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Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy.
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The question of what emancipation means is central to politics. What does it look like? How is it achieved? Does it outlast the moment of its proclamation? Though these questions are often posed, theoretically or in the heat of struggle, definitive answers remain very much open to revision and reappraisal. Following Sylvain Lazarus, we might say that emancipatory politics is “sequential and rare.” In other words, emancipation has not occurred frequently in history. It happens in sequences that have a beginning and an end, and therefore emancipation exists in the form of specific modes of action that respond to the historical moments in which these sequences emerge. To understand these “historical modes of politics” in their specificity, while also pointing to an invariant content of emancipation, remains a core challenge for political thought.

Writing in 1843 and 1844, Karl Marx famously explored the problem of emancipation with a critical analysis of the French Revolution. As he pointed out, this historical example raises questions, rather than solving them. Can emancipation be understood in terms of rights, which are the rights of the atomized individuals of the market? Is emancipation granted by a state which protects those individual rights, or is the state itself an impediment to real emancipation? Finally, is emancipation universal, or is it embedded in the particularity of a community, nation, or identity?

With his great study of the Haitian Revolution, which exposed and attacked the persistence of slavery after the French Revolution, C.L.R. James challenged a presumed European hegemony over the category of universal emancipation. The history of slavery and emancipation in the United States should be understood as just as significant a challenge, and it should be a fundamental axis of political thought. The civil rights movement in the United States is undoubtedly one of the most significant political sequences of the 20th century, which, as King emphasized, took up the unfinished project of emancipation of the previous century. In representing the subjectivity of those who were excluded from the existing social structure, the movement produced the possibility of universal emancipation, aiming at an absolutely egalitarian and self-governing organization of human life.