Abstract: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ is commonly celebrated as an authoritative statement of the theory civil disobedience. A generation of scholars in the 1960s and 70s drew on King’s essay to codify a normative theory of disobedience as an act of fidelity to constitutional law. However, this liberal discourse of disobedience came to prominence just as King’s own theory of disobedience was shifting in a more radical direction. This essay critically examines King’s late theory of civil disobedience as an experiment in power. Drawing on published and archival sources, it reconstructs King’s Janus-faced conception of power and its role in reconceptualizing non-violent direct action as an illegal but loving act of taking freedom.
Bio: Alexander Livingston is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. His recent book, Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (Oxford, 2016), examines the political thought of William James through the lens of his writings on American imperialism in the Philippines. His writing has appeared in American Political Science Review, Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, Theory & Event, Humanity, Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Contemporary Pragmatism. He is currently working on a book on the ethics and politics of non-violence in post-war American social movements.