As Professor Allen suggests, King’s tendency to conceive of black agency, the core of black personhood, as protest risks becoming habituated and thus degenerating over time into a self-degrading, self-defeating paradox: agency as the active assertion of one’s own weakness and dependence upon others.
In a deeper sense, this paradox in King’s idea of black agency is an expression of his zeal for revolution, or his powerful attraction to the idea of immediate and radical, systemic change.
Given the virtually unrivaled moral authority accorded King by 21st century Americans, Professor Allen’s concluding judgment of him—“King . King aspired to be America’s refounder, aiming to bind the nation in a new, truly universalist spirit of “community” and thereby to ward off the “chaos” that loomed in the mid-through-late 1960s.
He ultimately failed in that grand enterprise, Professor Allen contends, because he endeavored to refound America on a flawed understanding of rights—on principles, that is, whose strongest tendency is rather to deepen the divisions among us than to strengthen our sense of community or common humanity.
“Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public,” King insisted, “but they must also be absorbed into our economic system [so] that they can afford to exercise that right.” As Professor Allen notes, President Lyndon Johnson expressed the idea with blunt simplicity at Howard University in 1965: “freedom is not enough… but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” By conceiving of rights ultimately in terms of substantive, distributive outcomes, Professor Allen charges, King implicitly adopted an incoherent and demoralizing idea of the human person, the bearer of the rights for which he contended.
This is a profound and far-reaching charge, the basis and significance of which warrant further elaboration.
Whereas the first phase was aimed at securing the civil and political rights proper to individuals in their formal identities as persons and citizens (including rights of association, rights of access to public accommodations, educational institutions, and workplaces, and rights to vote and to seek public office), a “second phase,” aimed at “the realization of equality,” would seek to achieve specific substantive, socioeconomic outcomes.
The latter, in other words, concerned the fruitful exercise of rights as distinct from the legally guaranteed possession of rights.
At deeper levels, they implicate profound questions concerning the nature of civil rights themselves, along with the natural rights and natural laws from which they derive. Allen addresses the Act not primarily as law or policy, therefore, but as political philosophy.
As a result of his inquiry into the philosophic vision informing the law, an essay on the Civil Rights Act becomes an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he singles out as the preeminent spokesman of the civil-rights thinking that stands, for many in our own day, as the authoritative legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. failed”—is attention-getting, certainly in its bold directness if not also in its countercultural substance.