Essential Books on Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are countless books on Martin Luther King Jr., and it comes with good reason, he was a Baptist minister who advanced civil rights for people of color in the United States through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he famously remarked from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the height of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 best books on Martin Luther King Jr.
Bearing the Cross by David Garrow
Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, this is the most comprehensive book ever written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on more than seven hundred interviews, access to King’s personal papers, and thousands of FBI documents, Bearing the Cross traces King’s metamorphosis from a young, earnest pastor into the foremost spokesperson of the black freedom struggle. At the book’s heart is King’s growing awareness of the symbolic meaning of the cross as he gradually accepts a life that will demand the ultimate in self-sacrifice. This is a towering portrait of a man at the epicenter of one of the most dramatic periods in our history.
Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations. Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War.
Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King’s rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder.
Let the Trumpet Sound by Stephen B. Oates
By the acclaimed biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, and John Brown, Stephen B. Oates’s prizewinning Let the Trumpet Sound is the definitive one-volume life of Martin Luther King, Jr. This brilliant examination of the great civil rights icon and the movement he led provides a lasting portrait of a man whose dream shaped American history.
The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph
To most Americans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent contrasting ideals: self-defense versus nonviolence, Black Power versus civil rights, the sword versus the shield. The struggle for Black freedom is wrought with the same contrasts. While nonviolent direct action is remembered as an unassailable part of American democracy, the movement’s militancy is either vilified or erased outright.
In The Sword and the Shield, Peniel E. Joseph upends these misconceptions and reveals a nuanced portrait of two men who, despite markedly different backgrounds, inspired and pushed each other throughout their adult lives.
The Seminarian by Patrick Parr
Martin Luther King Jr. was a cautious nineteen-year-old rookie preacher when he left Atlanta, Georgia, to attend divinity school up north. At Crozer Theological Seminary, King, or “ML” back then, immediately found himself surrounded by a white staff and white professors. Even his dorm room had once been used by wounded Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. In addition, his fellow seminarians were almost all older; some were soldiers who had fought in World War II, others pacifists who had chosen jail instead of enlisting. ML was facing challenges he’d barely dreamed of.
A prankster and a late-night, chain-smoking pool player, ML soon fell in love with a white woman, all the while adjusting to life in an integrated student body and facing discrimination from locals in the surrounding town of Chester, Pennsylvania. In class, ML performed well, though he demonstrated a habit of plagiarizing that continued throughout his academic career. But he was helped by friendships with fellow seminarians and the mentorship of the Reverend J. Pius Barbour. In his three years at Crozer between 1948 and 1951, King delivered dozens of sermons around the Philadelphia area, had a gun pointed at him (twice), played on the basketball team, and eventually became student body president. These experiences shaped him into a man ready to take on even greater challenges.
Based on dozens of revealing interviews with the men and women who knew him then, This absolute gem among books on Martin Luther King Jr. is the first definitive, full-length account of King’s years as a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary. Long passed over by biographers and historians, this period in King’s life is vital to understanding the historical figure he soon became.
Death of a King by Tavis Smiley
Martin Luther King, Jr. died in one of the most shocking assassinations the world has known, but little is remembered about the life he led in his final year. New York Times bestselling author and award-winning broadcaster Tavis Smiley recounts the final 365 days of King’s life, revealing the minister’s trials and tribulations – denunciations by the press, rejection from the president, dismissal by the country’s black middle class and militants, assaults on his character, ideology, and political tactics, to name a few – all of which he had to rise above in order to lead and address the racism, poverty, and militarism that threatened to destroy our democracy.
My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King
The widow of the dynamic and beloved civil rights leader recounts the history of the movement and offers an inside look at Dr. King, his sermons and speeches, her relationship with him, their children, family life, and more.
Becoming King by Troy Jackson
Author Troy Jackson chronicles King’s emergence and effectiveness as a civil rights leader by examining his relationship with the people of Montgomery, and moreover, his ability to connect with the educated and the unlettered, professionals and the working class.
Jackson demonstrates how King’s voice and message evolved during his time in Montgomery, reflecting the shared struggles, challenges, experiences, and hopes of the people with whom he worked. As citizens awaited permanent change, King was thrust into the national spotlight and left the city, taking the lessons he learned there onto the national stage. In the crucible of Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was transformed from an inexperienced Baptist preacher into a civil rights leader of profound historical importance.
Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch
In the second volume of his three-part history, a monumental trilogy that began with Parting the Waters, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Taylor Branch portrays the Civil Rights Movement at its zenith, recounting the climactic struggles as they commanded the national stage.
Beginning with the Nation of Islam and conflict over racial separatism, Pillar of Fire takes the reader to Mississippi and Alabama: Birmingham, the murder of Medgar Evers, the “March on Washington,” the Civil Rights Act, and voter registration drives. In 1964, King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Branch’s magnificent trilogy makes clear why the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed King’s leadership, are among the nation’s enduring achievements.
Written in his own words, this history-making autobiography is Martin Luther King: the mild-mannered, inquisitive child and student who chafed under and eventually rebelled against segregation; the dedicated young minister who continually questioned the depths of his faith and the limits of his wisdom; the loving husband and father who sought to balance his family’s needs with those of a growing, nationwide movement; and the reflective, world-famous leader who was fired by a vision of equality for people everywhere.
The Promise and the Dream by David Margolick
Assassinated only sixty-two days apart in 1968, King and Kennedy changed the United States forever, and their deaths profoundly altered the country’s trajectory. In The Promise and the Dream, Margolick examines their unique bond and the complicated mix of mutual assistance, impatience, wariness, awkwardness, antagonism, and admiration that existed between the two, documented with original interviews, oral histories, FBI files, and previously untapped contemporaneous accounts.
Kennedy and King by Steven Levingston
Kennedy and King traces the emergence of two of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders, as well as their powerful impact on each other and on the shape of the civil rights battle between 1960 and 1963. These two men from starkly different worlds profoundly influenced each other’s personal development. Kennedy’s hesitation on civil rights spurred King to greater acts of courage, and King inspired Kennedy to finally make a moral commitment to equality. As America still grapples with the legacy of slavery and the persistence of discrimination, this revealing account offers a vital, vivid contribution to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement.
I May Not Get There With You by Michael Eric Dyson
A private citizen who transformed the world around him, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arguably the greatest American who ever lived. Now, after more than thirty years, few people understand how truly radical he was. One of the most revealing books on Martin Luther King, Jr., this groundbreaking examination of the man and his legacy restores King’s true vitality and complexity and challenges us to embrace the very contradictions that make King relevant in today’s world.
Martin’s Dream by Clayborne Carson
On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flocked to the nation’s capital for the March on Washington. That day Clayborne Carson, a 19-year-old black student from a working-class family in New Mexico who had hitched a ride to Washington, heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a life-changing occasion for the author as it launched him on a career to become one of the most important chroniclers of the civil rights era.
Two decades later, as a distinguished professor of African American History at Stanford University, Mrs. King picked Dr. Carson to edit her late husband’s papers. Taking the reader on a journey of rediscovery of the King legend, he draws on new archives as well as unpublished letters. Dr. Carson examines his decades-long quest to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. the man, delve into the construction of his legacy, and to understand how King’s “dream” has evolved.
A Testament of Hope by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., told a crowd gathered at Memphis’s Clayborn Temple on April 3, 1968. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
These prophetic words, uttered the day before his assassination, challenged those he left behind to see that his “promised land” of racial equality became a reality; a reality to which King devoted the last twelve years of his life.
King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop by Harvard Sitkoff
In this concise biography, Harvard Sitkoff presents a stunningly relevant King. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King’s 1963 soul-stirring address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the 1965 history-altering Selma march are all recounted. But these are not treated as predetermined high points in a life celebrated for its role in a civil rights struggle too many Americans have quickly relegated to the past.
Carefully presented alongside King’s successes are his failures – as an organizer in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida; as a leader of ever more strident activists; as a husband. Together, high and low points are interwoven to capture King’s lifelong struggle, through disappointment and epiphany, with his own injunction: “Let us be Christian in all our actions.”
By telling King’s life as one on the verge of reaching its fullest fulfillment, Sitkoff powerfully shows where King’s faith and activism were leading him – to a direct confrontation with a president over an immoral war and with an America blind to its complicity in economic injustice.
Where Do We Go From Here by Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America’s future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty.
The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs
Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King, and Louise Little were all born at the beginning of the 20th century and forced to contend with the prejudices of Jim Crow as Black women. These three extraordinary women passed their knowledge to their children with the hope of helping them to survive in a society that would deny their humanity from the very beginning – from Louise teaching her children about their activist roots, to Berdis encouraging James to express himself through writing, to Alberta basing all of her lessons in faith and social justice. These women used their strength and motherhood to push their children toward greatness, all with a conviction that every human being deserves dignity and respect despite the rampant discrimination they faced.
The Dream by Drew Hansen
In The Dream, Drew D. Hansen explores the fascinating and little-known history of King’s legendary address. The book insightfully considers how King’s speech “has slowly remade the American imagination,” and led us closer to King’s visionary goal of a redeemed America.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: On Leadership by Donald T. Phillips
This insightful read among Martin Luther King Jr. books chronicles the actions of the Baptist minister’s life and identifies the key leadership skills he displayed; such as practice what you preach, take direct action without waiting for other agencies to act, give credit where credit is due, laws only declare rights (they do not deliver them), and many more. This book is part history and part guide to becoming a great leader, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate for peaceful change while never wavering in making the opposition listen and give in.
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