The first national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was observed in 1986, although at that time only 17 states had official King holidays. The intent of the holiday is to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King and remind ourselves of the ideals for which he fought. Observance of a holiday for decades risks becoming a rote exercise that misses the complexities of the person and the historical period. Fortunately, there is a continually growing body of work on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to keep us engaged with this part of American history and how it connects to our present.
One of King’s most iconic speeches, the “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking black sanitation workers, was given hours before his assassination in Memphis. The progress of King’s thinking on labor and economic justice issues are traced in “All Labor Has Dignity.” This collection of King’s speeches includes the “Mountaintop” speech, as well as other previously unpublished ones in which he advocated for jobs, unionization and other labor concerns. You can also listen to the speeches of the skilled orator in “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Tavis Smiley’s “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” is the author’s effort to flesh out our understanding of Dr. King and address what Smiley perceives as oversights in King’s legacy. The book covers King’s last 12 months, from his first anti-war speech to the day he was killed. Smiley addresses King’s personal struggles and how he drew criticism from a new generation of activists to become a divisive figure for both the political left and right.
Steven Levingston’s “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights” attempts to shed new light on King and President John F. Kennedy by focusing on their contentious relationship. He illuminates their intersecting lives and the interplay between social movements and political power during the early years of the civil rights movement.
Another look into the processes and conflicts that drove the civil rights movement can be found in John Lewis’s graphic novel series, “March.” This award winning three-volume set is a memoir by the activist and current congressman for Georgia. Lewis was involved in many of the defining moments in civil rights history. Lewis worked with King and Robert Kennedy, but “March” is also about many of the lesser-known participants in the civil rights struggle.
Rosa Parks is another contributor to the struggle for civil rights whom we all think we know, but “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” challenges the common perceptions about her. Author Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science, attempts to rescue Parks from the largely symbolic role she has been consigned to and share who she really was as both a person and an activist.
Theoharis takes a similar approach to the civil rights movement at large in “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.” This book is an effort to address what Theoharis sees as national myth-making and recast the accepted stories of this history in a more nuanced light.
The author James Baldwin was an influential figure in the early days of the civil rights movement. His “The Fire Next Time” became a national bestseller when it was originally published in 1963 and is now considered a literary classic. The book is simultaneously a reflection on his early life and an examination of racial injustice. The new book, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” uses Baldwin’s book as a jumping-off point for a collection of writing about race in America. Award-winning author, Jesmyn Ward has assembled thinkers and writers for contributions to a national conversation for a new generation.