Martin Luther King Day: 5 Books that Chronicle the Life of the American Civil Rights Pioneer

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this August 28, 1963 file photo.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this August 28, 1963 file photo. | REUTERS/Rowland Scherman/U.S. Information Agency/US National Archives

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most influential and pivotal leaders of the African-American civil rights movement. A Baptist minister by profession, MLK was an inspirational civil rights activist who centered his protests around a civil disobedience and non-violence ideology.

Considered among the best orators in American history, Mr. King mobilized the downtrodden masses with his evocative public addresses and led them on epochal missions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) and the historic March on Washington (1963).

His astounding 'I have a dream' speech paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His efforts to end segregation and racial discrimination won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 -- he was the youngest recipient of the award. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

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The U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Day to honor MLK as one of the most influential and important Americans throughout the nation's long history. The public holiday was written into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983. This year, Martin Luther King Day will be celebrated on Monday, January 16.

Books on the Life and Ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the heart of this book written by MLK himself is the powerful and heart-wrenching 'Letter from the Birmingham Jail'. While serving a sentence in the Birmingham Jail for participating in a civil rights demonstration in 1963, King received a letter from fellow clergymen urging him to drop his campaigns and to leave the battle for racial equality to the courts. In response, King drafted a powerful essay that expounded the atrocities faced by the Negro community, defended the nonviolent movement and emphasized the immediate need for racial equality. Why We Can't Wait was published by Harper & Row in July 1964.

2. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Outlining MLK's views on capitalism, poverty, military campaigns, social policies, black nationalism and much more, this collection of his writings, speeches and interviews allows the reader to delve into the mind of the legend. And what makes this book a must-read is his writings and thoughts remain relevant even today as we face many of the same social and political challenges.

3. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates

With historical figures like MLK, the legend of the man often overshadows the person. We tend to put such people on a pedestal and evangelize them as something beyond human, which is something that prevents us from understanding them. In this book, Oates tells the story of MLK in a thoroughly objective manner, recounting events and letting readers draw their own conclusions of the man. He also manages to render an overall perspective to the civil rights movement as a whole, and he does it better than any history textbook has ever managed to.

4. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Before he became a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a practising Baptist minister. The book Strength to Love is a collection of sermons made by MLK which detail his thought process, his convictions and his outlook on the problems of society. Despite the atrocities faced by his community, he preached only love and forgiveness as the answer to hate and violence. Reading this book is bound to humble you and change your thinking about some of the most important issues of society and, indeed, life itself.

5. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Penned by MLK a year before his assassination, this amazingly frank book reflects his visionary thinking in tandem with his fears and frustrations. MLK considered the 1965 civil rights legislature to be the easier challenge compared to what needed to be done in order to lift the African-American community as a whole after the initial victory. He lambasted the use of violence in the fight against inequality and urged for a world where everyone learned to live together in harmony regardless of caste, creed or religion. If you want to know Martin Luther King, Jr. not just as a historic icon or a celebrated leader but as a person with humanity, then add this to your reading list.

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