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Martin Luther King Reading & Reference List

1/14/2010–This list has been updated for 2010.

Martin Luther King Day is January 21, 2008.

If your town or city has a parade, you should consider going to the parade.

It is always instructive to watch a rebroadcast or listen to a recording of the I Have A Dream speech.

Yet there is a next level for someone who wants to better understand Dr. King. It wasn’t all “I Have A Dream” and brotherhood.

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.

Here is an admittedly incomplete, but still useful, Martin Luther King viewing, visiting, listening, and reading 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. Still, it is all 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.

The best one volume work on King’s life is David Garrow’s Bearing The Cross—Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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 asks 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 somewhat sprawling and without a 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 at the “essential” King.  ( Photo below is Rev. King with Coretta Scott King.)

There are three reference sources on Dr. King that in my view stand out as best.

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 else 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.

Please click here for a Texas Liberal post on King’s sermon Unfulfilled Dreams

January 15, 2008 - Posted by | Books, History, Martin & Malcolm | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. This is a really nice post. I really enjoyed reading the information you have taken the time to share. I like what I have read. Thanks for sharing the information.

    Comment by ladydeborah | January 16, 2008

  2. Ms. Deborah–Thanks for the nice comment.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | January 16, 2008

  3. WOW….you put a lot of work into a very educational piece here. THANK YOU!! I wanted to send this to several others (I work in education in Austin) and then noticed that you do not have a way to send this on to others. Of course I will copy and paste the web address, but think you might consider adding a way for others to email your wonderful work.

    Comment by sfd928 | January 19, 2008

  4. Great job my man! Thanks for keeping this all alive.

    This was a must read for everyone on the Internet.


    Comment by fielde negro | January 20, 2008

  5. sfd—Thanks. I’m lucky to have the know-how to run a blog let alone any more. But I thanks for the nice words and for forwarding it.

    Field Negro–You sent a bunch of traffic here. Thank you.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | January 21, 2008

  6. Dynamite post–my 10 year old son and a friend were here playing for MLK day, and I took a moment and had them sit down and listen to the “I have a dream” speech. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, it gives me goosebumps…

    Super job, putting this all in one place…

    “Let freedom ring!”

    Comment by Melissa | January 21, 2008

  7. Very good Melissa—Thank you.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | January 23, 2008

  8. Neil, great post and I will be referencing it as I’m putting together an ongoing series on The RELEVANT Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr…. This will help. You might remember me over at “Kill Bigotry”, but I’ve since shifted gears slightly to predominantly address social issues through sports media through at http://www.cosellout.com

    Comment by MODI | January 24, 2008

  9. Modi–Good to have you back here again. Good luck with the new venture. It seems you are off to a solid start.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | January 28, 2008

  10. […] (Here is my Martin Luther King Reading & Reference List.) […]

    Pingback by Fight Over Design Of Martin Luther King Statue « Texas Liberal | May 12, 2008

  11. Good Day, I just wanted to let you know how inspired I was to read this article.I am one of your fellow bloggers @ the Chronicle and always enjoy reading your blogs..You always find a way to enlighten us and make us think.Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Kris Hamilton | December 29, 2008

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