5 Recent Biographies that Reevaluate the Legacy of Dr. King

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson © Yoichi R. Okamoto - Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

With Ava DuVernay’s powerful "Selma" currently in theaters (catch up on our related reading suggestions here), this year’s Martin Luther King Day is an appropriate time to revisit the newest books on the civil rights legend. These five additions to the extensive King library, all published in the past two years, include collections of his writings, biography, and original scholarship. Together, they show us how much there is still to discover and debate about King’s life and legacy, from his core political beliefs to the evolving meaning of his leadership.

The events and protests of 2014 reminded anyone who had become complacent that racial equality and justice are still far off in America. In his new book Waking from the Dream, David L. Chappell, an expert on the untold stories of the civil rights movement, explores how the movement changed and evolved after King’s death, and what it means for us today. The aftermath of King’s assassination was a period of despair and division, but also of perseverance and surprising victory. Chappell demonstrates how difficult it was to keep the dream alive without its leader, and to maintain the movement’s energy—and keep the world’s attention—as its battlegrounds shifted from protests to politics. His voluminous research and vibrant narrative help to bring this neglected period to life and to reevaluate the meaning of King’s leadership in the crucial, reeling years after his murder, and into the present moment.

martins-dreamIn August 1963, Clayborne Carson was a young student from New Mexico who had hitched a ride to Washington D.C. to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak to hundreds of thousands of people about the dream he had for his country, of a new era of justice and freedom. The speech had a seismic effect on its listeners, but perhaps none more than young Carson, who devoted his life to the study of the civil rights movement and the man he saw speak that summer day. He was eventually chosen by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish her husband’s papers, and currently directs Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. In his book Martin’s Dream, Carson shares his personal account of history in the making, drawing on his own diaries as well as unpublished material from the King archives in order to tell a fresh story of the leader’s impact and the way his legacy was shaped.

Misremembering Dr KingThat legacy -- and its shortcomings -- is the subject of Jennifer Yanco’s fiery book Misremembering Dr. KingIn it, she argues that the posthumous veneration of the civil rights leader has involved silencing his most radical beliefs, especially his core conviction that racism was just one of three “giant triplets” corrupting American society -- the others being materialism and militarism. Yanco highlights King’s powerful critiques against capitalist greed and the military might of the United States, which make him a truly radical and unsettling icon -- especially to those conservatives who have embraced a harmless version of him as a the peace-loving dreamer. Yanco’s important book is a reminder that when we raise a transformative figure to a pedestal, we mustn’t overlook their most challenging beliefs, even (or especially) if those beliefs force us to realize how far we still have to go.

the-radical-kingIn support of Jennifer Yanco’s reevaluation of King’s legacy, the new collection The Radical King, edited by Cornel West, draws on the leader’s own writings to prove his revolutionary commitment. The collection, and West’s introduction, sheds light on King’s identity as a “democratic socialist” who wanted to see power transferred from “oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens,” and thus to overhaul the values and priorities of government. West argues that King’s idealist oratory and embrace of nonviolence were only part of his story. In the twenty-three selections he has gathered here, the leader’s opposition to war, imperialism and capitalism become electrifyingly clear, helping to restore him to a position of danger and revolutionary inspiration.

gospel-of-freedomThe “I Have a Dream” speech might be the one that everybody knows, but as historian Jonathan Rieder argues in his book Gospel of Freedom, it is not the Dream speech but the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that truly embodies King’s message. Balancing reason and rage, the letter was first written in response to a small group of clergymen who declared the massive civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963 to be "untimely" and too extreme to be effective. After King deliberately got himself arrested, he attacked their craven caution in indelible words that would inspire civil rights protestors from the American South to China and the Middle East, from the 1960s into the present day. Rieder’s important book reveals how the letter came about; how it connected with -- and challenged -- King’s religious faith; and how it changed the rhetoric and direction of the civil rights struggle.