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Martin Luther King Jr., by the book

Ten books to add depth and understanding to the April 4 anniversary of King's assassination in 1968.

Religion News Service is marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with stories and commentaries looking back at the tragic, momentous event. The rest of the package can be found here.

(RNS) — From the dip-of-the-toe to the deep dive into the turbulent waters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, here are eight books (in alphabetical order by the author’s last name) that will add depth, nuance and understanding to who he was and about the legacy he left on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

America in the King Years,” by Taylor Branch (Simon and Schuster)

The trilogy “America in the King Years” is a work of history that places King in the context of the broader civil rights movement. “Parting the Waters” covers 1954 to 1963, taking King from seminary to Montgomery and Birmingham; “Pillar of Fire” covers 1963 to 1965, the year of the Selma march; and “At Canaan’s Edge” ends with the aftermath of King’s assassination. Taken together, Branch’s books have been called a masterpiece.

To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968,” by Stewart Burns (HarperOne)

Another lauded biography of King, this one focuses on his faith and theology and is by a former editor of King’s papers at Stanford University. “Pivotal events like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Vietnam War and the March on Washington are brought alive through narratives that show their impact on King’s path of righteousness,” Publishers Weekly said.

I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.,” By Michael Eric Dyson (Free Press)

Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist, is also a fiery speaker and sharp commentator on America and race relations. In this book, written about 30 years after the assassination, he argues that the real King was more radical, complex and relevant to today’s America than the man remembered for the “I Have a Dream” speech. Kirkus Reviews said, “Dyson succeeds in recasting King’s message from a comfortingly unexamined myth to an enduring challenge by a great American provocateur.”

Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero,” by Vincent Harding (Orbis Books)

This collection of essays by Harding, the late director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and senior adviser to the landmark television series “Eyes on the Prize,” focuses on the legacy of King’s later years. The book addresses the sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis in 1968.

Martin Luther King Jr.: The Last Interview and Other Conversations,” from The Last Interview series (Melville House)

A collection of transcribed interviews with King that date from 1961 to 10 days before his assassination in 1968, this book includes King’s landmark 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren, “Who Speaks for the Negro?”



Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” by Martin Luther King Jr. (Beacon Press)

This is King’s first book, published in 1958 when he was in his late 20s, shows how he put his Christian theology into practice. King called this book “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.” Reviewers say King’s voice leaps off the page as a call to action that still resonates.

My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.,” by Coretta Scott King

Originally published in 1969, while Coretta Scott King was still raw with grief, this book was last reprinted in 1994 and can be difficult to find. Nonetheless, it opens a door into King’s life that only his widow could open. The reprint jacket copy promises: “Full of fresh insights about the past, present and future, this revised edition of Mrs. King’s inspiring memoir is both a narrative history of the movement that changed America and a personal account of one extraordinary woman’s life with one extraordinary man.”

Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours,” by Joseph Rosenbloom (Beacon Press)

This book revisits the drama of King’s visit to Memphis, especially his conflict with other civil rights leaders, with his family and with his own sense of what the next step in the civil rights movement should be. Writing for Foreword Reviews, Jeff Fleischer said, “Thorough research and myriad story lines work together perfectly throughout.”


Bonus tracks

Here are two books about King for younger readers:

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” story by Doreen Rappaport, illustrations by Bryan Collier (Disney/Hachette), ages 5-9

This multi-award-winning pictorial biography uses King’s own words and spare, straightforward prose to cover King’s life from childhood to death. King’s faith is part of the story, and the watercolor collage illustrations are a standout feature. “The portraits of King exude his spiritual strength and peaceful visage,” Publishers Weekly said.

Dear Martin,” by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers), ages 14 and up

The only novel listed here, this recent book is winning accolades for exploring the teachings of King as they relate to recent shootings of unarmed black men and women by law enforcement officers. Kirkus Reviews said, “Though constrained, the work nevertheless stands apart in a literature that too often finds it hard to look hard truths in the face. Take interest and ask questions.” Good advice on all of these books.