MLK and His Impact on Social Science Scholarship

Martin Luther King Jr.

During his lifetime Martin Luther King Jr. would address social and behavioral scientists directly, calling them out for their existing racism and encouraging them to be allies of the Civil Rights Movement. He would offer, for example, three specific recommendations for scholarship in a 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association. The scientists, or at least many of them, took up his crusade in the years since King’s assassination the same year as the APA address. Below, in celebration of his birth on January 15, 1929, we offer a selection of scholarship from the social science community that directly cites King’s message as a subject or the nexus of the paper. Click on the article titles below to read the paper.

“The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Church in Action” by Coretta Scott King | Theology Today

The late Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr. and a national civil rights leader in her own right, delivered this address on March 11, 1970, to inaugurate the Annual Martin Luther King Lectureship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. The address includes a number of excerpts from King Jr. that remind us that his first profession was as a Christian pastor: “My husband healed more broken souls and bodies with his direct fighting message than thousands of his colleagues accomplished with pallid sermons addressed to half-empty pews. Jesus,” Coretta King notes, “preached in the streets, especially to the poor and the slaves.”

“Toward Achieving the ‘Beloved Community’ in the Workplace Lessons for Applied Business Research and Practice From the Teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.” by James R. Jones, David C. Wilson, Peggy Jones | Business & Society

This paper from 2008 analyzes data from a Gallup Organization public opinion poll commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to illustrate how businesses might incorporate King’s social justice themes of belongingness and camaraderie in the workplace.

American Public Policy and Full Employment: The Imperative of Martin Luther King’s Political Economy in the 21st Century” by Jeffrey Sommers, Rachel Hegland, Patrick Delices | SAGE Open

While King’s focus on civil rights is often the only message that is retold these days, MLK during his lifetime campaigned on what he saw as complementary topics like peace and economic empowerment. (The authors note that in addition to his Bible (King James Version I believe?), the other text King had on his person in the Birmingham, Alabama jail cell was John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.) This paper looks at prescriptions endorsed by King for things like a guaranteed basic income, building generational wealth and government job creation, and argues that “it is precisely on this less discussed terrain of King’s economic policy where a national debate should presently be centered.”

“Race and the ‘I Have a Dream’ Legacy: Exploring Predictors of Positive Civil Rights Attitudes” by Antwan Jones | Journal of Black Studies

Drawing on the 2002 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, sociologist Jones finds that a positive relationship between racial attitudes toward Blacks and attitudes toward civil rights. He writes that, “Civil rights attitudes have changed drastically from the pre1960s when essentially race was the strongest predictor of positive civil rights attitudes.” The model also suggests a positive relationship between ideological proximity, or how close one feels to Black Americans, and attitudes toward civil rights. Political party identification, age, education, gender, racial identification, and region of residence are all significant predictors of positive civil rights attitudes.  

“Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Movements in the United States” by Dewey M. Clayton | Journal of Black Studies

Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville, conducted a content analysis of the New York Times to compare and contrast the framing of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement from 2014 to 2016 and the U.S. Civil Rights movement during 1960 to 1962. Among his conclusions are that BLM, while probably a more inclusive movement than the civil rights movement, had not found the messaging to show that universally. “[T]the genius of the civil rights movement is that they were able to elaborate these values into a master frame that made the civil rights problem an American problem,” Clayton wrote. “Today, Black Lives Matter does not utilize the same framing—it has yet to appeal to mainstream America and convince them that its concerns are part of the national identity.” And as part of his own messaging, Clayton wrote a public-facing precis of his findings for LSE Phelan US Centre, “What Black Lives Matter can learn from the 1960s struggle for Civil Rights.”


Also on Social Science Space

Martin Luther King’s Jr. Advice to Social and Behavioral Scientists” by Social Science Space

“In Search of Today’s Fannie Lou Hamers and Martin Luther Kings” by Vincent Adejumo

“Policing the Klan 50 Years Ago Has Lessons for Dismantling White Supremacist Groups Today” by Vincent Cunningham

“This Moment, And the Next Steps for Social Change” by Patricia Reid-Merritt

“Erica Chenoweth on Nonviolent Resistance” a Social Science Bites podcast

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