Journal of Southern Religion

The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin. Rufus Burrow, Jr., Barbara A. Holmes, and Susan Holmes Winfield, contributors. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. 336 pp. $24.95 (paper) Reviewed by Sylvester Johnson for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Baldwin provides a fresh approach to understanding the meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion. This work situates King's philosophy and activism within the context of Southern and American civil religion, civil rights, and international politics.

". . . Baldwin surveys King's use of the founding documents of the U.S. and concludes that King made ambivalent but mostly positive recourse to these "sacred" texts."  


Baldwin achieves an insightful treatment of the historical meaning of King and makes a strong case for the relevance of King's legacy in contemporary politics. Chapter one examines King's thought through the categories of concern generated by scholars of American civil religion. He begins by examining the history of attempts to represent the "New South," the discourse of which began after the Civil War and has continued to the present. Although often relatively progressive, rarely did these mostly white proponents of the New South criticize the fundamental division of the races. Baldwin notes the activism of the few progressive whites who publicly supported King's bold defiance and who joined the movement-among these Lillian Smith, Buford Boone, and James Dabbs. But he demonstrates that most supporters fell away as King began to connect segregation with US militarism and human rights violations internationally.

Baldwin, furthermore, argues compellingly that King employed the language of American civil religion and that he frequently spoke of the special role to be played by the South in healing American race relations. Yet, Baldwin finds himself at odds with scholars such as Charles Wilson, who suggests that King's rhetoric was the epitome of Southern civil religion; Baldwin, rather, contends that the most important aspects of King's rhetoric ran counter to the core of Southern civil religion because King was critical of Southern institutions and because he was increasingly concerned with interpreting Southern events with an international awareness.

The second chapter centers on the controversy due to King's decision to use civil disobedience. Baldwin is interested here in how King viewed citizenship duties. He also examines the scathing dissent from both black and white religionists-from Billy Graham to Joseph Jackson-who castigated King and labeled him an anti-government anarchist. Readers will likely find most valuable Baldwin's treatment of the recent and contemporary uses of King's legacy by religious conservatives such as Jerry Falwell and right-wing politicians such as Newt Gingrich. Succinctly, Baldwin argues on this score that King's legacy and language have been distorted to promote policies that run counter to the ideals King cherished. Baldwin links this to the recent public controversy over displaying the Confederate flag and debates over preserving the "Dixie" heritage of the South.

In chapter three, Baldwin surveys King's use of the founding documents of the U.S. and concludes that King made ambivalent but mostly positive recourse to these "sacred" texts. Baldwin subsequently discusses King's attempt to broker progressive civil rights agendas with the three presidents active during the movement-Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. All were reluctant in their support. He sustains attention to the significance of King's international perspectives, which became openly critical of the federal government's hostile militarism. Baldwin concludes this section with musings on the contemporary relevance of King's political savvy, especially pertaining to his vision for broad-based, multi-racial alliances.

Chapter four, co-authored by Barbara Holmes and Susan Winfield, is a legal-critical assessment of King's ethic of love as a higher-law resolution that avoids the polarities of secularism and empty pietism. This essay points to the ambivalent history of the nation's judiciary, at times denying legal rights to blacks, at other times affirming those rights-consistently portending a constant devotion to the rhetoric of rights and democratic freedom for "all". The authors contend that, whereas this has created a tragic chasm between "rhetoric and performance", King's ethic of love, properly understood as faith and tenacious will, is not subject to producing such mixed results.

Rufus Burrows is the contributing author of chapter five, which examines Personalism in King's thought. Burrows ably argues that King both appropriated and contributed to the intellectual tradition of Personalism, which centers on the individual person as the greatest entity of intrinsic value. This moralistic system he identifies as the basis for King's concept of the "Beloved Community". Burrows urges a reevaluation of King's role in this intellectual tradition and explicitly takes exception to some historians who either have downplayed the importance of Personalism for King or have sought to deny its influence altogether. He also calls for greater attention to the informal Personalism embedded in the ethos of black churches, which Burrows argues was no less significant for King than his formal intellectual training in graduate school.

In the sixth (final) chapter, perhaps the most distinctive of the book, Baldwin describes how King assiduously fought to goad the United Nations (U.N.) and the U.S. government into intervening in state violence against blacks in South Africa, Rhodesia, and other majority-black countries dominated by whites. Essentially, Baldwin chronicles the evolution of the U.N. and King's ideas about nonviolent coercion in a global context. He is particularly interested in the parallel between the U.S. government's attempts to block U.N.-intervention and King's dwindling relationship with the federal government. Also, Baldwin candidly analyzes King's general reluctance to appeal to the U.N. on behalf of African Americans, which stood in contrast to Malcolm X's attempts to do just that.

Readily observable is the fact that when the authors chronicle King's appropriation of the language and symbols of Christianity and of the nation, they themselves attempt the same task. Baldwin especially seems convinced that the Judeo-Christian heritage, properly understood, is inherently bound to produce a society of equality and freedom for all. He frequently expresses awe over the fact that segregationists could support Jim Crowism and could justify the violation of blacks' humanity through Christian theology. But this is a moralistic reading of the tradition that is questionable at best. The Judeo-Christian tradition, as a number of scholars have recently noted, is ambivalent and frequently subsumes violence against 'illegitimate' peoples. To regard Christian identity and its imperatives as self-evident might actually hinder a full understanding of how the nation has publicly performed Christianity.

One note about the book's structure: Baldwin maintains attention to international politics in all his essays. This is not the case for the contributing authors. Also, Baldwin's treatment is evenhanded and at times quite critical of King, taking issue, for instance, with King's seemingly ill-placed trust in America's commitment to creating eventual racial justice. Nevertheless, Burrows' expertise in Personalism and Holmes' and Winfield's legal-critical discussion, while only mildly critical of King, complement well the issues raised by Baldwin in the rest of the book. The overall result is a cohesive synthesis that achieves a common aim.

This text portends a unique contribution to understanding King's legacy and delivers finely. The analysis is sophisticated while remaining accessible to general audiences, and the interdisciplinary focus should prove a great asset to scholars in political theory, legal studies, religion, history and American studies.

Sylvester Johnson, Florida A&M University


1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

contents main page masthead advertisers e-mail