The best books to get the full measure of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who am I?

I have spent my entire academic career researching and teaching about American religious history, particularly focusing on issues of race and religion. I am the author of numerous works on this topic, including The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in American History (co-authored with Edward J. Blum), and Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography. Finally, after thirty years of work, I challenged myself to write a short reader-friendly biography of King that would capture him as fully as possible, but in a brief book that would communicate to general readers the full measure of the man.


I wrote...

Martin Luther King: A Religious Life

By Paul Harvey,

Book cover of Martin Luther King: A Religious Life

What is my book about?

In this new biography of Martin Luther King, we look at his life through the prism of his evolving faith and through his complex, emerging, religious lives.

Readers will learn about Martin Luther King's diverse religious and intellectual influences, of an increasingly radical cast of thought, and of a mélange of intellectual influences that he aligned in becoming the spokesperson for the most important social movement of twentieth-century American history. Not only does Harvey chronicle King's metamorphosis and its impact on American and African American life, but he seeks to explain his "afterlives"--how in American culture King became transformed into a mainstream civil saint, shorn of his radical religious critique of how power functioned in America. Harvey's concise biography will allow readers to see King anew in the context of his time and today.

The books I picked & why

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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

Taylor Branch’s classic of journalistic history immerses the reader in not just the life of King, but in the entire era, which he appropriately identifies as “the King years.” Scholars have taken issue with some details and interpretations, but for general readers, this is the place to start to understand the enormity of King’s impact, and also the world that King came from. The writing is spectacular and vivid, and the portraits of figures from that era are unforgettable.


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?

Garrow’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography is the first complete, almost minute-by-minute, account of King’s life based on extensive research in the King documents, interviews with dozens of his associates, and a deep understanding of American history in that period. Garrow picks up the story just as King comes to Montgomery, and there are other books to read about the young King before 1954, but from there forward, Garrow’s is the indispensable account, and was the first book to really delve into the FBI’s surveillance of King.


The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Jonathan Rieder,

Book cover of The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why this book?

Rieder’s work is perhaps the single most interesting interpretation of King’s ability to thrive in very different rhetorical audiences, and explains his ability to communicate to so many different audiences at the same time. From King’s street talk in private to his SCLC colleagues, to his magnificent sermons to black church crowds, to his soaring oratory to more general public audiences, King code-shifted with ease and skill. No one captures this quality better than Rieder in this book.


From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

By Thomas F. Jackson,

Book cover of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

Why this book?

Every year now on King’s holiday, politicians and public figures reproduce the same one or two quotations from King’s most famous speech, and almost always completely distort and bowdlerize him in doing so. Jackson’s classic book shows how King was an economic radical from his youngest years, an advocate of a European-style social democracy, and a critic of the systemic racism in American society that we now identify as “critical race theory.” King’s words now are often taken out of context to show how he was a peaceful moderate who would have been in opposition to Black Lives Matter and other contemporary movements, but in fact, just exactly the opposite is the case. King was the true forerunner of these contemporary movements, and Jackson shows that in stunning detail.


Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

By Gary Dorrien,

Book cover of Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

Why this book?

This is volume two of Dorrien’s magisterial history of the “black social gospel,”  from the mid-nineteenth century to the present; as the title indicates, King is the central figure in the book, but Dorrien places him in a long tradition and shows how and why King as a young man and seminary student wrote of himself, “I am a profound advocator of the social gospel.” This is the best place to start to have a comprehensive understanding of the multitude of intellectual influences that shaped King’s thinking and action.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights, and clerics?

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., civil rights, and clerics.

Martin Luther King Jr. Explore 24 books about Martin Luther King Jr.
Civil Rights Explore 91 books about civil rights
Clerics Explore 25 books about clerics

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement, Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Last 31 Hours, and Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources if you like this list.