Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

King Bibliography

My King Day post has prompted a few private emails requesting a bibliography of good books on King. I am happy to comply. I am among those with a limited book budget, so my first advice is always to start with public and university libraries, then visit used book stores (always fun) and, when visiting Amazon.com, look and see if there are used copies–especially for the more expensive books.


There are numerous biographies of King, but many are written for children or are hagiographic (reinforcing the plastic saint mistake) or have numerous factual errors due to poor research.  But there are 2 excellent one-volume biographies on King:

David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. ad the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Vintage Books, 1986) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper & Row, 1982).

If you have time and can either afford it or have access to library copies, I also highly recommend the 3-volume work by Taylor Branch which chronicles King’s public life in the context of the wider social history of the U.S. at the same time.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (Simon & Schuster, 1988).

Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Although I do not agree with all of his applications for today, I highly recommend Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.  (The Free Press, 2000).

Similar to Dyson, but more in the spirit of King himself is Vincent Harding’s slim volume, Martin Luther King, Jr: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 1986).  Harding is an African-American Mennonite minister and historian who lived around the corner from the Kings for years and was a major behind-the-scenes player in the Movement. He is also one of the creators of the Black Studies programs in U.S. universities and one of the most renowned historians of Black America and of movements for social progress in North America.  This book is a series of essays and sermons that Harding wrote in preparation for making King’s birthday into a national holiday–and the way this was already taming King’s legacy.

King’s theology:

Early writings on King’s theology (mostly by liberal whites) tended to root him only in Northern white liberal theology, missing his Southern Black Church roots almost completely.  In reality, King, like many African-American Christians during segregation, was raised in a conservative evangelical context (but, unlike many white evangelicals, African American evangelicals tend to be liberal to radical in their politics–and sometimes wonder aloud if their white sisters and brothers in the faith read the same Bible!). As many of us do in adolescence, he questioned some of the more conservative tenets–even calling it fundamentalist–and only in college did he manage to put his questions about the ministry in place. As with other prominent African-American theologians and theologically educated pastors of his era, King fused the best of white liberalism (especially the Social Gospel) with traditional Black Church faith. Remember, that during this era most white evangelical seminaries were segregated–both North and South–and even many liberal seminaries and universities had strict quotas on black enrollment! I have sometimes wondered if the rise of Black Church conservatism (including adopting the “health and wealth” gospel) in the ’80s and ’90s came from more African-American seminary students attending white evangelical seminaries instead of liberal seminaries–and that the theology peddled at these white evangelical schools did not promote struggles for social justice. (The faculties of historic African-American seminaries continued to be populated by theologians who earned Ph.Ds. at liberal institutions.)

Later studies of King’s theology showed more knowledge of how rooted he was in the Black Church–and have usually been written by African-Americans.  I recommend especially:

Lewis V. Baldwin, There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress, 1991).  Baldwin’s sequel, To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress, 1992) shows how King has influenced following generations of African-American theologians.

Noel Leo Erskine, an Afro-Carribbean theologian, places King’s thought in the context of the major writing theologians of his era and subsequently  in King Among the Theologians (Pilgrim Press, 1994).

The two pioneers of Black Liberation Theology have both written important books on King:

James H. Cone, Martin, Malcolm, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (Orbis Books,1991) is an excellent comparison and contrast of the lives and thinking of King and Malcolm X, including ways they began to influence each other toward the end of each of their lives.  Written by the first pioneer of Black Liberation Theology.

J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005) compares and contrasts two of the major activist theologians of the 20th C. in times of great peril–and two of the forerunners of political and liberation theologies. Written by the second (and, in my view, more powerfully Christian) major pioneer of Black Liberation Theology.

King in Context:

A. The post WWII “Civil Rights” or Black Freedom Movement.

Good histories of the modern civil rights era are legion. For every one I recommend here, a dozen more could be mentioned.

First, if you haven’t watched it, see the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years.  You can check it out of most major public libraries and arrange viewings in local churches. It is essential viewing, especially for those not then alive.  PBS has it here and includes guides for teachers, primary sources, etc.  The senior historical advisor was Vincent Harding.

Then read The Eyes on the Prize Reader containing documents, speeches, and writings from the Movement.

Also helpful is Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. (Bantam, 1991).

That’s enough for this post. I’ll list primary sources (King’s own writings) in a subsequent post. Also, no social movement is isolated unto itself: the Civil Rights movement was influenced by the abolitionist movement and the labor movement and the movement for women’s suffrage–as well as by Gandhi’s nonviolent movement to liberate India. (Black-owned newspapers covered Gandhi extensively beginning in the 1920s and Gandhians came to the U.S. and African-American leaders to India–spreading Gandhi’s tactics, successes and failures throughout much of the educated strata of pre-1954 Black America.) Movements to throw off American and European Colonialism from the end of WWII through the 1960s also influenced the Civil Rights movement–and vice versa. (King linked these struggles globally often, especially in his 1964 Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.)  In turn, the Civil Rights movement influenced Cesar Chavez and the struggle for migrant worker justice (which developed into the Latino civil rights movement), the second women’s movement, the peace movement, the gay rights movement, the movement for international human rights, the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa, to end U.S. sponsored dictatorships in Latin America, to end Soviet oppression of Jews and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the movements for freedom in Eastern Europe (they sang “We Shall Overcome” as the Berlin Wall fell) and for a free Palestine–all were influenced in both positive and negative ways by the Civil Rights movement.  The Green Movement for the Environment, the global movement to abolish the death penalty, and the movement to abolish all nuclear weapons, also have roots in the  Civil Rights movement (though also having other influences).

January 23, 2008 - Posted by | MLK


  1. In your reading on King’s theology, did you encounter anything about his beliefs on the virgin birth and Jesus’ bodily resurrection?

    Comment by James Pate | January 24, 2008

  2. No, James. King never discussed either in his published writings. I doubt seriously that he believed in a literal virgin birth (although I do and have defended that in on this blog–see the topic index). As a child, he expressed doubts about the resurrection (shocking his Sunday School class), but I think those were later resolved. Since he was not teaching in a seminary or divinity school, nor writing a systematic theology, I would not expect all topics to be covered. He spoke and wrote about his faith as it was applied to areas of social justice, peace, nonviolence, forgiveness, etc.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 24, 2008

  3. I wouldn’t know how to start talking about social justice, peace, nonviolence or forgiveness if it weren’t for the resurrection. But I recognize that King was different.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | January 24, 2008

  4. I hear you, Jonathan. I have learned an incredible amount from Martin King, but that doesn’t mean that my theology is identical to his, by any means.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 24, 2008

  5. Thanks for the useful post. I was, in fact, looking for works written about King’s personal life and his theology.

    Much appreciated.

    Comment by celucien joseph | January 25, 2008

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