In 2016 I sat down to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I haven’t been the same since.
I grew up hearing about Dr. King in school as most of my peers did: we read small excerpts of his I Have a Dream speech, and we briefly learned about his important role in the Civil Rights movement. As positively as he was portrayed, I was never really encouraged to treat him as a serious figure. Important – of course! Significant- yes. But in my heart, I thought of him as more of a sentimental idea than a real person grounded in actual events.
My studies and development in Christian theology and ministry philosophy further discouraged me from taking King seriously. As I’ve written about previously, White Supremacy had invaded my theology in some subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I dismissed the Black theological tradition as less-than, believing it largely advocated for some kind of “progressive” liberation theology that was unbiblical. I did not consider King or his tradition as anything worth my time.
All of that changed in 2016 when I finally decided to sit and read King’s famous letter for myself. I saw myself in King’s words, particularly in those who he described as the “white moderate”:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Such words brought deep conviction into my heart. I determined then not only to run to the Lord for his grace and mercy, but I resolved to give myself to the study of a man and tradition I had sinfully looked down upon with contempt and disdain.
I can only describe what has happened since that moment as a kind of conversion. I can echo the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, after spending a year immersed in the Black Church of Harlem, said, “Something different came, something that has changed and transformed my life to this very day… Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly and so have other people around me.”
Fast forward six years and I can happily say that my time spent with King – as well as some of his influences and contemporaries – has dramatically changed my faith and ministry. While I still have much to learn, I am a more faithful Christian, husband, and pastor because of the effort I’ve put into studying King.
What follows is my best attempt to pass on what I have learned. King is a misunderstood man, not least of which because of the soundbite quotes we cherry pick to advance our own agendas. My encouragement to you on this MLK Day is to make a plan to get to know Dr. King – the real King – for yourself.
I’ve tried to group these resources like an undergraduate program, ranging from the 101 to 401 level. Chances are many of you will not read all, nor even most, of these resources. Feel free to pick and choose which resources stand out to you! At the end of this complete list, I’ve tried to highlight the top five resources I would select as the most essential.
One more thing: This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Some readers may wonder why certain books or influences were left out. I have tried to keep this list as short as possible, emphasizing the most important of the primary sources and other work that is available.
101: The Man with a Dream
This first “course” is intended to give you a good understanding of King’s life and work directly from the man himself.
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Clayborne Carson) – While King never wrote a complete autobiography, this book was edited and compiled by Dr. Clayborne Carson, a scholar deeply familiar with King’s life and work. In fact, he was personally chosen by King’s wife Mrs. Coretta Scott King for this project. This book is a great introduction to King’s life and work in his own words. It even includes helpful features, such as a timelines at the beginning of each chapter as well as key quotes from primary sources. The print edition is great; the audio version is narrated by LeVar Burton and includes original audio when possible. 390 pages
- Strength to Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.) – This book was actually the first of King’s work that I read after It is a collection of 14 of King’s most recognized sermons and addresses. These addresses convey the complexity of King’s thoughts, showing that he can neither be placed in “progressive” nor “conservative” camps. He stands outside of time and critiques us all. As Mrs. Coretta Scott King says in the forward, of all King’s work this book is the one people say has changed their lives most. 167 pages
- The Measure of Man (Martin Luther King, Jr.) – This short book is a collection of two addresses given in 1958 at the first National Conference on Christian Education, about two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended. These addresses – based on Psalm 8 and Revelation 21:6 – are a window into the mind of Dr. King as a young preacher and civil rights activist. While these are not the most vital of King’s work, they are not available in other collections as far as I am aware. Coming in at under 50 pages, they can be read in one sitting and are worth your time. 46 pages
- Letter from Birmingham Jail (Martin Luther King, Jr.) – This letter, written in response to an ad put out by eight white clergymen in Birmingham, is one of the most important documents in all of American history. It changed my life. It will change yours, if you allow it. I don’t know what else to say – read it; and then read it again. And again.
201: The More-Than-Quotable King
If you read the resources at the 101 level, then you’ll have discovered that Dr. King is far more complex than any simple pulled quote could convey. The following resources are meant to complement the 101 resources, filling in King’s life and work at a deeper level.
- A Testament of Hope (Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington) – This collection functions as an “MLK Reader” and belongs in the library of any person who seeks to understand King for themselves. It is divided up into four sections, including addresses on his philosophy of religious nonviolence and social integration, other famous addresses, historic essays, and excerpts from his books. If you read the resources at the 101 level, this reader will cover some familiar ground, including his Birmingham Letter, as well as excerpts from Strength to Love. At less than $17, this affordable resource is worth your investment. 702 pages
- Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch) – Branch’s three-volume history of Dr. King is the definitive history on King and the larger context of the United States during his lifetime. I struggled to know where to put these three volumes in this list, as they add up to nearly 3,000 pages taken together. This first volume, which won the Pulitzer Prize, covers King’s early life as well as key events in his ministry and activism up to the year 1963 (including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, events in Birmingham, and the March on Washington). Branch’s extensive work not only covers King’s life, but many of his contemporaries as well as the larger context that King found himself in. It is long – but very good (and important)! 1062 pages
301: King’s Influences and Contemporaries
These resources will give you insight into a couple of King’s contemporaries, as well as a few of his key influences. There are some names not listed here who could be, such as James Baldwin or Reinhold Niebuhr. I tried to keep this list as short as possible!
- Jesus and the Disinherited (Howard Thurman) – Thurman was an African American pastor who began his ministry in the early 20th century, preceding Dr. King by one generation. This book was written for oppressed peoples; those who Thurman described as having their backs against the wall. Thurman was a student with Martin Luther King, Sr. at Morehouse college, and thus was not only a theological influence but a personal influence for the junior King as well. It is said that Dr. King carried a copy of this book around with him on many of his travels. Readers familiar with King’s thoughts will see several connections within Jesus and the Disinherited. This book stands on its own, however, and will challenge the over-spiritualized emphases generally found in White Evangelicalism. 102 pages
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X, ed. Alex Haley) – If your upbringing was anything like mine, I understood Malcolm X to be one of the villains of the Civil Rights movement. If Dr. King advocated nonviolence and peace, Malcolm X advocated violence and conflict. This stereotype was even embodied in my understanding of X-Men and the great clash between Professor X and Magneto! An honest engagement with Malcolm X brings him to life as an important, sorely misunderstood figure. Malcolm’s path of embracing the Nation of Islam, but then turning from it and toward a more peaceable path at the end of his life, saddens the story of his tragic assassination in 1965. While this is available in print, the audiobook performed by Laurence Fishburne is essential listening if you’re able.
- Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (Ramachandra Guha) – Gandhi has been a difficult figure for me to study, not least of which because his story does not come out of American history, and he thus embodies a story I am unfamiliar with. I enjoy referencing autobiographies over biographies as much as possible, but I struggled to get much value out of the autobiography which Gandhi produced himself. This volume by Guha – the second in a series of two – is a great window into the man who had such a powerful sway over King’s own ideas and practice of nonviolence. Fun fact: Guha is also the historian who dug up this letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Gandhi, which has opened up a new layer of connections I’ve been trying to make between Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and King! 1083 pages
- Plain Theology for Plain People (Charles Octavius Boothe) – Boothe was the founding pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the first church which King would later pastor and begin his practice of activism and nonviolence. First published in 1890, this book is Boothe’s attempt at producing a systematic theology for the lay people in his congregation. It is a great work of theology, representing the conservative Black tradition which King came from and sometimes even had conflict with. 151 pages
- March, 3 Volumes (Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell) – This three-volume series of graphic novels about the life of the late Representative John Lewis may be the most unique resource on this list! These graphic novels are a great account of Lewis’ life, including his parallel work alongside Dr. King, his work as a Freedom Rider, and his pathway into politics. With incredible visuals and important autobiographical insight, these graphic novels are a must-read! 564 pages
401 – Where Will You Go From Here?
These resources will fill in King’s life and work to a greater degree. While important in their own right, if you have read resources from the previous sections I would not consider these resources to be “essential.”
- The Seminarian (Patrick Parr) – It was difficult to know whether to place this resource at the 301 or 401 level. Parr’s history of Dr. King’s education at Crozer Theological Seminary is the only resource available which takes a deep look at this key time of development in Dr. King’s life. Parr’s study of King’s romance with Betty Moitz, a White woman who he met during his studies, is a unique contribution to the resources on this list. Readers will find King’s theological journey a challenge to whatever preconceived notions they may have about King and his theology. 286 pages
- Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Martin Luther King, Jr.) – This book is an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott from Dr. King himself. Many chapters of this book are also in A Testament of Hope, making this fuller account a helpful but non-essential addition. This personal account is an important perspective on this pivotal moment in history. 272 pages
- Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge (Taylor Branch) – The remaining two volumes of Branch’s trilogy cover the rest of King’s life up until his horrific murder in 1968. Readers who want to go more in depth to King’s life and the Civil Rights movement (and if you’ve come this far, why wouldn’t you?) will still learn much from these resources. 768 and 1065 pages
- Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Martin Luther King, Jr.) – This book was the last produced by King before his death in 1968. Written in isolation in Jamaica, this book will challenge any modern reader regardless of their background, faith, or culture. While excerpts from this work are included in A Testament of Hope, this work is significant enough to be read in full. Our time is short, but King’s challenge is still available to us today: to choose between nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation; between chaos and community. 223 pages
“That’s Great, but if I could only read five…”
I get it, your time is short and valuable. While many of you now have noble aspirations to study King deeply, the realities of life always get in the way, don’t they?
I’ve got you.
The following five resources are those I would select as being most essential!
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Clayborne Carson), 390 pages
- A Testament of Hope (Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington), 702 pages
- The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Taylor Branch), 224 pages. Note: This is a much-abbreviated version of his trilogy – still very helpful!
- Jesus and the Disinherited (Howard Thurman), 102 pages
- March, 3 Volumes (Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell), 564 pages
I hope these lists are helpful for you as you consider learning from Dr. King for yourself. I could not encourage such an endeavor highly enough. But be careful – Jesus might mess with you in ways you could never see coming!