The best books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his words

W. Jason Miller Author Of Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric
By W. Jason Miller

Who am I?

Lost audio reels, archived poetry drafts, personal interviews, and undeveloped photograph negatives spark my compulsive curiosity to tell stories about language that people have never heard. Uncovering what is hidden has led to a digital project dedicated to Martin Luther King’s first “I Have a Dream” speech, a museum exhibit based on never-before-seen images of an 1,800 person KKK march staged in opposition to a King appearance in 1966, and an intimate interview with Dorothy Cotton about her memories of Dr. King. Of my three books, I have written a recent biography, Langston Hughes: Critical Lives. Part of my current research details the poet’s collaborative relationship with jazz singer Nina Simone.  


I wrote...

Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric

By W. Jason Miller,

Book cover of Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric

What is my book about?

While uncovering a long-lost reel-to-reel audio tape of MLK’s first “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Rocky Mount, NC over nine months before the March of Washington, I wrote Origins of the Dream to trace King’s use of seven poems by Langston Hughes. I learned that King’s animating metaphor was as much poetic as it was prophetic. In fact, Hughes and King knew each other, exchanged letters, and even traveled together to Nigeria in 1960.

As such, King played a dangerous game of embracing the ideas of a poet who had been the subject of redbaiting and had his reputation tarnished in most circles after testifying on television before Joseph McCarthy in 1953. Hughes’s revolutionary verses were often intentionally concealed within King’s speeches from 1963-66 as King had to be most cautious about publically aligning himself with the left during the years he most hoped to win mainstream political support.

The books I picked & why

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Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

By David J. Garrow,

Book cover of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Why this book?

Because of the extensive personal interviews with those closest to Martin Luther King, I too started affectionately calling him “Doc” halfway through this Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography. This definitive work was my first (and favorite) entry into understanding one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Garrow’s unquestioned accuracy, measured storytelling, and quick pacing bring to life all the big events and accomplices in King’s world. Only this biography pulls me right into the strained moments we all know such leaders endure during meaningful lives.

Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources

By Keith D. Miller,

Book cover of Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources

Why this book?

This groundbreaking study is an insider’s guide to how a whole era of black southern preachers spoke to their congregations. Ever-curious about the artistry it takes to riff, remix, and sample earlier sources, this book illuminates the added depth that comes with language once the various trajectories of its previous uses are named, contextualized, and dated. Every new voice has an older one behind it. Seeing where they merge is a fascinating journey when someone this informed is driving.

If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement

By Dorothy F. Cotton,

Book cover of If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement

Why this book?

Not scandalous like I Shared the Dream by Georgia Davis Powers, Cotton nonetheless enjoyed much greater access to King from 1963-68. While others may want to hear from the men who best knew King (such as Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Wyatt T. Walker, or Clarence Jones) the woman closest to him offers an immediate account of both the tensions inside the Southern Leadership Conference and throughout the nation during the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. Cotton’s life models the fortitude it took for a woman to rise to the role of leadership within King’s inner circle, as she became the Director of the Citizenship Education Program run by King’s organization.


The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age

By Patrick Parr,

Book cover of The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age

Why this book?

Ever wonder how a kid from Atlanta became the leader of the 1960s civil rights movement? This book shows you through its rare photographs and compressed prose. Focusing on the crucial (and overlooked) years in King’s life (when he was training to be the preacher we now know), this book shows him shooting pool as much as studying. Remarkable interviews with his classmates, as well as a stunner with a white woman King seriously considered marrying, make this a real page-turner.


The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

By Richard Lischer,

Book cover of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

Why this book?

This surprisingly approachable book is written by a genuine expert in the field. Well before I reached the end, I knew every landmark trait of the preacher would be fully covered. Where other authors such as Michael K. Honey cover King’s relationship to the labor movement with true aplomb, Lischer takes me deeper into the language where I live. Here cadence, delivery, and poetry are explored as expressive modes that empower real listeners to act. This book reminds us that inspiration was required as much as strategy when it came to moving the nation closer to its ideals.     


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Martin Luther King Jr., clerics, and the Civil Rights Movement?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Martin Luther King Jr., clerics, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. Explore 24 books about Martin Luther King Jr.
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, and Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. if you like this list.