Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in books


To celebrate the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we can listen to speeches, join festivities, and, of course, read books. Here are 14 essential reads about the man who led America’s civil rights movement. Had he not been assassinated in 1968, King would have marked his 86th birthday on Jan. 15.

“Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63” (1986), “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965” (1998), “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68” (2006) and “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement” (2013), all by Taylor Branch. The first book in Branch’s multi-volume King biography, “Parting the Waters,” was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1987. The two following books were also highly praised and in 2013 he provided a single-volume overview. Totaling almost 3,000 pages, Branch’s exhaustive biography provides a deep look into King’s life.

“Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” (2014) by Tavis Smiley. By focusing on the last year of King’s life, Tavis Smiley brings the civil rights leader’s humanity, imperfections, passions and political struggles into focus.


“Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (1986) by David J. Garrow. Garrow’s 1981 book “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.” publicly explicated the surveillance the FBI conducted of King, but it was 1986’s “Bearing the Cross” that won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March” (2015) by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley. In this book for youths 12 and older, Lynda Blackmon Lowery, recalls what it was like to learn nonviolence from King when she was the youngest participant to march in the 1965 voting rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

“The Martin Luther King Jr., Encyclopedia” (rev. 2008) by Clayborne Carson, Tenisha Armstrong, Susan Carson, Erin Cook and Susan Englander. History professor Clayborne Carson leads the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and has produced six volumes of King’s written work, papers, letters and speeches. This encyclopedia is aimed at students in Grade 10 and up.

“My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.” (1994) by Coretta Scott King. The 1994 edition of wife Coretta Scott King’s personal 1969 memoir is reframed for high school students, with updated language.

“Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life” (2002) by Marshall Frady. Frady’s slender volume, part of the Penguin Lives biography series, provides a streamlined overview of King’s life and work.

“Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963” and “Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973” anthologies by the Library of America. These anthologies show the world King entered, the challenges the civil rights movement faced and what the cost of its victories were, up close. Authors include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Charlayne Hunter, John Hersey, Joan Didion, Gordon Parks and Earl Caldwell, the only reporter to witness the assassination of King.

“Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (2001) by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier. For children ages 5 and up, this picture book biography was awarded a Caldecott Honor and is an accessible introduction to King for children.

“Martin Luther King Jr.: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King Jr.” (2009) This 15-hour-long audiobook includes recordings of King’s significant speeches, showing off his gifts as an orator, with additional narration by colleagues and scholars.

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