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A Revelatory Tour of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Forgotten Teachings

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

It’s hard to think of a more celebrated figure of the 20th century than Martin Luther King Jr.

He has a national memorial in Washington, D.C. His birthday is one of just 11 federal holidays. And his words and legacy are routinely evoked by politicians of both major parties.

But the paradox of King’s legacy is that while many revere him, very few actually read him. Most of us can cite a handful of his most famous quotes, but King’s actual teachings span five books, countless speeches and sermons, and years of detailed correspondence.

[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

There’s perhaps no scholar working today who studies Dr. King’s political philosophy as deeply as Brandon Terry. Terry is the John L. Loeb associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, where he specializes in Black political thought. He is the co-editor of “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the editor of “Fifty Years Since MLK,” and the author of numerous popular and academic articles on King’s political thought. His work is committed to rescuing the nuances of Dr. King’s philosophies and forcing a confrontation with what King actually said and believed, rather than what he’s come to represent.

In this conversation, we follow the commitment that animates much of Terry’s work: to take King seriously as a philosopher, rather than as purely a political actor. And it turns out that King understood a lot about politics that we’ve lost sight of today. We discuss why a “romantic narrative” of the civil rights era stops us from taking King seriously as a philosopher; the true radicalism of King’s nonviolent philosophy; King’s complex views on the relationship between race and class; how King wrestled with the demands of “respectability politics”; King’s wide-ranging economic views, including the idea that the economy should be subservient to the community (and not the other way around); King’s enthusiasm for tenant unions and welfare rights unions as critical democratic inventions; whether the state should embrace the same nonviolence it often demands of protesters; the roots of King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam; whether we’ve lost the ability to grapple with “virtue” in politics today; and more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

Credit…Courtesy of Brandon Terry

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Kristin Lin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Rollin Hu. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Sonia Herrero.

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