Spotlight on MLK Studies: Dr. Stewart Burns

Did you know that Union Institute & University offers one of the few Ph.D. specializations in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Studies in the country? In recognition of this distinct honor, and in remembrance of Dr. King, we are featuring some of the people who are part of the MLK Studies program.

Stewart Burns

Dr. Stewart Burns, MLK Studies Program Faculty; Author and historian of the civil rights movement

How do you apply Dr. King’s philosophies in your everyday life?

I apply Dr. King’s philosophy in my professional and personal life through his teachings. Dr. King came to believe that nonviolence (he preferred to call it “soul force”) was a philosophy to guide one’s everyday life—personal, public, or professional—one’s leadership of oneself as well as leadership with other people. Accordingly I try to “think of others” and empathize with them. Regardless of how someone may offend me, say or do something inappropriate or unacceptable, or otherwise “push my buttons,” I have strengthened my capacity to imagine and inhabit the other person’s situation and perspective (e.g. a long stressful day dealing with the public). I “choose my battles” thoughtfully. When I need to confront someone about a perceived misdeed or wrongdoing, I show respect for them, expressing creative understanding goodwill (“agape”), but make it clear that I object to her/his behavior and why. If necessary I will intervene to interrupt the behavior in a firm, up front, and respectful fashion. Figuratively (or literally) I hold out both my hands to the adversary, my left hand opening to them, welcoming them, my right hand ready to block their unacceptable behavior. This dual approach or “creative tension” of embracing one’s adversary while restraining them as needed encourages my adversary to acknowledge my own humanness while reconsidering their behavior—taking a moral pause in which to get comfortable backing off, or persisting more mindfully, but as two persons interacting not two objects colliding. Kingian leadership at every level aims at encouraging ourselves and our adversaries to rise above habit and prejudice to embrace the “better angels of our nature.”

Dr. Burns is a distinguished historian of the civil rights movement, and wrote the Wilbur-Award-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr., To the Mountaintop (2004). A former editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers at Stanford University, he produced the Montgomery bus boycott volume, Birth of a New Age. He published the first history of the bus boycott, Daybreak of Freedom, which was later made into the HBO feature film Boycott (on which he consulted). In 2002, Dr. Burns earned a NAACP Image Award. His new book We Will Stand Here Till We Die: Freedom Movement Shakes America, Shapes Martin Luther King Jr. (2013) covers the epic story of the American freedom struggle of 1963 from Birmingham to the March on Washington.

Burns has worked for many years in movements for peace and social justice—protesting the Vietnam War, organizing for the United Farm Workers, opposing nuclear power and nuclear weapons, fighting racism and modern slavery, and confronting poverty. His mission is to share lessons from the democratic struggles of the past to empower citizenship today and tomorrow.

Burns earned his Ph.D. in history and political philosophy at the University of California Santa Cruz and has taught at the University of California, Stanford, Antioch University, and Williams College. While at Williams, he co-founded and shared leadership of the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College until 2014.


Learn more about Union’s MLK Studies specialization here.