Beyond Birmingham: King, Disobedience, and the Powers of Non-Violence

Alexander Livingston | Assistant Professor, Cornell University

Friday, September 15, 2017 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM


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.