2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic assassination. As we find ourselves in another moment of turmoil and social change, there is no better time to look back on the man who led the Civil Rights Movement and transformed America.
MLK: An American Legacy
If you’re ready to take a deep dive into King’s life and legacy, these three books by David J. Garrow are the perfect place to begin. The first entry in Garrow’s trio of books about MLK won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Garrow’s intensive research, interviews, and access to FBI case files allowed him to produce a definitive biography of the man who became an American icon.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963
Branch offers another tome of a biography on King in Parting the Waters. Branch’s offerings are meant for the readers who are ready to spend a good chunk of time understanding the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. This, the first of three installments, runs over 1,000 pages—so put on your reading glasses.
The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
Looking for Branch’s authority in a bit of a smaller bite? We’ve got you covered. Branch also wrote The King Years as a sort of highlight reel of the Civil Rights Movement during the King era. Although it cannot go into detail as thoroughly as Branch’s other work, it provides a great starting point for someone who’d like to learn more about King.
This joint biography of President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. may focus a bit more on LBJ than MLK, but it offers a valuable frame for understanding King in the context of the last five years of his life, as the Civil Rights Movement fostered real change at the federal level.
Black Theology and Black Power
Martin Luther King, Jr. was first, and perhaps foremost, a theologian. His work was greatly inspired and shaped by his faith. And framing his calls to action in an explicitly Christian morality made Civil Rights more palatable to a large swath of America. To learn more about the theology that underscored the movement, we suggest Cone’s exploration of liberation as the central tenant of Christianity. Cone is more radical than King was, but his message clarifies how religion was both a salvation and a framework for action during the Civil Rights Era.
Waking From the Dream
The Civil Rights Movement did not die along with King. In this book, you’ll discover how the Fair Housing Act was passed after King’s death, how some leaders were galvanized by his death, and how others were left by the wayside. Although there were further fractures within the movement after King’s assassination, the struggle, and some triumph, continued.
My Life, My Love, My Legacy
This posthumously published memoir was reconstructed from a series of interviews given to Dr. Barbara Jordan by Coretta Scott King in the last year of her life. This memoir is deeply personal, including even some rather petty details. But it shows Coretta as the woman she was—intelligent, fiery, and a born leader.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Calling this book an autobiography may be more of a clever marketing ploy than a true description, but it is nonetheless worth reading. Carefully collated and edited by Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. brings together a collection of King’s journals, speeches, interviews, and more to recreate his life.
March: Book One
John Lewis has been a House Representative for Georgia since 1987. Before that, he cut his teeth as one of the “Big Six”, the main leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In March, Lewis, alongside illustrator Nate Powell, gives his readers a first hand look at his life growing up in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the beginning of Lewis's civil rights work. Each of the three graphic novels in this series offer a powerful and unique perspective. March will satisfy both teens looking for more information on the Civil Rights Movement as well as adults.
Let the Trumpet Sound
This biography, under 600 pages, is a great place to start if you’re looking for a more serious take on King without having to crack open multiple 1,000 page volumes. Oates’s passion for his subject jumps off the page. Whether you’re familiar with King’s legacy or have only a passing understanding of his work, Let the Trumpet Sound will teach you more about the man’s life.
Featured photo of King at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.: Wikimedia Commons