Martin Luther King, Jr.

9 reviews on the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

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The Domestication of Martin Luther King Jr: Clarence B. Jones, right-wing conservatism, and the manipulation of the King legacy, ed. by Lewis V. Baldwin and Rufus Burrow Jr. Cascade Books, 2013. 267p ISBN 1610979540, $26.40; ISBN 9781610979542, $26.40.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2014

In answering the question “What is the proper interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work?” Baldwin (Vanderbilt Univ.) and Burrow (Christian Theological Seminary) offer up incisive critiques of popular conservative readings of King in this edited volume. The authors analyze the flaws in superficial readings or selective quoting of King, and the scholars assembled in this collection take the time to establish the context of the intellectual environment, moral dilemmas, and political strategies of King and his social movement. It is only in this way, the authors argue, that readers can understand why King engaged in politics in the way that he did and, therefore, it is the only way they can also develop insights into how King might comment on contemporary political issues. This is a valuable interpretation that illuminates modern intellectual and political debates of King and his legacy. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduate, graduate, and research collections. —K. Anderson, Eastern Illinois University

Dorrien, Gary J. Breaking white supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the black social gospel. Yale, 2017 (c2018). 610p index ISBN 9780300205619, $45.00; ISBN 9780300231359 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2018

This massive, thoroughly researched volume is the second of Dorrien’s two-part study of the history of the black social gospel tradition. In the first volume, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (CH, Feb’16, 53-2606), Dorrien examined the long history of the tradition in the 19th and early-20th centuries, culminating in Du Bois’s “lover’s quarrel” (as Dorrien calls it) with the black church. In this magisterial followup, Dorrien (social ethics, Union Theological Seminary; religion, Columbia Univ.) focuses on the intellectual forces that produced Martin Luther King Jr. In the first part of the book Dorrien examines the major carriers of black social “gospelism” in the first half of the 20th century, including Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell. In the second part he examines King and the movement, noting especially King’s growing radicalism and anger. He concludes with discussion of Pauli Murray, whose message, like King’s, resonates today. This is intellectual history at its finest; acknowledging his own choices, the author calls for others to fill in the social history of the black gospel. A triumph of careful scholarship, rigorous argument, clear prose, unblinking judgments, and groundbreaking conclusions, this two-part study is an indispensable resource on American religious history. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Honey, Michael K. To the promised land: Martin Luther King and the fight for economic justice. W. W. Norton, 2018. 241p bibl index ISBN 9780393651263, $25.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2018

Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of nonviolent resistance in the quest for African American civil rights, but scholar and southern civil rights organizer Michael Honey (humanities, Univ. of Washington, Takoma) highlights a parallel aspect of King’s important work—his quest for economic justice for poor Americans. Honey presents the numerous instances of King’s commitment to the poor and the working class, and his efforts to promote union rights. King met with labor leaders, spoke to unions, and crisscrossed the South backing various beleaguered workers. He helped organize a Poor People’s Campaign to call attention to the economic injustices many faced in the capitalistic system, and to encourage a social Christian vision for the common good. Drawing on the work of various scholars, the King Papers (especially King’s speeches), labor union records, and newspapers and magazines, Honey presents a rich portrait of a man whose campaign to end segregation was the first step toward the long-term goal of economic justice. The examination of the Scripto strike is informative. The two detailed chapters on the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis reveal King’s collaboration with labor and the working poor. King’s dream to create social and economic justice is more relevant than ever. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —R. M. Hyser, James Madison University

Jackson, Thomas F. From civil rights to human rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the struggle for economic justice. Pennsylvania, 2007. 459p ISBN 0812239695, $39.95; ISBN 9780812239690, $39.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2007

In this initial offering of the publisher’s “Politics and Culture in Modern America” series, Jackson (Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) attacks mythologies that have surrounded Martin Luther King, Jr., distorting his purposes and what he sought to accomplish. To Jackson, King was much more than a civil rights leader; he “did not rise up suddenly against poverty and war when American cities burned and Vietnamese villagers fled American napalm …. [These] lifelong convictions grew from deep roots in the black freedom movement and the democratic left.” Thus, Jackson presents a more militant King—one who may be unacceptable today to those politicians and corporate leaders who rule the US as they frequently present to the public an acceptable, moderate, “I Have a Dream” King. The author’s interpretation may raise questions, but this book is a notable contribution to social, cultural, economic, and African American studies. Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge (CH, Jul’06, 43-6736) is a valuable companion. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —P. D. Travis, Texas Woman’s University

Jackson, Troy. Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the making of a national leader. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 248p ISBN 9780813125206, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2009

What happened to Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery? Historic heroes do not emerge as full-blown icons. History idolizes them for their actions in their mature years, but readers rarely get to know them in their developmental stage of life. For the sake of historical accuracy and for the encouragement of future leaders who are still in their developmental years, this is an exceptionally valuable book. Using archives, interviews, and varied autobiographies, Jackson, a pastor at the United Christian Church in Cincinnati, identifies the upbringing, collegiate experience, and theological education that the novice minister brought to Montgomery. Jackson then shows how the already begun Montgomery protest and the prompting of local leaders drew King in the role of spokesman, which made him choose between working through the Montgomery situation and moving onto the path of national leadership. Jackson writes well of the transformation that took place, valuing the input of the Montgomery leaders and community to the minister’s “becoming King.” A scholarly bibliography enhances this volume for students of King’s life and for young leaders who may benefit from King’s experience. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —J. H. Smith, Wake Forest University

Levingston, Steven. Kennedy and King: the president, the pastor, and the battle over civil rights. Hachette Books, 2017. 511p bibl index ISBN 9780316267397, $28.00; ISBN 9780316267403 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2018

The quiet, reserved Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to bring the ebullient, extroverted John F. Kennedy to see civil rights as a moral crusade demanding the same urgency the president devoted to the economy and foreign affairs. Needing southern support, Kennedy moved cautiously, while King, the pastor, educator, and activist, chided him for not acting forcefully. King knew the press covered his every word and that the president would read about it. As government inaction caused King to move toward militant protest, he unsuccessfully urged Kennedy to accept a second emancipation proclamation. The violence in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, along with the attempts to desegregate the universities of Alabama and Mississippi, brought into focus the division between states’ rights and federal power, forcing Kennedy to accept the moral imperative that brought on the civil rights bill. Though neither universally accepted nor always successful, together King and Kennedy altered the American landscape to create legislation moving the nation closer to the Declaration of Independence’s acknowledgement that all are created equal, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This book is a must read for understanding the civil rights movement. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic levels/libraries. —D. R. Jamieson, Ashland University

Lucks, Daniel S. Selma to Saigon: the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. University Press of Kentucky, 2014. 366p ISBN 9780813145075, $35.00; ISBN 9780813145082 ebook, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2014

This brisk narrative examines the impact of the Vietnam War escalation on the civil rights movement. Lucks points out that the divisions between the factions in “the movement” widened in 1965 due to Lyndon Johnson’s decision to commit large military units to South Vietnam. Decades-long debates on colonialism, black separatism, and capitalism broke into the open. Moreover, suspicions about LBJ, dating from the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Atlantic City Democratic National Convention, heightened. Add on the Watts riots of August 1965, and this confluence of events heralded the beginning of the end of the civil rights coalition. Within these organizations, conflicts between pro-Johnson leaders such as Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins and skeptics such as Martin Luther King Jr. intensified. King emerged as staunchly antiwar, earning the enmity of Johnson and permanently damaging the civil rights movement. Lucks is particularly good at plumbing the complicated world of African American politics, and he manages to nicely explain why the various groups disagreed, covering the tensions between SNCC and other civil rights organizations. A superb portrait of a very diffuse movement. Excellent. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. —D. R. Turner, Davis and Elkins College

Moses, Greg. Revolution of conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the philosophy of nonviolence. Guilford, 1997. 238p ISBN 1572301694, $23.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 1997

Divided into five chapters on various aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.’s social and political philosophy, this scholarly work focuses on King’s changing view of the role of nonviolent direct action in bringing about social change. By citing King’s later texts, Moses (philosophy, Marist College) convincingly argues that, after being jeered by black power advocates in Chicago, King expanded the concept of direct action to include the transformation of values as a broader objective. Moses nonetheless opposes the Marxist interpretation of King’s move to expand the objectives of the Civil Rights struggle. He usefully considers the positions of A. Philip Randolph and Ralph Bunche on the race-class question, situating King’s philosophy in a tradition of African American thought. Although the earlier chapters on Douglass and Du Bois detract more than they contribute to Moses’ interpretation, his discussion of Wallace Thurman’s philosophy of liberation as the primary influence on King’s doctrine of nonviolent direct action provides a valuable insight. As a follower of King, Moses maintains that King’s notion of nonviolence is still a viable means of social change. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of King’s doctrine, often cited by detractors, seem to have outstripped Moses’ endeavor to establish this belief. Summing Up: Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. —T. L. Lott, San Jose State University

Sunnemark, Fredrik. Ring out freedom!: the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the making of the Civil Rights Movement. Indiana, 2004. 273p ISBN 0253343763, $49.95; ISBN 0253216591 pbk, $19.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2004

Sunnemark (cultural studies, Univ. Trollhattan-Uddevalla, Sweden) analyzes King’s civil rights legacy through the lens of discourse studies. He argues that King created a specific civil rights discourse using a “ladder of signification” comprising three levels: religious, idealistic, and materialist. At the religious level (top rung), King drew on concepts of God, Jesus, the church, and “the beloved community” to establish the moral authority of the movement and of King as spokesperson for it. At the idealistic level (second rung), King spoke from this moral authority to situate civil rights issues effectively within a variety of ideologies, using allusion, varying conceptions of race, and international contexts to place civil rights issues in an inclusive discourse. Having created this inclusivity, King was able to bring blacks and whites together at the materialistic level (third rung) to construct a shared moral struggle against segregation. Sunnemark suggests that this “ladder of signification” became a less viable civil rights discourse after 1965, when the realities of continuing economic inequalities required King to speak out against the white power structure rather than depict a mutual quest for a moral, just world. Summing Up: Recommended. Collections supporting discourse studies and cultural studies, especially the Civil Rights Movement, at graduate and research levels. —C. R. Haller, York College, CUNY