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A more honest celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

January 16, 2022

As we celebrate one of the great leaders in the Black Freedom Struggle, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with the real Dr. King and not the one that is promoted in commercial media or by organizations that have their own agendas.

Like most people, Dr. King was not a static person and was not part of a static movement. He evolved over time and continued to sharpen his own view of the world as he moved beyond a civil rights view to a more global liberationist view. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also matured in his use of tactics and strategies when dealing with systems of oppression.

What follows are resources that we encourage people to investigate, so as to drawn your own conclusions about who Dr. King was, what he preached and practiced before he was assassinated over 50 years ago.

One good sources is The King Center Archive, which can be found online at The archive contains nearly 1 million documents associated with the life of Dr. King.

Another great source is a collections of King’s writings published in 1963 called, Why We Can’t Wait. This collection of writings includes his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Of course, there is the I have a Dream Speech, which give delivered in Washington, DC in 1963 at one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in US history. Some great sources to accompany that speech are Gary Younge’s book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington, by Charles Euchner.

It is also important to know that Dr. King did not limit himself to challenging institutionalized racism, he also spoke out and organized around economic exploitation. Michael Honey’s book, All Labor Has Dignityis a collection of writings and speeches that Dr. King gave that challenged economic injustice and well as demonstrating his relationship to organized labor groups in the US.

In a Single Garment of Destiny: A Global Vision of Justiceedited by Lewis Baldwin, you will find an amazing collection of writings and speeches by Dr. King that not only explored the issue of global poverty, but makes clear the tremendous understanding Dr. King had of US foreign policy and global solidarity. Included in this collection is King’s famous speech, Beyond Vietnam, which contains not only his denunciation of the US as the “Greatest purveyor of Violence in the world today,” it contains Kings naming the Evil Triplets of Racism, Militarism and Capitalism as the greatest threats to humanity.

As King’s vision of liberation became more radical, he began to name systems of oppression and to call out the unjust US war in Vietnam and the violence perpetrated against the black community in the US. In a little know book entitled, The Trumpet of Conscience, there are 5 lectures that King delivered on the Canadian Broadcasting System in 1967. These are some of the most powerful articulations of King’s vision and makes clear why he was such a threat to those in power.

The further radicalization of King is also capture well in another collection of King’s work, edited by Dr. Cornel West, entitled, The Radical King.

One of the last campaigns that Dr. King was involved in was The Poor People’s Campaign, which began in the summer of 1968, months after he was assassinated. This campaign was originally designed to have thousands of people set up a tent city in Washington DC until their demands were met around racial and economic justice, what King called a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

During the same time, the Memphis sanitation workers were organizing a strike for better wages and working conditions, Dr. King went to Memphis to support the strike and lend his solidarity to their struggle. The sanitation worker’s strike and King’s visit is well documented in the book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey.

Memphis is where King was assassinated, on April 4 of 1968. King’s assassination is the subject of two important books. One book is Michael Eric Dyson’s book April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr’s Death and How It Changed America. A second book, written by William Pepper, explores who was actually involved in King’s assassination and what role local, state and federal authorities played in the shooting of Dr. King. Pepper’s book is entitled, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.

It is also important to understand that the FBI had been monitoring Dr. King’s activities for years, making threats against him and wire tapping his phones. One book, which documents the FBI monitoring of King (with actual documents), is the book by Michael Friedly and David Gallen, Martin Luther King Jr: The FBI File.

There are other important scholarly works on the message and person of Dr. King. Three books in particular are worth mentioning. The first is by John Ansbro, entitled, Martin Luther King Jr.: The Making of a Mind. The second scholarly book is by Michael Eric Dyson, entitled, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. Lastly, no investigation of Dr. King is completed without the great Black Theologian James Cone’s book, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare.

One additional book that is worth reading, which is about how the Black Freedom Struggle/Civil Rights Movement are often misrepresented, is Jeanne Theoharis’s book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Abuses of Civil Rights History.

In addition to these books, speeches and essays by and about Dr. King, there are some great films about King and this time period. The PBS series Eyes on the Prize, provides wonderful visual documentation of the black liberation movement and Dr. King. However, a film that deals more directly to the message and person of Dr. King is  Citizen King, which deals particularly with the last few years of his life, his vision and the state repression against him and his family. 

A more recent documentary that I highly recommend, is a film that deals with the last three years of Dr. King’s life, particularly after he moved to Chicago and began to critique the US in much more profound ways. The film is called, King in the Wilderness. King in the Wilderness chronicles the final chapters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, revealing a conflicted leader who faced an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. While the Black Power movement saw his nonviolence as weakness, and President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his anti-Vietnam War speeches as irresponsible, Dr. King’s unyielding belief in peaceful protest became a testing point for a nation on the brink of chaos.

All of these resources are important, especially if we want to resist how government, non-profit or political groups present Dr. King, often hijacking the message and role that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the Black Freedom Struggle.

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