10 Essential Books About Martin Luther King Jr.

    90 years after his birth, we look back on King's legacy with these 10 vital reads. 

    January 15th, 2019 would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 90th birthday. 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.

    Over 50 years have passed since King's tragic assassination, and many of his dreams and goals remain unrealized. The following King biographies, memoirs, and writings set his work in the context it was created–something often sadly lacking in our discussion of the trail-blazing speaker's life and history. Reintroduce yourself to an icon; along the way, you'll meet the man.

    Buy MLK: An American Legacy at Amazon

    MLK: An American Legacy

    By David J. Garrow

    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.

    Related: "I've Been to the Mountaintop": Revisiting the 1968 Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

    MLK: An American Legacy

    By David J. Garrow

    Buy Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 at Amazon

    Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

    By Taylor Branch

    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. 

    Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

    By Taylor Branch

    Buy The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement at Amazon

    The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

    By Taylor Branch

    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 not as thoroughly detailed as Branch’s other work, it provides a great starting point to learn more about King.

    The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

    By Taylor Branch

    Buy Judgment Days at Amazon

    Judgment Days

    By Nick Kotz

    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. 

    Related: On This Day: Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 

    Judgment Days

    By Nick Kotz

    Buy Black Theology and Black Power at Amazon

    Black Theology and Black Power

    By James H. Cone

    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. 

    Black Theology and Black Power

    By James H. Cone

    Buy Waking From the Dream at Amazon

    Waking From the Dream

    By David L. Chappell

    The Civil Rights Movement did not die 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, while others were left by the wayside. Although there were further fractures within the movement after King’s assassination, the struggle and triumphs continued.

    Waking From the Dream

    By David L. Chappell

    Buy My Life, My Love, My Legacy at Amazon

    My Life, My Love, My Legacy

    By Coretta Scott King

    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 some rather petty details. But it shows Coretta as the woman she was—intelligent, fiery, and a born leader.

    Related: 10 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know 

    My Life, My Love, My Legacy

    By Coretta Scott King

    Buy The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Amazon

    The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    By Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson

    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.

    The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    By Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson

    Buy March: Book One at Amazon

    March: Book One

    By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

    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 firsthand look at his life growing up in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., and the beginning of Lewis' civil rights work. Each of the three graphic novels in this series offers a powerful and unique perspective. March will satisfy both teens looking for more information on the Civil Rights Movement as well as adults.

    March: Book One

    By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

    Buy Let the Trumpet Sound at Amazon

    Let the Trumpet Sound

    By Stephen B. Oates

    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’ passion for his subject jumps off the page. Whether you’re familiar with King’s legacy or maintain only a passing understanding of his work, Let the Trumpet Sound will teach you more about the man’s life.

    Let the Trumpet Sound

    By Stephen B. Oates

    This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the history stories you love.

    Featured photo of King at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.: Wikimedia Commons

    Created on 15 Jan 2019

    scroll up