The five best books on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement

I have been taken aback a bit by the response to my last post was on the Secularisation of Martin Luther King.  A few people who have got in touch admitted that they did not even know MLK was a Christian, let alone a church minister.

Over the years I have gained a lot from reading about the civil rights movement.   As with any great movements of the past, such as Wilberforce or Shaftesbury’s campaigns, its important to resist the tendency to wallow in the past or indulge in ‘justice nostalgia’.  We should not just appreciate the heroics from the past or eulogise those involved. Far better to hear the challenge their stories bring us and use them to resource us for the battles of today.

How can good theology and vibrant spirituality help us to make stands for justice and righteousness today?  How can faith help us develop the courage to put ourselves on the line for issues which really matter?

The following five books have all helped inspire and encourage me and I would heartily recommend them to anyone seeking more resistance and renewal in their lives. I need to thank my great friend Corin Pilling to introduced me to most of these books.

(If you click on the pictures you link to sites where you can buy the books.)

Strength to LoveStrength to Love – by Martin Luther King

A short book of 155 pages which is an anthology of 15 of MLK’s sermons including ‘A tough mind and a tender heart’, ‘Antidotes for fear’ and ‘Paul’s Letter to American Christians’.  All of them are very readable and are masterpieces of integrated theology and social ethics.

To-The-MountaintopTo the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King JR’s  Sacred Mission to Save America – by Stewart Burns

A beautifully written biography of MLK’s life and work which draws out the political and theological context in which the civil rights campaign emerged.  Uses the stories of many lesser know characters to give real depth to how the events unfolded.

Let Justice Roll downLet Justice Roll Down – by John Perkins

An incredibly powerful story of lifelong activist John Perkins, born in grinding poverty in Mississippi who saw his brother murdered by police.  He moved away but found faith in Christ and returned to minister in his community.  In 1970 he was tortured and beaten almost to death by the police.  He survived to develop an incredible ministry of evangelism and community transformation.  A really amazing story of faith.

autobiography-of-martin-luther-king-jrThe Autobiography of Martin Luther King – edited by Claybourne Carson

Although MLK never wrote an autobiography this collection charts the story of life and thinking using only words written by him.  The development of his thinking as a student as he fused his ‘fundamentalist’ upbringing with more liberal theology is fascinating. It also displays his constant battle with fear as he faced daily death threats.

Beloved CommunityThe Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today – by Charles Marsh

Using the stories of both MLK, Perkins and many others Marsh dissects the role of faith in the civil rights movement. It shows how the church connection meant that the movement remained anchored in the struggles of local communities and how the movement dissolved into inward power struggles and esoteric arguments as this connection was lost. Brings the discussion up to date with an assessment of contemporary Christian activism.

As with all books, however, simply reading them is the easy part, the challenge comes in living it out…

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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2 Responses to The five best books on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Doug Hynd says:

    Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement has attracted some wonderful writing – Taylor Branch’s trilogy Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge are among them

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