that shaped Benjamin’s essay, such as political theology, Gnosis, eschatology and cultural crisis, and renewed philosophical speculation on Saint Paul’s political ontology. In this vein, Heidegger presents an anti-humanist ontology that King corrects with systematic theology and a theory of divine violence as radical nonviolence. Through this theological commitment in his ontology of nonviolence, King accepts Heidegger’s philosophical commitments while rejecting what I refer to as their “racist realism.”

IV. The Aim of This Book

Ultimately, this book speaks to how King thought of nonviolence ontologically, and how racism in philosophical concepts led him to develop a different ontological understanding of racist police violence. That said, The Critique of Nonviolence: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Philosophy does not intend a biographical account of King’s journey in philosophy (he provided that himself); rather, it considers King’s philosophy in relation to other philosophers who drew on the same intellectual source for thinking about racial ontology, and racism in fundamental ontology.27 I realize that much of what follows will seem new and counterintuitive to those well versed in the philosophers discussed and equally disorienting to those with a more general impression of the book’s figures. I also understand that the way in which academic philosophy is presented here may seem unrepresentative or even unfair to those involved in it. However, the purpose of this book is not to reinvent the wheel regarding King, Benjamin, or Heidegger studies, or to misrepresent academic philosophy. This book brings under one roof, so to speak, philosophers and ideas that are seldom configured together in this way. While plenty of work has been done on Heidegger and anti-Semitism and race, when Heidegger’s philosophy is brought into dialogue with King’s, or any philosopher’s outside “established channels,” both philosophers’ work changes in ways we cannot predict. We cannot expect to have the same Heidegger we have when we read his work with King’s that we have when we read his work with, say, Arendt’s. Yet when we read Heidegger within the framework of King’s philosophy, and vice versa, the product will be different from that which is produced when we read Heidegger with Arendt or Marcuse, or King with Malcolm X or Rawls. This does not mean a reading that puts a very different and potentially strange face on familiar debates is wrong or destructive; it indicates instead the expansiveness of the topic in its ability to support a diversity of approaches and views. The inclusion of diverse, rigorous, new work on established philosophers and themes only serves to underscore the importance of previous scholarship and strengthen their already significant appeal.

Although the aim of this book is new, its novelty should not be understood as an attempt to contribute to reception history, or to the body of work devoted to King and political philosophy. This book’s argument, then, has to do with King’s ontology and not directly with his political philosophy. While welcome and exciting, the recent work on King’s political philosophy does not consider this aspect of his thought. This book concentrates on ontology in King’s thought to establish the structure and exigency of King’s Black power as Being-in-love, and divine nonviolence as ontology.

Referencing works by Huey P. Newton, Cornel West, Lucius Outlaw, Bernard Boxill, George Yancy, and others, the book begins by presenting a theory of ontology in African American philosophy and the central place of King’s thought within it. It then suggests that King’s ontology was strongly influenced by Martin Heidegger’s. After unpacking the aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy most important to King’s thought, the book then describes how King dealt with racism in fundamental ontology. Specifically, it grounds King’s thought in 1920s German academic debates between Heidegger, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, Carl Schmitt, Eric Voegelin, and others on divine Being, Gnosticism, humanism, violence, and sovereignty.

The philosophical and theological history of this period in Germany provides King with responses to Heidegger’s essentialism without having to reject his philosophy in toto. Indeed, King’s focus on Paul Tillich’s theological Existenzphilosophie is instrumental in facilitating his appropriation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. To show this, the book concentrates on King’s dissertation about Tillich, and on other key texts from his speculative writings and speeches, describing his ontotheological concepts of love and sin. The book then posits King’s understanding of divine love (Being) and carnal sin (Nonbeing) as Heideggerian fundamental ontology articulated socially in racial integration and segregation.

To be clear, this book is an examination of race and racism in fundamental ontology that discusses King and Heidegger, and King and Benjamin. It is a reflection on the philosophical concept of race that, to this end, reads King’s Heideggerian thought strictly within this concept. To show this, the book follows a straightforward methodology of inference and speculation. That is to say, the book’s method does not rely on direct proof of reception because it takes as axiomatic that intellectuals in America had heard of King and possessed familiarity with his arguments.28 The book uses inferential and speculative readings of related concepts between King’s thought and Benjamin’s. Although the book does not rely on readings of reception and direct influence, it does make use of historical connections between the philosophers treated. It reads King reading Heidegger through Tillich, and notes King’s own acknowledged familiarity with Heidegger’s philosophy, and with German Idealism generally. “King and philosophy,” then, means “King and fundamental ontology,” which for Heidegger was philosophy. Likewise, it signifies a specific, metaphilosophical attempt to think through ontology to reject racism as inherently violent. In other words, the title and subtitle should be read in the full sense of reciprocity inherent in the dialectic they present.

Chapter One examines King’s interest and training in modern philosophy, paying particular attention to his interest in existentialism and Heidegger’s ontology. Specifically, the chapter is interested in how their thought converges around anti-humanism, discussing King’s own avowed anti-humanism as the point at which he connects Heidegger’s philosophy with anti-racist social ontology. The chapter then briefly sketches out the how racism in Heidegger has been viewed, and how King dealt with it philosophically. Next, the chapter looks at King’s social gospel and materialist philosophies in his thought. The chapter ends with King’s description of nonviolence as a unique form of anti-racist fundamental ontology informed by social realism and historical materialism.

Chapter Two takes a closer look at King’s appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy through his engagement with Paul Tillich’s systematic theology. The chapter then engages in an extended reading of King’s dissertation on Tillich as the general conceptual framework for nonviolence as a “basic truth” of human being. It situates King’s doctoral work within the German philosophical tradition by linking it through Tillich’s systematic theology to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chapter closes by showing how King’s training in German thought informs his anti-essentialist view of civil rights.

Chapter Three considers King’s form of Black power. It discusses how King rejects, philosophically, Malcolm X’s and Stokely Carmichael’s views, and those of the Black Panther Party, as racial essentialism. The chapter then examines Huey P. Newton’s racial Platonism, which Newton adapts from his extensive readings of the Republic as a form of revolutionary love, or eros. To differentiate his own Platonic understanding of agape from a form of racial essentialism, King rejects any racially motivated preference for eros as the drive to separate and conquer. Rejecting eros as libido dominandi, King, following Tillich, insists agape transforms eros into “essential libido,” the ground of beloved community.29 The chapter closes with an in-depth discussion of King’s dialectical reliance on Platonic eros to define agape in ontological relation to nonviolence.

Following on King’s ultimately ontotheological presentation of nonviolence, Chapter Four considers political theology in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963). It suggests King exploits the Gnosticism and eschatology latent in fundamental ontology to theorize justice as divine nonviolence. The chapter shows that King’s “Letter” can be read productively through interwar debates in German philosophy and theology about Gnosticism and eschatology. In so doing, the chapter shows that King’s Gnosticism presents a theory of democratic political theology as the justification for civil disobedience.

Against this philosophical backdrop, Chapter Five connects King’s thought on violence and sovereignty with Walter Benjamin’s in his “Critique of Violence” (1921). Specifically, Benjamin’s concept of divine violence offers a way to think of American anti-Black police violence as illegitimate within the political theological paradigm King proposes. Through its comparative reading of King and Benjamin, the chapter concludes, with King, that police violence in America is the illegitimate use of law-making sovereignty.

The conclusion traces how the critical theoretical reception of King’s nonviolence misunderstood or ignored his use of eros, from Herbert Marcuse’s initial reaction to Martha Nussbaum’s more recent misreading. The book closes with bell hooks’s recuperation of eros in King’s philosophy as a return to the revolutionary praxis of Black love.

In summary, King rejects Black separatism, which he sees as Platonic in nature, and enlists Heidegger to distinguish agape as anti-essentialist. This leads to his appropriation of Tillich’s thought as an anti-humanistic, anti-racist elaboration of fundamental ontology. Adapting Tillich, King overcomes “erotic” separatism with agape as the anti-essentialist expression of Being-in-love, King’s combination of Heidegger and Tillich. This concept yields an understanding of nonviolence as political theology informed by the Gnostic eschatology that shaped fundamental ontology in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. For King, divine nonviolence is the social and political articulation of Being-in-love as the veiled ground of history’s teleological development toward beloved community. Like Benjamin, King sees the state as inherently violent; divine nonviolence posits beloved community as the state’s successor and the inaugurator of history redeemed. That is, divine nonviolence is the Gnostic indication of history’s end of state sovereignty, especially that which nonviolence is exercised and preserved in police violence. When this end occurs, beloved community begins as the new, authentic form of existential being.


1. Most notably as Kwame Ture, with Charles V. Hamilton, in Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America (1967).

2. Part of what recent work on King decries is the popularization and neutralization of his radicalism. See Shelby and Terry 2018, and Rose 2019, discussed later.

3. My recent work, Phenomenal Blackness (2022), looks more closely at Black Power philosophies and the question of racial essentialism. Black Fascisms (2007) also examined the place of race in Black radicalism, when all other forms of political resistance failed, and a unique form of Black separatist authoritarianism presented a desperate alternative.

4. See Crawford and Lewis 2019; Rose 2019; Jahanbegloo 2018; Shelby and Terry 2018; Terry 2018a and 2018b; Birt 2012, and Ansbro 1982. See also Krishnamurthy 2015. For a much less recent understanding of King’s political philosophy, see Walton 1971.

5. King’s avowed, revolutionary anti-humanism will be discussed in detail later. It is important to note that, for King, revolutionary anti-humanism does not mean revolutionary inhumanism, in the sense it might in Fanon. On Fanon and revolutionary inhumanism, see Nesbitt 2013.

6. On class and race in the Civil Rights Movement, see Bloom 1987.

7. This longer history, however, ended with the start of a new history ushered in by the “Third World.” In Black Power, Ture and Hamilton write: “Black Power means that black people see themselves as part of a new force, sometimes called the ‘Third World’; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggles around the world. We must hook up with these struggles” (Ture and Hamilton 1967, 107). If successful, doing so would start “a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious these which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his functions and the crumbling of his unity” (Ture and Hamilton 1967, 138).

8. Morgan provides a different take on Black Panther imagery, mostly ignoring its appropriation for the purpose of undermining the BPP’s reputation and legacy. See Morgan 2019. On the BPP newspaper and revolutionary aesthetics, see Gaiter 2020. On BPP military aesthetics, see Ongiri 2020.

9. In other words, it obscures the “engines of the Black Power movement.” For more on the powerful forces combining to form a complex, multifaceted concept of Black Power, see Conyers 2007.

10. Peniel Joseph has described “Black Power Studies” several times as the means to correct this impression and expand our understanding of this crucial history. See Joseph 2009b, 2008, 2006, and 2001, among others.

11. Farmer 2019, Spencer 2016, Joseph 2009b and 2006, Austin 2006, and Lazerow and Williams 2006 are notable recent studies embracing this diversity of thesis and approach.

12. This negative impression is in part due to a repressive political, legal, and pop cultural campaign to discredit the organization, run by U.S. law enforcement and beginning as early as 1966. See C. Jones 1988.

13. In 1956, Ebony magazine’s Lerone Bennett can already write about the “King Plan for Freedom,” situating King in the Black radical tradition from the Civil Rights leader’s earliest interventions in the public sphere. See Bennett 1956. Kreiss sees the appropriation of “the master’s tools” that led to the development of the BPP beginning in 1952 as part of a wider field of Black radical thought that would include most avant-garde and vanguard Black cultural production throughout the 1950s. See Kreiss 2008.

14. For the BPPs defensive theorization of the ghetto, see Tyner 2006.

15. King’s dream was not the American dream. The “Dream” speech speaks of the American dream unfulfilled and describes a new vision of humanity beyond national specificity. See Colaiaco 1984 and Sundquist 2009.

16. This view of King, for example, would see the 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a manifesto, instead of a constitutively rhetorical essay or sermon. See Westbrook 2013.

17. On King’s militant nonviolence, see Colaiaco 1988.

18. Although Boxill does not do this, the images of Malcolm X and King elsewhere reflexively represent the separatist and assimilationist positions, respectively, he describes. For a more reflective discussion, see Corlett 1995.

19. See Boxill 2003.

20. See also Boxill 1984.

21. See also Appiah 1985.

22. See also Yancy 2012a, 2012b.

23. For an account of “Afro-American Studies and the rise of African-American philosophy,” see Henry 2006.

24. Sociological critique has been the dominant mode of inquiry in academic African American philosophy. See R. Jones 2004 on “imagining Black communities” in African American sociopolitical philosophy. For some contrast, see Lott 2020, and of course Lott and Pittman 2003.

25. Language occupies a central place in Heidegger’s later philosophy, where it “houses” human being’s “dwelling” (Malpas 2012, 20).

26. On Heidegger and “earth,” see also Taminiaux 1989.

. There is no shortage of King biographies and analyses, and to expect each one to appear here is unrealistic. King studies is its own field and rich enough to accommodate a highly targeted presentation of research. While this book uses some biographical detail, it is concerned with presenting King’s intervention in ontology from a philosophically imminent perspective. Biographies and other texts consulted for this that nevertheless do not receive direct treatment here are Joseph 2020; Parr 2018; Ling 2015; Wills 2011; Baldwin 2010; Frady 2006; Kirk 2005; Garrow 2001 and 1986; Moses 1998; Smith and Zepp 1974.

28. King’s philosophical use of “freedom,” for instance, was so ubiquitous as to have been unavoidable. For a detailed, data-driven, quantitative analysis of King’s inescapable repetition of the word “freedom” in public discourse from 1955 to his death, see Miller and Turci 2006.

29. King’s understanding of agape and eros’s dialectic is derived directly from Tillich’s discussion of the matter in Morality and Beyond (originally published in 1963). Tillich writes,

Essential libido (toward food or sex, for example) is concretely directed to a particular object and is satisfied in the union with it, while existentially distorted libido is directed to the pleasure which may be derived from the relation to any encountered object. This drives existential libido boundlessly from object to object, while the essential libido is fulfilled if union with a particular object is achieved. This distinguishes the lover from the “Don Juan,” and agape-directed libido from undirected libido. The moral imperative cannot be obeyed by a repression of libido, but only by the power of agape to control libido and to take it into itself as an element.

Eros is a divine-human power. (Tillich 1995, 60–61)

For an analysis of Tillich’s concept of “essential libido,” see Irwin 1990.