To Shape a New World: A New Book on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. was recently published by Harvard University Press. 

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The authors of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. are Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry. Shelby is the Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University. He earned a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh and a BA in Philosophy from Florida A&M University. His new book, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, recently won the 2016 Book Award from the North American Society for Social Philosophy. He is also the author of We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Harvard University Press, 2005). Along with Derrick Darby, he is the co-editor of Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason (Open Court, 2005), and he and Brandon Terry coedited To Shape a New World (Harvard University Press, 2018). Shelby’s writings focus on questions of racial and economic injustice and on the history of Black political thought, and his numerous articles have appeared in journals such as Philosophy & Public AffairsEthicsPolitical Theory, Critical Inquiry, Du Bois Review, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Daedalus. Follow him on Twitter @tommie_shelby.

Terry is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University and a Faculty Affiliate of American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and the Center for History and Economics. He earned a PhD with distinction in Political Science and African American Studies from Yale University, an MSc in Political Theory Research as a Michael von Clemm Fellow at Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, and an AB, magna cum laude, in Government and African and African American Studies from Harvard College. A scholar of African American political thought, political philosophy, and race, politics, and culture, Brandon is the editor, with Tommie Shelby, of To Shape a New World (Harvard University Press, 2018) and of Fifty Years Since MLK (Boston Review/MIT Press, 2018). He has published or forthcoming work in Boston ReviewDissentThe PointNew Labor ForumDu Bois ReviewHuffington Post, and Perspectives on Politics. He has received fellowships and awards from the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, the Center for History and Economics, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon-Mays Foundation, the American Political Science Association, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, and Best American Essays. He is currently completing a book entitled The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement: Political Theory and the Historical Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @brandonmterry.


Martin Luther King, Jr., may be America’s most revered political figure, commemorated in statues, celebrations, and street names around the world. On the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, the man and his activism are as close to public consciousness as ever. But despite his stature, the significance of King’s writings and political thought remains underappreciated.

In To Shape a New World, Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry write that the marginalization of King’s ideas reflects a romantic, consensus history that renders the civil rights movement inherently conservative—an effort not at radical reform but at “living up to” enduring ideals laid down by the nation’s founders. On this view, King marshaled lofty rhetoric to help redeem the ideas of universal (white) heroes, but produced little original thought. This failure to engage deeply and honestly with King’s writings allows him to be conscripted into political projects he would not endorse, including the pernicious form of “color blindness” that insists, amid glaring race-based injustice, that racism has been overcome.

Cornel West, Danielle Allen, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Gooding-Williams, and other authors join Shelby and Terry in careful, critical engagement with King’s understudied writings on labor and welfare rights, voting rights, racism, civil disobedience, nonviolence, economic inequality, poverty, love, just-war theory, virtue ethics, political theology, imperialism, nationalism, reparations, and social justice. In King’s exciting and learned work, the authors find an array of compelling challenges to some of the most pressing political dilemmas of our present, and rethink the legacy of this towering figure.

King’s theology, philosophy, and nonviolent prophetic engagement are needed now more than any time since his death. In his last speech, Dr. King said that when it comes to the struggle for love and justice, ‘nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.’ We must embrace his challenge in this moment and commit to go forward together, not one step back.—Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Keisha N. Blain: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?  

Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry: When we invited a group of leading philosophers, political theorists, and historians of political thought to write sustained interrogations of Martin Luther King’s work, we began from the judgment honed from years of reading and teaching King that, aside from being a world-historical political actor, he was also a formidable public philosopher. His books, sermons, and speeches represent an important and incisive archive of critical reflection on a stunningly wide range of issues of enduring political and philosophical significance: citizenship and protest ethics, violence, economic justice, racial identity and race pride, just war, political theology, integration, democratic theory, political emotions, and more. In these foreboding times for the ideals of racial and economic justice, peace, and democracy, any opportunity to read King would be beneficial.

Aside from this, however, what we hope to perform and model with To Shape a New World are, roughly, three aspirations which guide our work on the study of African American political thought broadly. Firstly, we want to recover and revisit those most persuasive and insightful arguments from King’s work (or the tradition of Black thought more broadly) to help illuminate and inform our own judgments about contemporary problems in political and social ethics. For example, the philosopher Lionel K. McPherson, in his trenchant contribution, reconstructs King’s arguments during the Vietnam War to develop an approach to foreign policy and just war that “is both morally and practically superior to the pragmatic militarism [Barack] Obama represented.” Martha C. Nussbaum, likewise, distills King’s writings on love, anger, hatred, and retribution to criticize the contemporary celebration of anger in politics and defend King’s call to “channel” that emotion into forms of judgment and affect she argues are more epistemically and morally justified.

Secondly, we hope to elevate the treatment of Black thinkers’ arguments as arguments. This means not immediately reducing them to rationalizations for class or group interests, mere tactical judgments, or as phenomena relevant largely because of their social function or psychological import. Not only does this treatment of the history of ideas help us rethink our inheritance of certain framings or debates, but it evinces more respect for our interlocutors, even when that respect finds its form in critique. Further, it takes seriously that reflection on such matters speaks to weighty, unavoidably ethical and evaluative questions about how to live, what matters, and what kind of society or forms of action deserve our affirmation.

Lastly, we hope to continue our longstanding concern to expand the canon of mainstream philosophy and political theory, while also demonstrating the relevance and insights of philosophical inquiry for scholars of African American Studies. On both fronts, we hope this work shows how precision in the use of concepts, the careful reconstruction of arguments and debates, and systematic ethical reflection can shed profound light on the intellectual contributions of Black thinkers while expanding and enriching our sense of what is at stake and what is worth fighting for in our own present-day struggles.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is the Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. She is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.