The Emotions of Nonviolence:
Revisiting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
There is perhaps no piece by Martin Luther King, Jr. that is more widely read or more beloved than the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Countless articles and books have been written about its generation and meaning. Despite this, its broader philosophical significance has for the large part been missed. While the “Letter” has exerted particular influence over philosophical debates over the justification of civil disobedience, it has scarcely been considered outside of this context. Political philosophers and theorists have not yet managed to fully appreciate and elucidate all that is going on in the “Letter” and to recognize its full import for political philosophy.
As this book will suggest, the “Letter” is not merely a discussion of civil disobedience but is also – and perhaps even primarily – an essay on political motivation. I build my case for this claim by engaging in a detailed discussion of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is elucidated primarily by other works King wrote in the same year such as Why We Can’t Wait and Strength to Love, as well as lesser known speeches and letters. This interpretive point is significant not only because it is good to get an important text right but also because doing so will help us to address a central problem in democratic theory: namely, how can and ought we motivate the (racially) oppressed to engage in civil disobedience or, as King called it, nonviolent direct action? King’s answer is that we must appeal to the political emotions, both positive and negative. Indignation, distrust, and fear, as well as love, courage, and faith have an important role to play in his theory of nonviolence.