Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most celebrated non-elected citizen in the history of the United States of America. This is evidenced by the fact that Dr. King is the only American to have a federal holiday named in their honor without having served a day in public office. Yet, despite this high honor and the recognition that Dr. King routinely receives there continues to be a general public ignorance about many important aspects of his life. For example, though most Americans celebrate King, the majority have no clue about the intellectual and cultural forces that helped to shape MLK into an American civic hero. For the average American, their knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King begins with the fact that he was a civil rights activist who delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech at a march in Washington and it ends with him being assassinated in Memphis five years later.
Though these facts are certainly important to the life of Dr. King, they do not help people understand the forces that shaped Dr. King’s intellectual and moral formation. As a result, we have a significant segment of society that celebrates the life of a man that in reality they know very little about. This presents a great danger to the legacy of Dr. King because it allows for people to co-opt his message and de-radicalize his voice.
Today, there are those who fraudulently use the name and words of MLK to advance their agendas (political or otherwise) when in reality their hearts are far from what King stood for and cared about. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is a clear example of this. For this cause it is more important than ever to understand the history and true mission of the man that many believe is the greatest American ever produced on American soil.
In an effort to be helpful to the cause, I have produced my list of the top 5 books written on the life and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Let me be clear, I am in no way suggesting that these texts are the best books written in the history of all writing on MLK. Believe me; I would never be so presumptuous. This list is neither exhaustive nor definitive. It’s simply MY list of favorites. Nothing more and nothing less. So enjoy. Hope you find it helpful.
1) The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Volume I — I recommend this work first because it provides a great basis for the familial and adolescent development of King. It contains a detailed account of his family’s history in Atlanta and their historical connection to the Ebenezer Baptist church. But the most important feature of this resource is that it chronicles the original letters and papers of young Martin King from his days at Morehouse College to his days at Crozer Theological Seminary. I consider this indispensable resource for anyone interested in understanding King as a thinker and minister.
2) Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians — This book is a part of the armchair theologian series which is a collection of texts that feature the thought of a famous theologian as understood by a contemporary religious scholar. This book that features the thought of MLK is written by seminary professor Rufus Burrow whose work specializes in theological social ethics. The great benefit of this book is its accessibility and reader friendly composition (it even has pictures). In fact, I imagine most folks could read this entire book fairly quickly and at the conclusion have a general understanding of the substratum of King’s theology and thought.
3) I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr — This book has been heralded as one of the most important texts written on the life of MLK. Penned by the famed professor and social critic Michael Eric Dyson this book is a collection of extended critical essays on the life of Dr. King. Upon its release this book was greeted with a mixed reception due to the fact that it contained detailed accounts of King’s extra-marital sexual affairs and his alleged same gender sexual encounter. In my assessment, Dyson has provided a wonderful MLK biographical book of social and cultural criticism that helps readers view the life of King from the context of our current contemporary moment. I highly recommend this book for individuals who have the courage to engage both the blessings and the banes of the life of MLK.
4) King Among Theologians — This was the first book I read that took seriously the fact that King was an actual theologian. In this unique book, Dr. Noel Erskine (a former professor of mine) compares and contrasts the theology of MLK to the theologies of Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, James Cone, and a few womanist theologians. For the student of theology this book will be a treat. For others this book will be an important window into the mind of Dr. King as a religious thinker and scholar. However, I would recommend that readers who are not students of theology read King For Armchair Theologians before they read Erskine’s text so that might gain a better understanding of the concepts and language.
5) Martin & Malcolm & America — I debated whether or not to include this last text on this list, mostly because the book is not primarily about the life of MLK. Rather, the legendary theologian Dr. James Cone sought in this book to compare and contrast the southern integrationist rhetorical strategies of Dr. King with the northern separatist ideology of Malcolm X. Though this book is about both Martin and Malcolm I contend it can be a pivotal resource for those seeking to understand some of the challenges and limitations of King’s thought. In particular, it can help readers understand the Black Nationalist critiques of King that were pervasive during his life and in fact still endure to this day.