Martin Luther King Jr.: 12 essential reads

Today the nation honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the reverend and activist who led the American civil rights movement. As King studied nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and imagined by Henry David Thoreau, now his own life and work are the subject of study. Here are 12 essential reads about the short life of King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39.

“The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement” (2013), “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63" (1986), “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965" (1998), and “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68" (2006), all by Taylor Branch. Branch’s latest book on King, published last month, is a condensed, highlight-heavy sampling of his award-winning trilogy about King. The first book, “Parting the Waters,” was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1987, and the two following books were also highly praised. Totaling almost 3,000 pages, Branch’s exhaustive trilogy provides a deep look into King’s life.

“Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life” (2002) by Marshall Frady. For those who might want a less voluminous introduction to King, Frady’s slender volume, part of the Penguin Lives biography series, provides a lively overview of King’s life and work.

“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 is considered a more significant book. Researching it, Garrow interviewed more than 700 people, and went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

“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.


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

“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, aimed at students grade 10 and up, is an entry into 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 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 placing them in context.


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