(1/14/2010—This list has been updated for 2010.)
This is the second edition of the Martin Luther King Reading & Reference List. There are three additions for 2009.
While it is always instructive to watch a rebroadcast or listen to a recording of the I Have A Dream speech, there is a next level for someone who wants to better understand Dr. King and his message.
Reverend King asked serious questions about America as a war criminal nation in Vietnam and he asked if America merited divine judgement as a wicked nation of racism and social inequality. These questions, even in the time of Barack Obama, are still worthy of consideration.
Here is an admittedly incomplete, but I hope, useful Martin Luther King viewing, visiting, listening, and reading list. The three additions for 2009 are noted towards the bottom of the list.
An excellent book is Martin & Malcolm & America—A Dream Or A Nightmare by James H. Cone. This book follows the words and the careers of both these men. The premise, which holds up, is that Dr. King and Malcolm X (photo below) were not as far apart as sometimes portrayed. Malcolm was a man with a broader vision than one of simple racial solidarity, and King was in many respects a fierce and almost apocalyptic critic of America.
I’m glad to say I bought my copy of Cone’s book at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. This site is operated by the National Park Service. You can tour Martin Luther King’s boyhood home at this location. You’ll also want to tour the Auburn Avenue Historic District around the King home.
Regretfully, the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church (photo below) , King’s home church, is currently under renovation. It will reopen in late 2009. Still, the District as a whole is very much worth a visit.
In Washington, when you visit the Lincoln Memorial (photo below), you can find a small marker indicating the exact spot where Rev. King made the ”Dream” speech. It is a good place to stand.
Bearing The Cross was the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography. You can’t help but feel the almost deep-sea like pressure on Dr. King in the final years of his life. I wondered if towards the end of his life King felt that death was going to be the only escape from the exhaustion, the misunderstandings and the conflicts.
An interesting DVD is King–Man Of Peace In A Time Of War. Much of the hour long presentation is a rehash of King biography. What makes this special is a roughly 15 minute interview Dr. King did with afternoon television host Mike Douglas. Mr. Douglas asked tough questions about Dr. King’s stance against the Vietnam War and about the effect of that opposition on the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King is calm, cool and collected. You could see how King was a leader who could speak anywhere and to anyone.
A solid explanation of Reverend King’s theology and a good analysis on the failure of Southern segregationists to mount an even more aggressive opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, can be found in A Stone Of Hope—Prophetic Religion And The Death Of Jim Crow by David L. Chappell.
A Testament Of Hope—The Essential Writings And Speeches Of Martin Luther King, Jr is needed for a complete King library. In honesty though, I’ve always found this book to be sprawling and without clear focus. It consists of King sermons, some interviews and excerpts from his books. You need to have it on your shelf, but there are more concise ways to get the “essential” King. ( Photo below is Rev. King with Coretta Scott King.)
Here are the three new titles for 2009—
A quality children’s book on King is Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport. The writing in this book is clear and concise and respectful of the intellect of children. It’s a great introduction to King and a gateway to further studies by young people.
A comprehensive examination of King’s radical views on economic questions can be found in From Civil Rights to Human Rights—Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice by Thomas F. Jackson. King had leanings towards forms of socialism and came to see the fight for fair wages as an essential element in the fight for full human rights. It should not be forgotten that King died in Memphis fighting for striking sanitation workers.
A web resource to learn about King is the Martin Luther King, Jr, Research and Education Institute that is run by Stanford University. There are King sermons and addresses you can read and a link to a King Online Encyclopedia. (These things said, there is nothing as good as having you own printed collection of King sermons that you can take anywhere and make notes and underline key passages as it suits you.)
There are three reference sources on Dr. King that in my view stand out.
Strength To Love is the best collection King sermons. It is a concise manageable book. You can cram it in your back pocket or in your purse. ( A larger purse at least.) I think you could read nothing but this one 158 page book, and know everything you need to know about Martin Luther King.
The audio collection of King’s sermons called A Knock At Midnight might change your life. Stick the CD’s in your car stereo or turn it on at home and you’ll hear Dr. King just as he was—Mighty and frail at the same time. I’ve listened to the sermons on Knock many times and they never get old. You can’t help but learn something or see an old question a new way each time you listen.
The definitive books on Martin Luther King’s life and the Civil Rights era are found in Taylor Branch’s three volume America In The King Years series.
These three books are the Pulitizer Prize winning Parting The Waters 1954-1963, Pillar Of Fire 1963-1965, and At Canaans Edge, 1965-1968. (Photo below is of Rosa Parks being booked during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.)
These books stand not only at the top of King biography, they stand as great examples of American biography. The picture of Dr. King is complete. You get the good and the bad. There will be times you’ll shake your head and ask yourself how Rev. King could have said that or done that.
You’ll also see how brave King was and how brave the Civil Rights marchers and protesters were. You’ll get a clear sense of the obstacles faced not just from whites, but from status quo blacks as well. Mr. Branch offers a great deal of context for King’s life and experiences. He provides full portraits of other great Civil Rights leaders.
I can’t recommend all three volumes strongly enough. Read them and you’ll be an expert.