The best Martin Luther King Jr. books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Martin Luther King Jr. and why they recommend each book.

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Martin's Big Words

By Doreen Rappaport, Bryan Collier (illustrator),

Book cover of Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Martin Luther King is best known for his rousing “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. This biography shows how his religious upbringing in the segregated South honed the faith and fortitude to lead the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin's Big Words

By Doreen Rappaport, Bryan Collier (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Martin's Big Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, has over 60 books, including the Newbery Honor winner, BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, and three Caldecott Honor winners: Freedom in Congo Square, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Recent titles include Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, and The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop. A two-time NAACP Image Award winner, she teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.


I wrote...

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

By Carole Boston Weatherford, Ekua Holmes (illustrator),

Book cover of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

Stirring poems and stunning collage illustrations combine to celebrate the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a champion of equal voting rights.

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.

Voice of Deliverance

By Keith D. Miller,

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

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.

Voice of Deliverance

By Keith D. Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Voice of Deliverance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Martin Luther King Jr's words defined, mobilized and embodied much of the American civil rights movement, crystallizing the hope and demand for racial justice in America. His powerful sermons and speeches were unique in their ability to unite blacks and whites in the quest for reform. Yet, disclosures about King's unattributed appropriations in his PhD dissertation have raised the broader question of whether King's persuasive voice was truly his own. In this study of the language of King, Keith D. Miller explores his words to find the intellectual roots, spiritual resonances and actual sources of those speeches and essays that…

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.

If Your Back's Not Bent

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

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.

If Your Back's Not Bent

By Dorothy F. Cotton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If Your Back's Not Bent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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 Seminarian

By Patrick Parr,

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

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 Seminarian

By Patrick Parr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Seminarian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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 Preacher King

By Richard Lischer,

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

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.     

The Preacher King

By Richard Lischer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Preacher King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is a commonplace that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a spellbinding orator, and it is evident that he honed these skills in the pulpit, in his capacity as a Baptist minister. Until now, however, there has been no full-scale study of King as a preacher. This long-awaited study, drawing on tape-recordings and transcriptions of unpublished sermons, and interviews with King's parishioners and colleagues, promises to remedy that lack. Preaching to congregations was
never something King had "on the side," or dabbled in when he wasn't busy being a "civil rights activist," Lischer shows. Not only was preaching integral…

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.

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

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.

The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me

By Jonathan Rieder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"You don't know me," Martin Luther King, Jr., once declared to those who criticized his denunciation of the Vietnam War, who wanted to confine him to the ghetto of "black" issues. Now, forty years after being felled by an assassin's bullet, it is still difficult to take the measure of the man: apostle of peace or angry prophet; sublime exponent of a beloved community or fiery Moses leading his people up from bondage; black preacher or translator of blackness to the white world? This book explores the extraordinary performances through which King played with all of these possibilities, and others…

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.

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

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.

From Civil Rights to Human Rights

By Thomas F. Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Civil Rights to Human Rights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely celebrated as an American civil rights hero. Yet King's nonviolent opposition to racism, militarism, and economic injustice had deeper roots and more radical implications than is commonly appreciated, Thomas F. Jackson argues in this searching reinterpretation of King's public ministry. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, King was influenced by and in turn reshaped the political cultures of the black freedom movement and democratic left. His vision of unfettered human rights drew on the diverse tenets of the African American social gospel, socialism, left-New Deal liberalism, Gandhian philosophy, and Popular Front internationalism.
King's early…


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.

Strength to Love

By Martin Luther King Jr.,

Book cover of Strength to Love

This book may seem like it has nothing to do with bipolar disorder, but hear me out. In Strength to Love, King says that love undergirds the universe, and that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The book also tells us that all humans are interconnected, and that we can find hope and purpose in fighting for freedom and justice. Bipolar depression can rob people of all hope. People with bipolar disorder need books that hold our hope for us when we can’t hold it for ourselves. 

Strength to Love

By Martin Luther King Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Strength to Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and illustrator based in coastal California. I have bipolar disorder, and my writing reflects my preoccupation with the mysteries of mental health. I wrote a novel-in-stories about an idealistic young teacher struggling with bipolar disorder, and my latest book is a graphic novel about a bipolar bear who gets trapped in the labyrinth of health insurance claims. I’m also the creator of a website designed to encourage people who are fighting off depression’s Voice of Doom. 


I wrote...

Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance: A Fable for Grownups

By Kathleen Founds,

Book cover of Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance: A Fable for Grownups

What is my book about?

Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance: A Fable for Grown-ups is a funny, whimsical, graphic novel about a bipolar bear who confronts the labyrinth of health insurance claims. 

Let the Trumpet Sound

By Stephen B. Oates,

Book cover of Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I consider this the best, most comprehensive biography of Dr. King, and essential reading for all who want to understand him, the Civil Rights movement, his struggles, and his methodology of nonviolence. There are other good books, but this tells the whole story in clear prose and leaves the reader overwhelmed by his staggering, faithful, visionary life, and challenged to do something for justice, disarmament, and nonviolence. Still one of my all-time favorite books! I read it every year, and find myself re-energized all over again to carry on Dr. King’s work for social, economic, and racial justice as well as disarmament and nonviolence.

Let the Trumpet Sound

By Stephen B. Oates,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Let the Trumpet Sound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’ve spent my entire life in pursuit of peace and nonviolence, and tried to be a peacemaker to our poor world of permanent warfare, extreme poverty, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. I’ve organized hundreds of demonstrations, spoken to a million people, written some forty books on peace and nonviolence, been arrested 85 times, traveled the warzones of the world—all the while trying to practice peace and nonviolence, and not doing a good job of it. That’s why I look to the examples of legendary peacemakers who lived the life of peace and changed the world with their disarming presence, people like Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton.


I wrote...

A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World

By John Dear,

Book cover of A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World

What is my book about?

A Persistent Peace tells the story of John’s journey as a wild Duke student who decided to become a priest and journeyed to Israel in 1982 to see where Jesus lived, only to find himself in the middle of its war on Lebanon. While visiting the Chapel of the Beatitudes, where Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he saw Israeli warplanes fly over the Sea of Galilee on their way to bomb Lebanon, and decided then and there to dedicate his life to peace and nonviolence. From then on, as a peacemaking priest, he’s traveled the warzones of the world, spoken about peace to a million people, organized hundreds of demonstrations against war and nuclear weapons, been arrested 85 times in nonviolent civil disobedience, and spent nearly a year in prison.

The Sword and the Shield

By Peniel E. Joseph,

Book cover of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin or Malcolm? Civil Rights or Black Power? Integration or Separation? In this book, equal parts wise and smart, Joseph shows the limits of such questions. With their different styles and ways, both Martin and Malcolm fought for the common cause of equality and full citizenship. This book gets to the heart of why this cause was the defining struggle for equality of the post-World War Two decades.

The Sword and the Shield

By Peniel E. Joseph,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sword and the Shield as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the two most iconic figures of the Civil Rights movement. To most Americans, Malcolm and Martin represent contrasting political ideals -- self-defense vs. non-violence, anger vs. pacifism, separatism vs. integration, the sword vs. the shield. The Civil Rights movement itself has suffered the same fate: while non-violent direct action is remembered today as an unalloyed good and an unassailable part of our democracy, the movement's combative militancy has been either vilified or erased outright. In The Sword and the Shield, acclaimed historian Peniel Joseph offers a dual biography of Malcolm and Martin…

Who am I?

These days I am a history professor and prize-winning author. But before I started my education at my local community college, I dropped out of high school to work odd jobs on farms and in factories, and spent two decades pondering the hows and whys of the gaping inequalities in our society. My books are part of that ongoing quest. They have won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize and the Frederick Jackson Turner Award.


I wrote...

Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896

By Charles Postel,

Book cover of Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896

What is my book about?

The Civil War unleashed a torrent of claims to equal rights. Former slaves and women's rights activists, farmers and factory hands engaged in epic struggles to define the meaning of equality in the U.S. Competing demands for equality often clashed. This is why herculean efforts to overcome the economic inequality of the Gilded Age and the sexual inequality of the late-Victorian social order came along with Native American dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. This book makes us take stock of the central place that the struggles for equality have played in our history. It also speaks to the multi-sided crises of inequality in our own time.

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