Monday was Martin Luther King Day, which means the nation indulged in its customary forgetting and glossing over of the preacher-activist’s substantial legacy. But just because our crass commercial and consumerist culture reduces King to performative symbol doesn’t mean we have to do so in our individual lives.
Thankfully, there are many thoughtful, well-researched books out there that will acquaint us with the Martin Luther King Jr. who actually lived and thought and fought — the radical, unpopular King who went against the status quo.
Here are some books I either have read or want to read about the King that we, as a nation, would rather forget than remember. If you can, try purchasing (or, if not in stock, ordering) them from The Book Table, 1045 Lake St. in Oak Park.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life, by Marshall Frady
This elegiac biography is a great primer on King’s life. At roughly 200 pages, you can easily gulp it down in one sitting. Frady’s prose is like consuming a rich bone broth, the linguistic version of umami, the Japanese term for savory.
Published in 2002, the book is part of Penguin Random House’s Penguin Lives series. Frady illuminates this life, bringing you into the past with his prose. It helps that he was literally there — as a young reporter covering the movement for Newsweek — and he isn’t afraid to humanize King, to describe how he was perceived by people, particularly reporters, when he was alive.
“‘I am a troubled soul,’ King admitted more than once. Indeed, long before Memphis, he had come to dwell in a private Gethsemane of guilt over not only the cost of his mission on his people, but what he felt were his own personal betrayals of his high public meaning. Always haunted by a reverence for the austere and ascetic, he attempted to maintain a modesty in his own circumstances, confining himself to a meager salary, a small rented frame house in a humble neighborhood, an old car, plain dark suits. Yet those suits were often silk, as were the pajamas.”
Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election, by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick.
This book, which I’m just getting into, explores King’s first night in jail — a historic event that would amount to “the ultimate October surprise” before the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
“In 1960, the civil rights movement was growing increasingly inventive and energized while white politicians favored the corrosive tactics of silence and stalling,” the book’s jacket cover reads. “But an audacious team in the Kennedy campaign’s Civil Rights Section decided to act. In a contest in which Black voters seemed poised to split their votes between the candidates, the leaders of the CRS […] convinced Kennedy to agitate for King’s release [and] their actions would end up deciding one of the closes elections in American history.”
Ironically, the country’s deep racial quagmire played out in Georgia, where King was jailed, tipping the balance of federal power from one party to another. Sound familiar?
The America in the King Years trilogy by Taylor Branch, which includes: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge.
Taylor Branch’s three books on the Civil Rights era, which it traces from King’s rise to national prominence from 1954 to his assassination in 1968, is a classic, a masterpiece of historical writing. Branch’s trilogy is a book about King told through the lives of the people who made him, and who made the Civil Rights Movement what it was.
We know how the King era ends, but Branch’s literary brilliance is such that he nonetheless keeps the reader in suspense. Yes, you may know about King’s “Mountaintop Speech,” delivered the night before his assassination, but Branch grounds that speech in the rich soil of the Black preaching tradition from which King emerged.
Branch opens the first book, Parting the Waters, with a chapter on Vernon Johns, the genius preacher, orator and scholar who King in 1954 succeeded as the lead minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dejected by the fact that liberal theologians didn’t publish any sermons by Negros in their annual book of best sermons, Johns “sat down and wrote out a sermon of his own, ‘Transfigured Moments,’ which in 1926 became the first work by a Negro published in Best Sermons. […]
“‘It is good to be the possessor of some mountain-top experience,’ wrote Johns, in a long passage on the need to tie the inspiration of leaders to the experience of the common people. ‘It is a heart strangely un-Christian that cannot thrill with joy when the least of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars.'”